Catch their eye at twenty paces

November 25, 2005

Explaining months of research on a single sheet of paper is never going to be easy, but, says Harriet Swain, when it comes to designing a poster presentation, less is most definitely more.

The snag with poster presentations is that there is never enough room to explain all those hours toiling away in the lab. So what's the answer? Cutting down on the explanation, according to Ryan Hargreaves, who used to work in the private sector and is now technical support and training officer for Jorum, an online repository for learning and teaching materials. "What people forget in academia is that the point of a poster is to spark interest and to get others to go away and find out more about it," he says.

Ming Tham, a senior lecturer in the chemical engineering department at Newcastle University, says the standard format of a poster presentation includes a title page explaining who is involved in the project and what it is; a summary of what you have set out to do, how you have done it and your key findings; an introduction explaining your objectives; a theory or methodology section; a results section; conclusion; and recommendations for further work.

Hugh Griffiths, head of the department of electronic and electrical engineering at University College London, which has run a competitive poster day for more than ten years, says it is always important to understand your audience. "You need to make it very clear what the objective of the research is, what problem you are setting, what you have to solve, why it is important and what is going to happen to the world if you succeed," he says. You also need to explain your method and why it is appropriate. Any examples of results you include must be easy to interpret and show clearly that things are working, he adds. Finally, you should acknowledge people supporting your research and colleagues who have helped.

For Hargreaves, however, apart from the website address and logos of supporters and partners, there isn't much more you need to worry about other than getting across the main theme of your research. Hargreaves'

design for a poster presentation explaining Jorum recently received a Robiette award from the Joint Information Systems Committee. It was made to look like a community noticeboard pinned with notes, memos and Post-its briefly explaining the background and purpose of Jorum, its funders and website address. The aim was to emphasise the theme of community and sharing, which is at the heart of the project, as well as to make it flexible - it can display different notes depending on the conference, to appeal to different audiences.

He advises that before attempting to put anything down on paper, you should take a couple of days to think about what the themes of the poster should be and the two or three points that you need to get across.

Tham suggests being ruthless in asking yourself questions about your work and its success, then jotting down your answer. You should then be able to spot common areas, topics or pieces of information and group them, perhaps using colour or number coding, to help categorise the information. Next, you must decide what to leave out, bearing in mind what your poster is trying to achieve and who will be attending the presentation.

Josephine Tunney, specialist in higher education at the Royal Society of Chemistry, says a successful poster "needs to be eye-catching, it needs to be legible, it needs to give the reader enough information without overcrowding, it needs to be legible from 2m away and readable in three to four minutes".

She says figures and images tend to have greater impact than words and suggests using boxes and different background colours to emphasise key points.

Tham says posters should be designed so that readers think "Yes!" or "I see!" and leave with the impression that they have learnt something new. He advises using colours sparingly and with taste, and warns against using more than two fonts or too much upper-case type. Keep equations to a minimum, he says, and make sure graphs and diagrams are properly labelled and the style is consistent.

Adelheid Nicol, author of a book on creating poster presentations, advises using a font of at least 20 points for any text. She says you need to present the material in logical order and avoid using too many colours - two or three is enough.

One tip from Hargreaves is to be consistent when using colour. If you are starting an ongoing project, the colours you use for your poster presentation should determine the look of everything else to do with it, from websites to promotional materials.

He says that designing a poster does not require any in-depth technical knowledge or specialist software other than Word or PowerPoint, although you will need Photoshop or something similar for the final poster.

Tunney says you should check with the conference organiser whether both portrait and landscape poster boards are acceptable, or you could find yourself having nowhere to put your poster. She also advises using CorelDRAW or Adobe Illustrator so that you can see what your poster will look like full size before it is completed.

She stresses the importance of getting your work checked by colleagues so that you don't miss mistakes.

Finally, you have to remember that your work is not over once the poster is done. Nicol advises preparing handouts summarising the presentation for people to take away and suggests preparing a verbal description of your poster so that you are ready if anyone wants you to talk them through it.

Tham says: "Your task as the presenter is to answer questions and to provide further details, to bask in praise or suffer difficult questions and to convince others that what you have done is excellent and worthwhile."

Displaying Your Findings: A Practical Guide for Creating Figures, Posters, and Presentations , by Adelheid Nicol, Penny Pexman, American Psychological Association, 2003

Ming Tham's tips on poster presentations: http:///


  • Remember less is more
  • Think about your audience
  • Plan
  • Check
  • Garner other people's opinions

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