Impactful scientific poster

Compiled by Ilia Guzei (University of Wisconsin–Madison) on behalf of the American Crystallographic Association. Updated: October 7, 2016.

Preambule

If you are going to a crystallographic conference and intend to present a poster or evaluate posters, this article is for you. Even more so if you intend to compete for a poster prize. On the one hand, this article deals with poster design and content organization. On the other it teaches how to present your project in an impactful fashion and reveals how poster judges evaluate posters.
The article sections can be read in any order – they are independent and address different facets of poster business: technical aspects, philosophy behind poster content organization, oral presentation of the results, and poster evaluation.
First of all – stop! Do not begin creating your poster until you have invested 20 minutes into reading this article. It will save you much more time than 20 minutes.


Examples of award-winning posters

Please note that some posters may take a few seconds to load.

Author: Louise Dawe. Link to the Poster by Louise Dawe & L.K. Thompson (Memorial University, 2008)
Author: Darpandeep Aulakh. Link to the Poster by Darpandeep Aulakh et al. (Clarkson University).
Author: Brian Dolinar. Link to the Poster by Brian Dolinar et al (University of Wisconsin-Madison)
Author: Jinhong Hu. Link to the Poster by Jinhong Hu et al (University of Calgary)
Author: J. Caleb Chappell. Link to the Poster by J. Caleb Chappell & Aaron J. Celestian (Western Kentucky University)
Author: Nara Guimarães. Link to the Poster by Nara Guimarães and D.A.P. Reis (São Paulo – SP, Brazil)
Author: Kristin Kirschbaum. Link to the Poster by Kristin Kirschbaum et al. (The University of Toledo)
Author: Ayaka Harada. Link to the Poster by Ayaka Harada et al (The Grad. Univ. for Advanced Studies, School of High Energy Accelerator Science).
Author: Emilia C. Arturo. Link to the Poster by Emilia C. Arturo et al. (Drexel University College of Medicine/Fox Chase Cancer Center (TUHS), Philadelphia)

 

Technical aspects – graphics and text

Your poster will contain graphics and text. I recommend the poster layout instructions from the Makesigns Scientific Poster site (http://www.makesigns.com/tutorials/poster-design-layout.aspx). There are 11 pages of advice on font sizes, use of color and background graphics, graphics resolution, use of charts and graphs, and other considerations that one should take into account. This site is a very good starting point that removes the guesswork related to fonts and colors. You will be complimented on an easy-to-read poster. Here is a poster designed following the text size guidelines from the Makesigns Scientific Poster site.
Another site, http://colinpurrington.com/tips/poster-design, provides a comprehensive review of scientific poster preparation process.
Before you start, check the conference’s guidelines to find out the size and orientation of the posters and poster boards and any recommended font sizes, etc. Then follow the guidelines!

 

Tools

You can’t go wrong with Microsoft PowerPoint or Adobe Photoshop for creating your poster. Jens Luebben (University of Goettingen) and Blaine Mooers (the University of Oklahoma) shared the following list of alternative products.

Plotting data well is an acquired skill. Generally it is best to pick one plotting program and then really master it. Proprietary program Origin can be used for data presentation. Excellent solutions can be found in the free open-source programs gnuplot and the matplotlib and ggplot modules in Python. If you are not a programmer, the powerful Grace has a GUI interface.

A crystallographer's arsenal includes free Platon (a very nice tool for creating vector graphics of anisotropic ADPs), OLEX2, Mercury, POV-Ray, ORTEP-3 and (paid license) Diamond for molecular graphics.

 

General poster design recommendations

The poster serves as a way to "show" what you did with pictures, plots, and minimal text while you get to "tell" the story of the investigation weaving all of these pieces together.

