Design Tips for Creating an Arts and Humanities Poster

While poster presentations have long been a standard means of disseminating research in STEM disciplines and the social sciences, they represent relatively new territory for many in the Arts and Humanities. With this in mind, I offer a few suggestions regarding design for the consideration of those who may be new to poster presentations. (I’d offer the example of a few of my own past posters, but they are so generally poorly-designed that I’m saving them for a separate post on “How Not to Design an Arts and Humanities Poster.”)

Use both Image and Word. Posters offer the opportunity to employ images to highlight one’s research work, but they generally work best when they use text and image together in a complementary fashion. Text and image should, ideally, relate to and supplement each other in meaningful ways. Pretty pictures are, well, pretty, but save those vacation pics of yourself on the beach in Aruba for Facebook.

Don’t Overuse Text. Most disciplines in the Arts and Humanities are heavily text-oriented, and it follows that much of our research is as well. Resist the temptation, however, to cram too much text into your poster. Reading a poster, especially when the text is small and overabundant, can be tiring and trying. Be concise and succinct; in general, your overall word count should be under 1000 words (and a good deal under that is best).

Divide Text into Bite-sized Chunks. This follows on the point above: most readers will either not finish, or skip entirely, long text blocks. Keep it short and easy to digest, somewhere half-way between a tweet and a Facebook rant.

Use White Space. Where possible, use white space (i.e., blank parts of your poster) to ensure that your reader doesn’t feel that she or he is facing information overload. This should include reasonably luxurious margins around the edges of the poster, as well as space between text and image components, and space within text blocks (for instance, space between lines of text). Really well-designed white space can be a means of directing your reader to particular parts of poster: a component that is surrounded by lots of white space, for instance, stands out, and is often the first thing read or viewed.

Use Colours, but (Mostly) Keep Them Light. Dark posters can be striking, but on the whole, a use of lighter colours is more inviting. Lighter colours also tend to print better. Keep these varied, but not garish (unless your research is on the subject of kitsch). In general, light text on a dark background is not a good idea. If you are wondering why, consider the web page you are reading now. Annoying, isn’t it?

Ulysses on a Dark Background

Although in some ways eye-catching, light text on a dark background can cause considerable eye strain.

Use Spatial Arrangement to Highlight Meaning. This seems obvious: in general, we read from left to right and top to bottom, and so (generally), the material that one wants people to read first should appear at the top left. Posters, however, don’t always work that way (see my comment on white space above, for instance), so don’t simply assume that readers will follow a simple left-to-right and top-to-bottom flow of components. Often it is the centre of the poster that attracts immediate attention. The least-regarded portion of your poster’s real estate is usually along the bottom.

Use Space to Break Linearity. Most of our text-based research tends (because of the very nature of text) to be linear: it follows a straight-forward path from beginning (introduction) to middle (analysis and information) to end (conclusion).  A poster, however, exists fully in two dimensions, so that it need not (and indeed is not particularly well suited for) a linear layout of information. One of the exciting things about using posters to disseminate your research is that you can employ a nonlinear mode of presentation, and use two-dimensional space and layout to present different ways of relating aspects of your research to each other. Our arguments and analyses tend to be linear because our textual mode of presentation is, but you will know from experience that it is not necessarily “naturally” so. So use the poster to experiment with new ways of relating components of your work to each other!

Keep Your Components Regular. By this, I mean that it is usually best to keep text boxes, margins, and images of more or less uniform width. It’s good practice to use different sizing (and different amounts of white space) to draw attention to particular components, but this works best if the other components are standardized somewhat. In addition,  a poster with elements that are all of different sizes, and that are not aligned well together, can look a bit haphazard and miscellaneous, and can be hard to follow. Think Piet Mondrian, rather than Jackson Pollock.

Poor Poster Design

A scatter-shot design that fails to focus attention or direct the reader.

Choose Fonts Carefully. In general, it is often best to use a non-serif font (e.g., Arial) for titles and headlines, and serif fonts (e.g., Times New Roman or Helvetica) for smaller text. Do not, whatever you do, use Comic Sans: poster presenters have been stoned to death by angry mobs for doing this.

Keep Text Columns Narrow. Long text lines are difficult to read: keep text in relatively narrow columns that are no longer than about 50 characters (about a dozen words). Of course, don’t make them so narrow that people aren’t reading top-to-bottom more than they are reading left-to-right.

Use Graphs, Charts, Timelines, and Other Visualizations. Maybe. Posters produced for the STEM fields and Social Sciences tend to use a lot of these for two reasons: much of the information that they are presenting is quantitative data that is easily reducible to chart and graph, and such visualizations are a very effective way of presenting some kinds of information so that it can be assimilated quickly and easily. Obviously, we tend in the Arts and Humanities to use quantitative data much less frequently, but if you do employ this (for instance, in a chronology), you would do well to consider a visualization of this sort.

Framed text panels

Label Images. Images are seldom self-explanatory. Explain them. And tell us, if it seems relevant, where they come from, especially if you have used someone else’s.

Add Borders to Images. These need not be (and indeed, should not be) thick or obtrusive, but they do a good job of helping the image stand out, and “framing” it in a way that draws attention. The same principle applies to text panels; the application of a different coloured background can also help these stand out.

Use Reasonable Font Sizes. There is no hard and fast rule for this, but you do want your audience to be able to read the poster without scraping it with their noses. In general, you should scale up your fonts by at least 50%. This means that a body text that you’d normally display as 12-point should be at least 18-point for your poster.

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Selected Resources

Centre for Learning Technology. “Poster Design Tips.” Centre for Learning Technology, The London School of Economics and Political Science. n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2013.

Eggart, Mary Lee. “Effective Poster Design for Academic Conferences.” n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2013. [PDF]

Galvez, Alex. “Effective Poster Design.” Teaching Support Services. University of Guelph. n.d. Web.  21 Feb. 2013.

Purrington, Colin. “Designing Conference Posters.Colin Purrington. n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2013.

Roundtree, Aimee. “Posters for Humanities and Social Sciences Student Research Conference.” University of Houston Downtown. 9 Apr. 2010. Web. 21 Feb. 2013. [PDF]

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