My first poster!
September 30, 2011 7:36 AM   Subscribe

How do I print a scientific/clinical research poster?

I am making my first research poster to present at my school's Discovery Day. I'm excited but nervous. Do you have any advice on how to make an outstanding poster? What are some things you love to see in a poster presenting research? What are some things you hate?

My poster is a review of a particular disorder with a case presentation of a patient we saw who required an unusual surgical intervention. We have some nice radiographic images and photos, and the patient has kindly consented provided consent for us to use the photos and data from the case, as long as we protect his identity.

Also, I am a little clueless about the technical aspects of poster making: How big should it be? What is a good background color? Where can I get it printed for cheap?
posted by abirae to Science & Nature (12 answers total)
Ask the Discovery Day people what size poster-holders they'll have available. That'll put a limit on how large your poster can be. My school's library prints posters for pretty cheap, and my department does it for free. Ask around. Beware of printing at an office store as that'll generally be pretty expensive.

I prefer white as a background color, but anything that contrasts well with your text color will work.
posted by Mercaptan at 7:46 AM on September 30, 2011

Thanks for the tip! The program director just let me know that 40" x 48" is their preferred size, and that if I go through the school printing services, I can have the poster printed for free, with a $10 transportation charge. The only catch is that I am two states away, and won't be near campus until the date of presentation, so I am hoping to get it printed close to home before then so that I can check it out before th epresentation day.
posted by abirae at 7:50 AM on September 30, 2011

I think the most important thing about a poster is to have as few words as possible. Don't have paragraphs and paragraphs of text. Remember that the people are going to be standing there for a few moments looking at it and asking you questions. That doesn't mean you should skip out on important information, but be as succinct as possible. Lists of bullet points often work well. Clear diagrams are also great.
posted by lab.beetle at 7:52 AM on September 30, 2011 [5 favorites]

You can usually have posters printed at Kinkos or Staples
posted by i_am_a_fiesta at 7:52 AM on September 30, 2011

Agreeing with lab.beetle, try to have just enough text to tell a story, which should be natural here since its a case presentation. If you'll be standing in front of the poster most of the time, then you won't need to include every detail. But the poster should still be able to tell the story on its own, so make sure you have labels explaining what each image/chart/table means and how it fits in your story.
posted by Mercaptan at 7:56 AM on September 30, 2011

But the poster should still be able to tell the story on its own, so make sure you have labels explaining what each image/chart/table means and how it fits in your story.

It is extremely tempting to have an item (table, figure) tell multiple tales, but this is usually too distracting and allows the viewer to get mixed up in the order of the narrative. Items that don't tell the main story can be shrunk such that the reader will have to get in closer to see them well, and you can tell the story rather than have them read the text.

I usually have a handout available which walks though the details for when I'm not there, and an abstract which tells the overall story. The labels for items should be very brief in saying what they are and why you're looking at them.

What are some things you love to see in a poster presenting research?

Cool data. Frankly, posters are a pretty ineffective way to communicate. At science conferences they're largely ignorable.

What are some things you hate?

Overblown claims. Useless figures. Trying to present theory with half the equations and undefined notation.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 8:13 AM on September 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

My rule of thumb for readability: your poster will be 3.5 - 4 feet or so when it's printed out. Print to a normal size 8.5x11 page (if you're in powerpoint this is pretty easy, there's a"fit to page" box you can check) and you should be able to hold it in your hand, or sit at a table and set it down in front of you, and read all the fonts and figures easily. What this often means for me is increasing the font sizes on the axes of graphs/charts.

One thing that's different about showing a poster vs giving a talk about the same research is that your audience will leave when they get bored. You'll be able to talk through your whole poster in 8 minutes, say, and there will be a few people who circled your abstract in red ink and will stay there asking you questions for 20 minutes, but a lot of people will just be stopping by on their way down the row to see what your poster is about. You should be able to say "This is a case study on surgical intervention for x disorder. X is usually treated non-invasively but by doing [10 words or less] we found that [10 words or less]. Would you like a walk-though of the data/project?"
posted by aimedwander at 8:14 AM on September 30, 2011

Less words are definitely better. I aim for about 250 for a poster. Point form is your friend - and real point form not sentences arranged with bullets.

Big figures because that's your key for roping people in to talk to you. A poster is really to lure people close to talk and gives them a hook to start the conversation.

I personally like a dark background with white text boxes and black text but that can be tricky to pull off. I also like to have at most two different font types (titles vs. body), three different font sizes (poster title, authors/headings, body) and two different colours (excluding graphics). I make my headings stand out a bit by making their background a slightly different shade than the body of the poster or by making the font a different colour.

Things I like in a poster are interesting pictures and/or figures. A clear, big sentence that explains what the results were (a 'take home message' although I hate that phrase).

I hate hate hate words on posters. I realized at the last conference I went to that I never read posters. They're a really poor way to communicate anything. Also I hate posters that look like they were glued (poorly) to boards, posters composed of a bunch of separate 8x11 sheets, and tiny font.

Apparently I am a four year old when it comes to posters - few words, big font, and bigger pictures.

Oh and most importantly, stand next to it with a smile and make eye contact with people looking at your poster. Don't pretend you don't see me.
posted by hydrobatidae at 8:50 AM on September 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Large format color printing can be expensive-ish. At my old (admittedly somewhat pricey) print shop, it'd run about 130 dollars for that size.

I have also presented a poster. I had very little money and my department did not offer free printing services, so I had my poster printed in B&W on a blueprint plotter (much, much cheaper), then printed the parts that needed to be in color myself on glossy cardstock and glued them on. It was ghetto looking compared to a lot of the other posters being presented, but I managed to get it done on a student budget. Printing may be somewhat cheaper now, and maybe your budget isn't as tiny as mine was, but it's one option if cheap is what you're mainly after.

