Jessica Helfand | Essays

What Makes A Good Poster?

"Designing Effective Posters," Design by Jeff Radel, PhD., Department of Occupational Therapy Education, University of Kansas Medical Center.

At its core, the school science fair of my youth was an excuse to engage in two of my favorite activites: making things and showing off. This was arts-and-crafts for credit — science credit, no less — which was a dream come true for scientifically impaired children like me. It was also a good reason to load up on art supplies — in this case, lots of poster board and markers, cotton balls and tape. Today I look back on this stage in my early artistic development as my diorama period, a time in which my scientific aptitude (non-existent) was trumped by my pre-teen bravado (quite persistent), and the empty shoebox was my medium of choice.

Eventually I satisfied my desire to show off by studying theatre and my need to make things by studying graphic design. With some minor deviations along the way, I've remained clear about where these disciplines diverge. And as I became more serious about a life in design, I let go of the cotton balls and the Elmer's glue, those long-ago staples of my science projects. Poster board, I learned, does not a poster make.

Apparently everyone does not understand this distinction.

Posters, the original public art form, date back as far as the 15th century. Their arrival ushered in a period of change that began with replacing the Town Crier and would later come of age, in the 18th and 19th centuries as mechanization (and color presses) allowed for better printing and wider distribution. Over the course of the last century, posters have reflected the efforts of world-class painters, printmakers and graphic designers. And while something of an endangered species in a world driven by time-based media, the poster remains an enduring hallmark of modern visual achievement, reflecting the changing social and cultural values of a generation: from Jules Cheret to Peter Max to James Victore, the history of the poster is the history of modern civilization.

Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, there have been numerous efforts, at schools around the globe, by scholars preaching the gospel of good poster design with nary a design professional in sight. Laugh if you must, but do a search on "what makes a good poster" on Google, and barring the Information Architects (Mike Lee, we applaud you), the results may surprise you.

A Professor in East Asian Studies at at Lewis and Clark State College recently launched a website in which she extols the virtues of posters for scholarly presentations. Her efforts are being duplicated in campus-wide efforts by scholars at other institutions to do the same — and while there is nothing legally objectionable about this process (yes, I know, you don't have to be certified to practice graphic design) it assumes a level of rudimentary knowledge that is extraordinarily off the mark. IT'S AS IF FIVE HUNDRED YEARS OF POSTER DESIGN HISTORY NEVER EXISTED. Worse, there's a science fair element at play here (lots of poster board, and professors posing idly by their printouts) that lends itself to ridicule, but that's actually not my intention here. Rather, in the spirit of collegial critique, I'd like to examine some of the more critical formal and procedural flaws in this otherwise noble initiative.

Why consider presenting research as a poster? Herewith, some reflections.

No. 1 : Increased Participation by Scholarly Society Members.

Translation: Audience.

I have never designed, nor have I ever witnessed a student or a colleague design a poster without an extraordinary amount of editing, weeding out, narrowing down, and critically evaluating everything. Such rigor is fundamental to the design process, and usually results in a better poster — a better anything, for that matter. Central to this editing process is the basic understanding of who you're designing for. A Fortune 500 company or the Girl Scouts? There's no question that scholarship plays a part in rigorous thinking, but scholarship, in and of itself, does not directly lead to clear (or even abstract) formal execution. That process demands knowing who you're talking to. Period. And good kerning. But I digress.

No. 2 : For many researchers, the poster format is superior for the presentation of their data.

Translation: Form and Content.

Much has been written in the design press, of late, of the 8.5 x 11-ization of the surface, demonstrated most recently (and quite brilliantly) by last year's graduating MFA students at Yale. But to look at the visual evidence here, it appears that "poster" is being loosely used to refer to a xerox printout hung on a bulletin board, without taking into consideration the content and the particular form that content might take. (And frankly, even 8.5 x 11 can look great. These don't.) Certainly a poster produced, say, in Italy in the 1930s is going to look different from something made in Haight Ashbury in the 1960s. But what if they're both public health posters? What if they're not? In this view, the poster spins on a fascinating, collaborative equation that merges form with function, style with substance. This explains why all posters are not created equal. Nor, frankly, should they be.

