On scientific poster design

The Australasian Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour’s (ASSAB) annual conference was coming up, and I had a choice of either presenting a poster or a talk. I didn’t want to talk this time, since I was essentially presenting very similar stuff to what I’d talked about last year, and I thought it would be more interesting to make a poster instead. Presenting a poster with your work is quite a common way to get your work seen by conference attendees, especially in those huge conferences where it is impossible to fit everybody into talk sessions. Also, I was feeling quite jaded at the time, and I needed something different to do in order to get me going. I hadn’t been writing much and most of my creative energy was dissipating, and I thought that the poster would give me a good chance to get the creative juices flowing again.
At around the same time, I’d been reading a few websites devoted to design, and a few websites that talked often about design constraints etc and it was hard not to get influenced by these sites. I decided to approach the poster as a purely design problem. The main issue was the question of how to fit all that information into a A0 size sheet and still make it readable and approachable enough so that people would actually read it. I had to tell a story, support the experiments with graphs and still have enough space to explain the salient facts of the experiments. I thought this problem would be relatively easy in a small conference such as the ASSAB. For example, I presented a poster last year at the International Society for Behavioural Ecology (ISBE) conference in Tours, France and that was a mega conference. There were thousands of people and the poster sessions alone numbered in the hundreds. There I used a very simple design with very few words and lots of white space so as to be easy on the eye and catch the attention of passing by researchers. But in this case, since the conference was rather small, I felt free to include more information, and yet have a greater chance of getting some attention to my work.
I especially wanted to try out some new techniques that I had just come across. The first and foremost was the Grid Navigation design proposed and beautifully demonstrated by Kioh Vinh. He used a grid based approach to show how even a reasonably cluttered web page such as Yahoo’s could be rendered more easy to comprehend by placing every bit of information according to a backing grid. Since I essentially had the same problem, I decided to follow a grid based approach. I divided my poster into three panels, and each panel contained boxes. Here’s a low resolution image of how the poster looked, as if from a distance.

full

The assumption was due to the symmetry of the poster, it would invariably grab attention. Also, my boxes were placed against a background of a spider web and this contrast between the boxes and the background really made it stand out.

bg

There had to be some images, and I used a couple of photos in the first section. Most poster are fairly linear from top to bottom, but I decided to go across, similar to a comic strip. The boxes were all of similar size, except for the title and the conclusion boxes which were larger and stretched across the top and the bottom, thus implying that even the most uninterested of readers could easily get what I was trying to tell.

Another design concept that has intrigued me for a while, but I’d never got the opportunity to use was that of Sparklines. Sparklines were first proposed by the design guru, E. Tufte, whose books on the visual representation of data is a must read for any scientist. These are “data-intense, design-simple, word-sized graphics” that are embedded in the text itself and these are typically used for data that show some kind of obvious trend and where the message of the graph is the trend itself. My data was too complicated to use in this way, but I did use a couple of images shrunk down to text size in order to clearly show how I did my experiments.

d

My final innovation, if I can call it that, was to use arrows as ‘hyperlinks’ to connect certain words to the pictures of my study species and parts of the spiderweb that I was focusing on. This save me the trouble of introducing these features formally and saved space. I also avoided the typical presentation of headings, and instead placed them perpendicular to the text at the side.

s

ed

All in all, I had a substantial amount of information to deliver, and I was quite pleased with the final result. I did the entire layout in Microsoft PowerPoint, exported to pdf for printing. The resulting file was so big that I ended up with lots of trouble. I gave the file on a CD to KwikCopy for printing and since the file was large they decided to send the file by regular mail to their factory for printing. Next day, i.e., the day before I was supposed to leave for the conference, they told me that the CD had been lost in the mail, and that they were very upset etc etc. It was already too late for them to print it even if they had another copy, so I gave up on them and rushed to Kinkos in Parramatta, where they sensibly resized the pdf and printed out a fantastic output. A note on the fonts- the text was in Century, the title was in Gill Sans Light and the headings were in Andale Mono. Note that the text was a serif font, and the headings and Title were sans serif. All the boxes were semi transparent in order to let the background web show through.
The conference just finished yesterday, and I was slightly dismayed to realize that even at a conference this small, people tend to skim through posters. The next time I do a poster, I have to take this into consideration. Since the statistical approach in the poster required that people read the text, it was hard to reduce the amount of words in it. This is a problem in the sense that the poster (minus the explanations) was unlikely to make sense to ‘skimmers’. I sought to remedy this by making sure that I got feedback on my work by approaching the people who were working in similar fields of research and asking them what they thought of my results.
The poster was nevertheless received well, and I was pleased beyond all expectations to learn that I had been awarded the Best Student Poster Prize. The design approach rules!

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7 thoughts on “On scientific poster design

  1. Bloody tease! I was looking for a link to see a big version.

    😦

    [Hey congrats, seriously. Very cool. I’ve just been reading about Goethe – he said that the underlying truths of nature can be realised in art as well as science.]

    What’s that new site like youtube but for docs/pdfs? Set it free??!

  2. YEah i thought about putting up the whole thing, but its rather massive, and besides, I can’t see how it would interest anybody other than Apido-arachnological ethologists.

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