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January 28, 2014 / jpschimel

Ten Thousand Posters Invade the Moscone Center: Most Miss Their Target.

Invasions of the U.S. happen on Sundays in December. But this one you can see coming two airports away: people bearing tubes, some simple cardboard, some neon plastic; all heading for the Moscone Center to present posters at the American Geophysical Union annual conference.

Most of this wave of invaders will fail to achieve critical goals because they misunderstand their medium and the nature of their target, just as did the first wave of Sunday invaders in 1941. The Japanese used state-of-the-art airplanes to bomb obsolescent battleships instead of the fuel bunkers and support facilities that allowed a modern fleet to fight. AGU poster presenters largely seem to believe that they are presenting written communication to a patient audience.

But a poster is something you look at, not something you read: remember the definition of a poster is “a large printed picture suitable for decorative display.” A poster is visual, rather than written communication.

And a poster presenter’s target audience is the most impatient a scientific presenter will ever face. We’re way worse than Nature editors or proposal reviewers.

We’re impatient because there isn’t much time in a poster session and there is vast competition for our attention. At AGU, there are there almost 2 miles of posters each day and there’s free beer and friends we haven’t seen since the last meeting. We’re saturated with information and late nights.

I can’t assimilate all the information I see at any conference. I have neither the ability nor the patience to try to soak up all there is on the walls of posters. I must pick and choose which ones I invest my time on. Is this poster going to offer a useful new insight or a new friend or colleague? It takes me between 2 and 15 seconds to evaluate the balance of attraction (interesting topic, visually engaging, etc.) vs. repulsion (complexity, clutter) and decide whether to engage with the poster and the presenter.

I’ve seen a few “perfect posters” in my life. One was so clean that 25 years later, I can still reproduce the model of microbial growth and colonization it developed (thank you, Doug Caldwell). Another I don’t remember as being “perfect” visually, but it presented a data set so intriguing it started a conversation that led to a new collaboration and a manuscript that is now in press (thank you, Xiaofeng Xu). The others I remember were for a single figure, graph or conceptual model. Always, it is the visual elements or the presenter that engages; never the text. And always because the poster focused on a simple clear point that I could absorb quickly and use to launch a conversation with the presenter.

A poster is more like the slides you use to support a talk, than a paper that a reader should be able to work through independently. The visuals are the heart of it, and the text is just the glue to hold them together and to give enough context that someone can get the essential story without the presenter to walk them through it. It isn’t a paper, where you expect to read and contemplate the complex thoughts and arguments.

If I see a poster that is a wall of words, with paragraphs of text, particularly in normal type-sized type, and cluttered with too many data panels I will do one of two things: A) most likely, walk on by, figuring that trying to work through the material just won’t be worth my effort. Or, B) if the topic looks particularly relevant to me, the presenter is someone I know or comes from a group I respect, or perhaps even looks like a student who needs someone to talk to them, I’ll stop and ask “What’s the story?” I’d much rather hear it from the presenter than try to read it with her hovering next to me anyhow. Standing on hard floors makes my knees hurt and a good conversation distracts from the pain. The one thing I will almost never do is read the damned thing. So why put all those words there in the first place?

The key to producing a good poster is the same as for all communication—understand the medium and the audience. In the case of a poster, the medium is visual and the audience is impatient. That leads to several straightforward, but often ignored, rules, rules that are different than for written communication or a patient audience.

1. Your primary goal: Draw people into conversation so you can tell them about your work.
2. Title: Short, catchy—something that will draw a passer-by to talk to you.
3. Story: Simple. It must highlight the critical points: What is the problem? What is your question? What are the key results? What did you learn? Avoid details—we can get them from you or ignore them, and aren’t likely to remember them from reading the poster.
4. Text: Ideally, no text paragraphs. Truly, not one. Bullet lists, single sentences, short notes. Things that you absorb in a glance.
5. Flow: Ideas should emerge as your eyes flow across the poster from left to right and top to bottom.
6. Type size: Big. Nothing under 18 pt. and 24 is better.
7. Tables: Bad—they present information, but not insight. You have to read a table and think about it a lot to figure out what the point is.
8. Figures: Good—they show patterns and trends and so are more powerful for getting across the important insights.
9. Simple cartoons and schematics: Great. They are eye-catching and can communicate complex concepts powerfully.

