Clear design starts with clear thinking.
Most people spend only three to five minutes (or less) looking at a poster. Before you begin sorting through your charts, graphs and photos, you need ask yourself this question:
If the viewer remembers only one idea about my work, what do I want that idea to be?
Now write down your answer.
This is the theme of your poster, the focal point. Everything you choose to include on your poster needs to support this theme.
Remember, posters tell stories. Your poster explains to the viewer what you did, why you did it and what you learned from doing it.
Your poster should include a statement of the problem that you investigated, a description of the research methods you used, and your results or findings (in other words, your conclusion).
For example, the poster to the right details the author's research in four columns. The first column introduces the overall project. The second and third explain her specific project goals and the methods used in her research. The final column gives her results, areas for future study and conclusions.
To begin, try writing an outline for your poster as if you were writing a term paper. More visual than literary? Cluster your ideas in balloons and then link them in order. Your goal is to create a road map that will guide the viewer through your research from start to finish.
Mastering the basics
Your poster should look simple and uncluttered. Someone standing three feet away should quickly understand what each component is and why it is there.
Here are the “basic” basics:
• Each poster should have a title. Poster titles should be created on a computer to guarantee that the lettering is clear and easy to read.
• Illustrations and photographs should be clear and properly proportioned. Use high resolution images (200 dpi or higher); TIFF or GIF images are best. The drop-and-drag method of adjusting an image's width or height can result in distortion. It's better to resize images using commands such as “image size,” “scale” or “fit content proportionately.”
• Connect your words to your graphic elements. If a statement refers to a diagram off to the side somewhere, say so. For example, “Wind blows over ocean, generates waves (Fig. 1).”
• Viewers can't read small type from a distance. Use 24-point (24pt) type or larger (captions can be 18pt; poster titles should be at least 85pt).
• Building your poster by hand? Make sure all of your background materials and graphics have straight edges and even margins; use a ruler and razor knife to cut out components such as charts, graphics, photos and text before pasting them into place.
• Be concise. Can you explain something better in a chart? Do so. Try using bullets or a photograph to convey your information. Stay on point and remember to skip the jargon.
As you jot down the elements you want to include on your poster, group together key or related information. Think about ways to convey ideas as a unit.
Creating design unity
Your research is done. You know what you want to say and you understand the basics of how to arrange your information. Now it's time to start building your poster.
Graphic designers create unity through the use of white space, type and color. Let's start with the first element.
Despite its name, white space is not necessarily white. White space (sometimes called negative space) refers to any area not covered by a design element such as a picture, a word, or even just a letter. White space guides the eye and makes the other components stand out. Too much and your viewer's eye will wander. Too little and the result is confusion.
The second design element is the style of type, or font. If possible, limit yourself to three or fewer fonts. A font can be either “serif” like Times Roman or “sans serif” like Helvetica or Ariel. In general, fonts like Times Roman are better for the text while Helvetica and Ariel are good for titles and to label the figures.
The drop shadow effect can look blurry at large magnifications and is best avoided for technical posters. Using all capital letters in posters, like in e-mail, can translate as “unfriendly.” It's better to stick to standard case just as you would in a normal sentence.
Lastly, color should be used for emphasis, but be aware of the connotations that certain colors and color combinations carry. Black and orange, for instance, can carry the connotation of Halloween. In most cases, the background of your poster should be a solid color rather than a pattern.
Some final tips
Posters can be created either wholly on computer, or by printing out groups of components and gluing them to posterboard. Use the method that feels most comfortable to you.
Many graphics programs can be used to create posters. The best known are Microsoft PowerPoint and the Adobe programs—Illustrator, InDesign and Photoshop. Linux users often opt for an open source program such as LaTeX. Most companies maintain a Web site to help you get the most out of their products. In choosing a program, it's best to use one that you or your mentor already knows.
Sketch out your ideas early. Print out your photos, illustrations and other materials. Look at them from a distance. Colors may print differently than they appear on your computer screen. You can avoid surprises by printing out a letter-sized proof on a standard color printer. Get someone else to proofread your writing, if possible. Don't forget to run the spellchecker.
Due to the very high volume of poster production on campus, turnaround time at the campus printers is usually two full business days for printing and three if you need to have your poster mounted. Always request a contract proof, which is a scale model of your poster. If you don't, any errors on the final poster are your responsibility, and you will be charged for the original and any reprints.
Remember good design can't salvage poor research, but it can keep your good work from being overlooked.
Clear design starts with clear thinking.