I presented a poster at Fungal Genetics 2013 way back in March, for which I received a GSA poster award. It was the first poster I’d ever presented at an actual conference, so I thought that was pretty neat. Recently, I’ve been helping one of the undergraduate students in our lab put together a poster about her summer research, which she successfully presented. So I thought I’d briefly share a few tips, tricks, and personal opinions for anyone working on their first poster.
(Before I start, there’s an entire blog devoted to good poster design, which I strongly recommend you browse if you’re interested in making a scientific poster. I read quite a few of the posts before I made my poster.)
With that said, here goes:
Be consistent. When planning your poster, spend some time thinking about your design choices. At a certain point, no one really cares what specific color or font style you choose for the theme your poster. Undoubtedly there are requirements that put restrictions on these things (eg a poster size of 42″ x 36″ will prohibit you from having all of your text at 80pt bold). But this is ultimately the part where you get to be creative. Having said that, consistency is incredibly important. If the header for your “Introduction” section is bright red, italicized, and comic sans font, fine. But make sure the headers for your “Methods”, “Results”, and “Conclusions” sections aren’t green, bold, and Times New Roman, respectively. Granted this is an extreme example, but the more subtle changes are important as well: If you decide at the last minute to change your “References” header from 26pt to 24pt, you had best go back and change the other headers as well. This also goes for your color choices. If you’ve found a pleasing color scheme that works for you (I use Adobe Kuler for this), take some time to write down the RGB and/or CMYK values. That way, if you stop halfway during your poster design process, you won’t have to guess and/or redo your color scheme when you come back to finish it.
“Show grid” and “snap to grid” are your friends. Taking the time to make sure your poster elements are properly aligned elevates the look of your poster and helps to maintain a logical flow of information. Additionally, dividers between sections don’t necessarily need to be physical lines if the text boxes themselves are already aligned. Your audience will be able to mentally pick out the boundaries themselves, and the poster will look more open and less cluttered. But again, be consistent. If there’s a 2″ border on the left side, make sure there’s also 2″ border on the right.
Free can be just as good as expensive. My poster-making tools are LibreOffice, GIMP, and Mendeley. I’m not advocating the use of one program over the other; I’m simply pointing out that these are free alternatives to the not free Microsoft Office suite, Adobe Photoshop, and EndNote. It’s not so important which program you use, just that you know how to use the ones you pick. All of these free programs have a high level of community support, with active development and constant improvements. For example, the cross compatibility between LibreOffice and Microsoft Office grows more robust every day, especially since LibreOffice can open .docx files (MS default) and Office can open .odt files (LibreOffice default). Which brings me to my next tip:
File formats. Know them. There are certain instances when I’ll open a .pptx file (Powerpoint default format) in LibreOffice only to have some fonts be missing and the alignment of text is messed up. If you’re reviewing the poster, this is unfortunate and potentially stressful, especially if it’s very close to the deadline for that poster’s submission. As a poster designer, you can avoid these situations largely by knowing what program your reviewer is likely to be using, and “save as…” accordingly. Alternatively, if you don’t expect or want your reviewer to make formatting changes themselves (eg moving figures around, changing fonts, etc), then you can export or print your poster as a pdf file and submit that for review. This process preserves your formatting changes and has a far greater degree of compatibility than the .ppt or .odp formats.
Finally, autocorrect can work for you. (This works with papers as well as posters.) One of the species I work with is Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, a chytrid fungus rapidly emerging as a global pathogen of amphibians. I also work with the related non-pathogenic chytrid fungus Homolaphlyctis polyrhiza. I can’t stress enough how little I want to manually type out (and italicize) those two names in full every time I want to reference them. Using initials (eg “B. dendrobatidis“) is obviously acceptable, but doesn’t save all that much time. And while using “Bd” is also acceptable, sometimes it seems a bit informal.
So is there a better way? Indeed there is! Microsoft Word (LibreOffice Writer) has a built in Autocorrect function. The default usage is mainly for sloppy typists and poor spellers, functioning largely to do things like change “teh” into “the”, “aslo” into “also”, and “might of been” into “might have been”. However, you’re able to add your own autocorrect options. So if I want to reference the frog-killing fungus a million times without my wrists seizing up, I set up an autocorrect entry that replaces something like “bd~” with “Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis“. Suddenly, 3 characters become 30 and I still have feeling in my hands. Don’t worry, “B. dendrobatidis” can also be covered by using “b.d~”. I still have to do the italics manually, but this drastically cuts down on the spelling errors and typing time. As long as you’re using shortcut words that won’t appear otherwise, you’re fine.
You can do even more cool things too when it comes to special characters. Here’s a list of special characters that come up quite often, especially in methods sections, and the autocorrect shortcuts I use to automatically insert them:
So now I’m covered for my methods section where I talk about the 5 reagents I added or my PCR incubation temperatures, or the entire section about G-protein signaling, without having to hunt for it the “special character” menu every time. If you just use the autocorrect shortcut, you don’t need to break your typing flow to grab it from the special character menu, and you’re covered immediately instead of potentially missing a few spots when you go back through your proofreading.
As I mentioned before, these are just a few things I’ve come across during my short poster-making career. I’m not saying these are the be-all-end-all of poster making tips, and that you will always make the best posters if you do exactly these things, but hopefully they’ll save you some time and frustration the first (or next) time you’re making a poster. If nothing else, the main takeaway messages are to be consistent with your design and to spend a little time learning about the tools you’re using in order to exploit their full potential.