These are rules, not principles, so you will likely violate some of them, but if you violate too many, people will ignore your poster. There is much more that could be said to illustrate these points, but this is a blog post, not a new book on visual design. David Schultz has a nice, if short, chapter on posters in his excellent “Eloquent Science.” Angelika Hofmann has a longer, chapter in her book “Scientific Writing and Communication,” which is also good.

As long as you construct a poster that reflects that it is visual communication for an impatient audience you will be likely to hit your target and achieve your goal of communicating elements of your work to the target audience.



Leave a Comment
  1. Drew Steen / Jan 30 2014 1:16 pm

    This is an excellent point, but I’d add that (like all communication) context matters a lot. I would make a poster very differently for AGU than for a small workshop, where I might expect that every attendee could spend a few minutes looking at the poster. In the latter context, a table might make sense – I’ve had half-hour conversations at workshops about the meaning of a data point, whereas one rarely has that kind of luxury at a huge meeting.

    • jpschimel / Jan 30 2014 7:46 pm

      I agree–this is a good point. In different settings, the audience is functionally different, even if it comprises the same individuals. Thus, you can tailor your presentation somewhat. In a small, tight group that share common understanding and language, you can safely go a little deeper and include a little more substance.

      Also, I didn’t mean that you should never use tables–the core data in the poster by Xiaofeng Xu that started our collaboration was in a table. Rather my recommendation to avoid them I frame as a breakable rule. There are places where tables are appropriate, but they don’t synthesize or visualize the data and so don’t develop a story on their own. Thus they are a weak way to present information in a poster. But sometimes a weak way is still the right way. In an ecological presentation, you may want to present background environmental data on the research sites–a table is a great way of presenting that; it offers the information for those who want it but de-emphasizes it. Your eye won’t be drawn to it and so you’re not likely to think it’s central to the story. Bingo! In this case, using a table would support my First Principal of Communication: It is the author’s job to make the reader’s job easy.

      Posters can have different objectives from telling a complete story, to offering an idea, developing a question, etc. Their structure and presentation should be adapted to match the task and the setting. The principal is to remember the audience and their state of mind–posters will always be visual communication for an impatient audience. Just how impatient and how able they will be to assimilate complex messages will vary between meetings and between people. Assume that people’s ability to assimilate material from reading a poster is less than you might expect or desire. So do your best to streamline your message and to present it visually.

      In my post, I was giving the simplified version to make some key points that people often ignore or seem unaware of. There is much more depth that one could go into about how to use graphic design to enhance communication in a poster. But someone with greater skill and knowledge on the subject should write that one.

  2. Junyeol Kim / Jan 31 2014 5:16 pm

    This is a great post for those who don’t have many experiences, especially for students like me. I feel that I must visit your blog and read this post every time before making my poster. Thank you for posting!

  3. Meredith Warshaw / Mar 5 2014 7:10 pm

    I’d rather give a talk than make a poster any day! In my field (clinical trials), it’s virtually impossible to put the required elements into a poster and still have it be readable. We are required to have lots of detail (study design, methods – clinical and statistical, results, discussion, references, ad nauseum), not to mention having a plethora of co-authors who all have to be happy with it. I always try to emphasize figures, but it’s hard.

    • Joshua Schimel / Mar 5 2014 7:40 pm

      Me too! I prefer to tell the complete story that I can in a talk or paper. And developing the visual design for a good poster is hard work–and I think I’m only an adequate graphical designer. If you’re in a field where they expect you to put an entire paper on a poster, it will be even harder–how do you distill through them all to figure out what you need to? I guess then the challenge is to fulfill the norms of the field while trying to make a poster as clear as it is possible to be. Good Luck with that Meredith.

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