Whatever you do, give yourself some time to make sure you can properly proof your poster.

Make sure you pick it up well in advance of your travel date. Most people make these things in powerpoint (in my experience) which is terrible, terrible, terrible to print from. The printers won't know that your sigmas are not supposed to be martini glasses (this has actually happened), or that it's really important for the colors to be just so on a certain diagram for the meaning to come through properly, so you really have to make sure you give yourself time to account for any printing fuckups. It's a lot harder for the printers to know when something has gone wrong with a scientific poster, basically.

That's one reason why it's nice to go through the school -- at least the larger places probably have shops that do pretty much just science posters, which may not be the case at a normal print house. I have seen a lot of people come in at the last minute and leave with something they weren't terribly happy with because of nobody's-fault sort of mistakes that could have been caught and corrected if they weren't submitting the file at the last minute (missing fonts, problems converting from powerpoint, colors not quite right, postscript errors).

I worked at a print shop near a big research university so I dealt with this a lot, and it broke my heart to see someone's big moment imperiled due to stupid printing problems.

Sorry for the novel!
posted by ZeroDivides at 8:54 AM on September 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Check the student computer labs on campus. They may have a large-format printer for student use for a nominal fee, especially if it's a lab targeting art or engineering students.

I like to think of posters as something of a scientific peacock's tail. It's there to attract other researchers to start talking to you. The main role of the figures is to help illustrate the resulting conversations.
posted by penguinicity at 9:12 AM on September 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

The point of a poster is usually not to hold all the data you've gathered since the start of the project. It's to grab people's attention, give them a brief overview of your project and its conclusions, then hopefully act as a starting point for deeper conversations with people who're now genuinely interested in your very narrow topic of research.

Firstly, decide what story you want to tell. For this, it might help to work backwards, remembering at each stage to include only the information that's strictly necessary to clarify the previous stage:
What have you learned that you want people to know about? (Discussion);
How do you know that your conclusion is true? (Results);
How did you do it? (Experimental design / Methods);
Why should anyone care? (Introduction).

Once you've decided on the story you want to tell, decide on the minimal set of information -- photos, diagrams, tables and text, in roughly that order of preference -- that you need to carry the narrative and support the points you're making. Note that a lot of people don't bother with the Methods section, if the data don't rely on non-standard methods. The argument is that, again, people who care about the details can just ask you. But it sounds like your poster would be pretty methods-heavy so YMMV.

If there are weird tangents or bits of data that you want to discuss but are not essential to support the story, by all means hint at them but do not include them. Again, you're just trying to convey the core message and hopefully provoke people's interest, while avoiding a cluttered poster or a wall of text. Once you've got their interest, geek out to your heart's content.

Remember that people will be reading your poster from 1-3m away and that you want to be able to grab their attention from even further. As a rule of thumb, you should be able to print your poster at A4 (letter) size and comfortably read it at the distance you'd hold a novel. This includes pictures, diagrams and graph axes.

A snappy title and striking pictures count for more than you might think. You don't need people to be slapping their thighs at your wit, but you need to convey exactly what your poster is about and make it sound interesting, in a small handful of words. Pretty pictures grab people's attention and force you to avoid walls of text. A well-made diagram can replace a *lot* of text, looks nicer, and is more likely to be read. For example, people who'd skip a paragraph of text about your methods or experimental design will probably glance at and understand the same information in a flow chart.

It's important that someone reading your poster always knows where to look next. No matter how beautiful a layout looks, you don't want people spending half their time working out which bit they're supposed to read next, reading it in the wrong order and getting confused, or just giving up and moving on. Splitting the poster into columns (whether drawn in or just implied by the layout) is pretty common, as are numbered boxes or arrows/paths stringing the sections together. I have seen some beautifully designed posters at conference where the flow *just worked* without these tricks, but for every one of those I see two or three where an attempt has failed miserably. So being arty isn't a crime, but it's harder to do well than you might think!

Powerpoint can be handy for making posters, but print shops tend to hate it. Strongly consider using Microsoft Illustrator or Inkscape (multi-platform, free) instead, among other DTP programs. If you really must use powerpoint, remember to set the slide to your poster's size at the start and then make sure that you can export as a .pdf or a high-qualiy image file. Giving a printer a .ppt file is inviting disaster.
posted by metaBugs at 9:14 AM on September 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

There are roughly two sizes a full board: 4x8 (I usually do 2mx1m, ~6x3') or a half board:4x4 (usually do 1.25mx1m ~4x3'). Professional printing can cost a few hundred dollars for a 4x8 large format poster, but ask around. There's often someone with a large format printer than can do it for less than $100. We do ours for about $40-$50 in ink per.

For presentation, both light on dark and dark on light work ok. Just make certain you have enough contrast and that your font size is big enough to read at a distance of 6' or so. The rules of thumb for being legible on a US letter/A4 sheet are spot on.

For content, you want enough visuals to grab attention, but enough content to fully communicate what you want to say. I look for strong absracts and conclusion/summary blocks. Objectives/hypothesis statemens are very useful as well. Methods, derivations, discussions should all be done pictorally with a minimum of text, if at all. Someone should be able to understand your main point without you present. Try it out on you friends first (not people in the same lab).

As well as the poster, you want to have i) handouts of the poster, ii) contact information for yourself, and iii) and envelope people can put business cards in if they want more information. Normally presenter use business cards for their own contact info (ii), but I've seen students use a piece of paper with email/phone number on tear-off strips, like a lost kitten poster. Works well too.
posted by bonehead at 9:20 AM on September 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

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