How to Make a Bad Poster

Poster sessions are great. You can build your network, get feedback on early ideas about your work that will help you refine your research questions, and so on.

An effective poster is not meant to be consumed standalone; it’s meant to be a set of visual aids when you explain your project to someone. So it’s good to have a ~3 minute “spiel” that gives an overview of your project, future plans, and (if applicable) any interesting early results.

In other words, the poster itself is designed to accompany and complement your spiel, not replace it. You want people talking to you, not reading a lot of text. To that end, here are…

Dave Patterson’s Seven Commandments for making a bad poster:

(Here are a few slides humorously illustrating a subset of the Commandments.)

I. THOU SHALT NOT ILLUSTRATE. Confucius says A picture = 10K words,'' but Dijkstra saysPictures are for weak minds.’’ Who are you going to believe?

  • Counter-commandment: Pictures tell a story. Screen shots, architecture diagrams, graphs showing results, are all far more valuable than text. The poster is there to provide visual aids for your spiel (see item VI), not to be a stand-alone resource.

II. THOU SHALT NOT COVET BREVITY. Do you want to continue the stereotype that engineers can’t write? Always use complete sentences, never just key words. If possible, use whole paragraphs and read every word.

  • Counter-commandment: Again, the poster is there to support your explanation. Someone who’s trying to read full sentences on your poster is not listening to you. Less text is better, but if you need text, single-line-long bullets with key words only (not complete sentences) are preferred.

III. THOU SHALT NOT PRINT LARGE. Your work was hard to do, so it should take lots of text to explain. If they’re really interestd, they’ll come up real close and read every word.

  • Counter-commandment: It’s awkward to press your nose up against a poster to read 11-point text. If the text is important enough to read, it should be readable from a couple of feet away, allowing for a non-awkward social experience when multiple people are around the poster.

IV. THOU SHALT NOT USE COLOR. Flagrant use of color indicates uncareful research. It’s also unfair to emphasize some words over others.

  • Counter-commandment: Don’t use color gratuitously, but do use color to highlight important text, to frame important graphics, and to actively call attention to the most important elements.

V. THOU SHALT NOT CALL ATTENTION TO THYSELF. Be humble. Your work’s inner beauty will speak for itself and people will come just to see what it’s all about.

  • Counter-commandment: Poster sessions can be busy and chaotic. A poster with clear visual appeal will draw people over.

VI. THOU SHALT NOT PREPARE A SHORT ORAL OVERVIEW. Let the viewer do the work, and ask you questions (if any questions remain after they read your brilliant words).

  • Counter-commandment: Prepare a 1-2 minute (max) “spiel” that highlights your motivation/problem, your one big idea, and a highlight of the results so far or status of the project. This will help you figure out if the poster really has all the necessary elements to support the story you are trying to tell.

VII. THOU SHALT NOT PRACTICE. Why waste research time practicing a spiel? It could take several hours out of your months of work on the project. How can you appear spontaneous if you practice? Besides, if you are a teacher or TA, you have lots of experience talking for hours when you don’t know what to say.

  • Counter-commandment: You want to converse with your audience, not lecture at them. To do that, time your spiel, practice it until you have it down, and make sure everyone at the poster has a consistent version of it. Don’t read off a script; have a small number of talking points and get good at “telling a story” by fleshing out each of the points.

Practicing the “spiel”

Target a particular talk length–say, 5 minutes–and break down a blueprint of how long you want to spend on each topic, with most of the time spent on your new approach/idea and the results. Example:

  1. Motivation and problem statement, status quo: 1 minute
  2. Our new idea/approach and examples: 2 minutes
  3. Key results and findings: 2 minutes
  4. Limitations, caveats, future work: 1 minute

Actually time yourself/yourselves on each part of the spiel; you’d be amazed how easy it is to run on longer than you planned, and how easy it is to stumble and get off track if you haven’t rehearsed. Rehearsing will also force you to make choices about keeping the spiel length down. Remember that most people visiting your poster will also be visiting many other posters, so in practice, getting even 5 minutes of their attention would be great. (Of course, a few people will be specifically interested in talking to you more, which you can do once you finish the spiel.) Indeed, a prepared presenter will also have a 3 minute version of the spiel ready!

Examples and Templates

Prof. Narges Norouzi suggests these two sites for free poster templates.

At the poster session

  • Have business cards to give out, if it’s an “external” poster session (conference, workshop, etc., vs. in-class posters). It’s a good way to build your network and stay in touch with people interested in your work. After the session, send a quick followup email to each person you exchanged cards with, thanking them for their interest and offering to stay in contact if appropriate.

  • Every project member at the poster should know the spiel and have practiced it. You can work in shifts or rotate who is at the poster (so that, e.g., other project members can walk around and see other posters).

  • When people ask questions, everyone who wants to contribute to the discussion should be able to do so. Even if you’re on a roll answering someone’s questions, visually check in with your peers periodically to see if anyone wants to add to the discussion.