 

General content recommendations

 

Oral presentation of your poster

“Soft skills” is one of the current catch phrases, and communication skills may be the most important soft skill. Have you heard of the “three-minute thesis”? That is where a graduate student presents his or her thesis research in three minutes. Be ready to explain your poster in three minutes, or 10 minutes, or 20 minutes. However, if you start on your 20-minute explanation, leave opportunities for the audience to ask questions that you answer. Make sure you have a story to tell, one that starts with an introduction, then experiment, then results. Don’t start with the results during your presentation.
Here are five questions you should be able to answer easily:

You should be giving a rehearsed rather than memorized talk. Rehearsing will allow you to recall your material quickly. If you start assembling your talk at the outset of your poster session you may come across as unprepared.
Posters give the opportunity to have a discussion with the audience. A very productive approach to initiate a discussion is by asking the visitor to your poster "What brings you to my poster?" or "What is your area of expertise?", even if the visitor is a judge. Armed with the knowledge of your audience you can tailor the amount of detail or background information that the visitor would need to fully appreciate the value of the project. Don't be surprised if the visitor is stunned by such a question or does not have a good answer.
Make sure you can discuss all the points raised on your poster. Is there any supporting information you could refer to? If so, it’s a good idea to have it at hand.
Be enthusiastic when speaking about your work – if you don’t appear excited about your research, why should anyone else be?
Don't forget to bring your business cards. (A graduate student with a current business card comes across as thoughtful and professional). Also consider having 8x11 printouts of your poster (with highlights of your poster presentation on the verso page) to hand out.
David Rose (University of Waterloo) shared the Poster Presentation primer for students that reflects the points outline above.

 

What the poster judges evaluate

The poster will serve as a great visual aid to your narrative. Nobody knows your project better than you do, but being able to explain it clearly is a skill. It helps to crystallize the general ideas into answers to concrete questions. For example, Emeritus Prof. John R Helliwell (University of Manchester) asks presenters a standard set of questions:
1. What were your aims and selected method/approach to tackle them?
2. What are your findings?
3. What is your research plan to build on your findings?
4. What are your possible societal impacts?
These questions blend an assessment of working in a team with a chance to document the presenter's originality.

Guidelines for poster evaluations.
For years I have asked my judges to use the following guidelines when evaluating posters.

Poster judges are welcome to use the following Poster evaluation form designed by Louise Dawe (Wilfrid Laurier University) with criteria based on California Institute of Technology Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (Caltech SURF) Poster Judging Rubric.

 

Final thoughts

The technical information and advice presented herein is illustrated with a paraphrased quote from a poster prize winner Joseph Chappell (Western Kentucky University): “I was fortunate to speak to one of the judges after I won the IUCr poster prize award at an American Crystallographic Association conference. She said that the major reason I was chosen was because my poster design was neat and not over crowded with information, just the important details someone would need to see if they were viewing my poster on their own. Another major reason was that I was able to easily and concisely explain my research to the judges without stumbling over words or phrases. Prior to creating the poster, I did a Google search on what makes good poster designs and outlines. I found that many people recommended keeping posters neat and clean and not trying to cram as much information as possible onto your poster. I followed this advice and lo and behold it worked. My adviser at the time also highly recommended that I split the poster into three columns that flowed left to right. This made the poster easier to read and more pleasing to the eyes.”
Should you decide to compete for a poster prize make sure you (a) qualify for the prize, (b) the prize matches your research, and (c) you select the prize you actually want (like book or money) in case your poster is eligible in more than one category. On average, the chances of winning a poster prize at an ACA annual meeting is 1 in 6.


Contributors

Ilia Guzei (University of Wisconsin-Madison) served as the Poster Chair at the annual American Crystallographic Association meetings between 2011-2016. This article is a collage of contributions from the following colleagues. The author is thankful to all of them. In alphabetical order:
Alexander Blake, the University of Nottingham
Ayaka Harada, The Grad. Univ. for Advanced Studies, School of High Energy Accelerator Science
Blaine Mooers, University of Oklahoma
Brian Dolinar, Texas A&M
Christine Beavers, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab
Darpan Aulakh, Clarkson University
David Rose, University of Waterloo
Elizabeth Goldsmith, UT Southwestern
Emilia Arturo, Drexel University
Francis Salemme, Imiplex LLC, Bristol
Jens Luebben, University of Goettingen
Jinhong Hu, University of Calgary
John Helliwell, University of Manchester
John Rose, University of Georgia
Joseph Chappell, Western Kentucky University
Juby Varghese, Clarkson University
Kristin Kirschbaum, University of Toledo
Louise Dawe, Wilfrid Laurier University
Marie Elizabeth Fraser, University of Calgary
Marilyn Olmstead, UC Davis,
Nara Guimarães, University of São Paulo – USP
Nikoletta B. Báthori, Cape Peninsula University of Technology
Warren Wakarchuk, Ryerson University