No. 3 : The individual presentation time of a panel, i.e. 15-20 minutes is often not enough time.

Translation : Scale.

Posters generally succeed best when they're big, when their sheer scale results in a kind of physical impact that proves striking, arresting and memorable. This is not to say that posters can't be small: on the contrary, the reduced typographic broadsides of the early-to-mid Nineteenth Century are as compelling as the celebrations of minimalism produced in Europe in the years after World War II. What these posters share is a kind of attention to detail, that is typically possible in the hands of a skilled designer. (See "kerning," above.)

No. 4 : Poster sessions are a consideration to foreign colleagues.

Translation: See (No.1), Audience, above.

To be fair, Professor Levine offers some compositional tips that are not without merit — she advocates sketching beforehand and paying attention to white space, among other things — but overall, there's rather a missed opportunity here. As an academic herself, it seems she might avail herself of the expertise likely available on her own campus — the kind, for example, that students might offer. No doubt the design students would benefit from the experience, and Levine and her peers would get better posters. Sure, a poster titled: "Curable Cancers and Fatal Ulcers Update: Changing Attitudes Toward Cancer Disclosure in Japan" might not conjure the thrilling appeal of, say, a poster for a David Mamet play, but the basic rules still apply. Content. Form. Scale, Audience. Typography. Image. Hierarchy. Composition. And as required by so many scientific posters, Charts and Graphs — the poster-sized visual articulation of which are, in all fairness, deserving of their own post. (But not by me.)

So, here's a thought for really designing effective posters: why not launch a poster task force, with real designers on board? The Design Workshop at Parsons, for instance, allows students to realize a design project by providing free architectural and construction services to nonprofit organizations. A similar approach — teaming design students with scholars in the humanities — would invariably benefit those academics looking to elevate their work in poster form. And it would minimize the science fair quality that, while charmingly anachronistic, is kind of goofy. Scholars deserve better. Designers deserve better. And the poster, quite frankly, deserves nothing less.

Posted in: Education , Graphic Design, History

Comments [27]

Clearly, the purpose of information design is explaining. This is a bright initiative that asks for more, in an arena where visual expectations are low.

The design should work to support the content, but can certainly go beyond the layout of a word document. What would Chromosome 14 be as a white paper, without Benjamin Fry's ability to approach the study by engaging the design process from the beginning?

Even within the framework of how poster presentations are traditionally written, so many of the formal design elements mentioned above come into play. The scale and legibility of the poster in the presentation environment is a signage project in it's own right, as often times these posters are on display among crowded readers that form obstructed views.

Science and its visual representation is an intuitive relationship. The call for a collaborative effort that generates comprehensive communication, in the academic and research fields, is essential.

Far too often, I think it is simply the de facto estrangement of neighbors that deters the scientific disciplines from seeking collaboration with the design arts.

I've walked through physics and biology halls before and had similar thoughts to your suggestion, musing "what if these guys worked with design students?"

Wouldn't it be a great experience for all involved? Design students would get the critical experience of working with a real client, while the research students would gain the advantage of hopefully clearly-expressed data and findings.

Hmmm, my wife was just wondering a couple weeks ago if posters are a viable media in today's culture. I told her I think they are, but that we live in an itty-bitty town where such things are much less prolific.
The Aesthetic Elevator

I'm the director of a small museum in Austin, Texas that collects and exhibits mainly gig posters created in the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s. check out our website for some great poster design.

Um, I get the feeling that the point of these posters may have been missed. Or that I am missing the joke. Or that I am about to put my foot in my mouth (due to a rare genetic anomaly, all these feel the same to me).

