Friday, 1 March 2013

Posting a winning formula

Last week the Masters students in Leeds presented posters on their work as part of their degree course. For the few weeks beforehand (yes it took them a few weeks) they were mostly hidden away behind a computer changing fonts, images, headings and references until they had something resembling a five-year-old's first attempts at potato printing.

Winning is not so blue and white

After a little bit of tweaking, arguments over font size and drastically changing the colour scheme, the butterfly finally emerged from its chrysalis. But no, they were not actually all that bad, especially for a first attempt. Few people realise how difficult it is to make something scientifically accurate and also visually stimulating.

As an example, below are 2 posters that came out of my lab from PhD students. So which do you think won a prize when presented at a conference?

Better poster?
Best poster?

To put you out of your misery, the answer is both. Both designs won best poster awards at different meetings. But they are obviously quite different. Nature Journal believes a good poster could "change your career", so what is the secret formula for success?

Well in my opinion the poster on the left looks a lot better. It has more colour, lots of different images, not much writing and easy to follow sections for different parts of the presentation. But I would say all this, as I created it. By contrast, the poster on the right has a lot of small writing, it's very white and appears overly crowded. But they both were winners.

They both do have many images and diagrams, they both have a fair amount of data presented and they are both blue, not so different as it might first seem. A poster has to be eye-catching in some way or at least grab your attention for long enough so that you read a few lines and get hooked. From then on in it has to be ordered, easily understood, not overloaded with information and with a few pretty pictures thrown in for good measure.

The designer of the right poster is also one of the best talkers that I know. She can talk about anything and make it sound interesting (even her research). And this is a great skill that you can't show on a piece of paper. Being able to verbally communicate with your audience, to not confuse them or bore them, is vital. Knowing your audience and being able to change the language you use and the way you describe things can really make the difference. This might be between someone just saying hi to be polite as they quickly walk past, or being drawn in by a few well chosen words.

Teacher knows best

So back to the masters students. It took me a lot of effort to convince one student that brown and pink perhaps didn't make the most pleasing of background colours. The text was cut down by half; no one wants to stand there for an hour reading. We removed the empty white space by increasing image sizes and rearranging text boxes. And I even got my name squeezed into the acknowledgements. But I did fail to make him increase the font size, even after much pleading and threatening to sabotage his work. It was perfectly readable on the computer screen, but when printed and up on a large stand he admitted that you probably get a better view if you don't have to stand with your face 10 cm from the board.

Being bold and confident in your abilities is great. And in the end you have to be comfortable with what you've produced otherwise you won't be able to talk about it effectively. But one thing I've learned over the last few years, is that I don't always know best (many will be amazed to hear me say this). Take advantage of any help you can get. Use other people's knowledge. Seek a different opinion. Do this and you will better yourself. I never thought poster design could be so philosophical.


  1. So what is a good font size for the main body of text? How about a style guide, with a few recommendations?

  2. I wouldn't go below font size 20 in Arial and up to 28 for main text. As for a style guide... I tried to say in the post that it is really up to you. There are some things that do look better than others, but ask your colleagues and experiment to find your own style.