Technical posters are intended as a kind of one-page handout summarizing an area of research, with the author on hand to talk visitors through the poster (in fact, a handout version is often required). Usually there are published guidelines as to how the poster should be constructed and how it will be assessed (just as there would be for 'typesetting' a thesis - artistic impulse notwithstanding). There is quite a culture around scientific posters, including competitions, etc.

That said, research posters apparently have a tendency to suffer from the kinds of problems that design processes are good at solving (e.g., the notorious 'where do I begin?' phenom).

A good, lightweight discussion can be found here: http://www.edwardtufte.com/bboard/q-and-a-fetch-msg?msg_id=00017C&topic_id=1&topic=Ask+E%2eT%2e

And my personal favorite guidelines appear here: http://www.swarthmore.edu/NatSci/cpurrin1/posteradvice.htm (I especially appreciate the advice about attire).

i couldn't agree more. non-design students and design students should have more opportunity to collaborate. it should be part of each major's requirement that collaboration must occur with every other major at least once before graduation. even the fields that would seem to be design-minded are unfortunately pixel-stupid. one project with packaging majors had the potential to be phenomenal, but in every group, the designers did all the work, only needing the other side's help when using a machine/tool. it was amazing (and appauling) how little creativity was a part of the curriculum for them.

To be fair, there's about as much in common between a poster at an academic conference and a poster for a new range of Gap clothing as there is between a slug and and a cockroach. The fact they're both pests doesn't mean you treat them the same way.
I've seen some wonderfully 'designed' posters at conferences that simply don't possess any content.

I'd expect a chemist to come to me asking for help with a poster presentation the day I expect a chemist to come and advise me on which washing detergent to use.

The sad fact is that most academics in non-design related disciplines think all we do is draw nice things, so I'd be loathe to confirm that prejudice by volunteering to make their poster look good. when people talk of interdisciplinary collaboration at undergraduate level, it usually boils down to a surface input, simply decorating. (And sadly so many design students think that's the most they can contribute).

A better use of our time is doing things like a colleague in jewellery has just done, working with molecular scientists on ways of representing microscopic structures in three dimensions. Both sides learnt considerably from the experience.
It's collaborations like that (at undergraduate, postgraduate and research level) we need to be focusing on if we want to be taken seriously.

Interesting thoughts, and what a coincidence. I was recently hired on at a university to be the graphic designer for a physiology and health science department. Although I haven't gotten there yet, one of my jobs will be to design conference posters. Personally, I am excited by the idea of helping a professor present his information clearly, and with beauty.

Be encouraged that some scientists do value design and don't look at it as just decoration.

LeMel: Thanks for that info regarding poster guidelines. It's good to know about, even if I may attempt to bend them almost to the point of breaking.

I remember Milton Glaser made four (double) points about this: four things essential in posters and four things not essential. If somebody wants to read the complete article, it's in Graphis (Zurich) #162, 1981, according to the Milton Glaser profile in the SVA. They also appear on a retrospective book published in Barcelona in 1990.
Glaser states that the four first points came easily, but the second list "caused him distress".
In my opinion, these four things are still valid.
Joan M.Mas

It's weird. I can always tell JH's postings. I just read the title and know. I can't explain it, yet.
Nathan Philpot

I have to echo Jonathan and LeMels point about the purpose of these posters.

Unusual for a research institution like the one I work in, we have a staff of several full-time designers. But we are here primarily for making things for the "public": shiny posters for schoolkids, infographics for press releases to the media, websites condensing science into something appealing with pretty pictures. A lot of our colleagues produce these types of things without a trained designer at all; we are trying to educate them by example.

Publications intended for the science community itself hardly ever feel a designer's touch. And this includes technical posters, most of which are designed by the presenting scientist (or their grad student) and which we only see when they want to use the Big Printer. I have seen things that make my eyes itch. Bright, patterned backgrounds, yards of tiny text sprinkled with low-resolution graphs... the desire is to fit as much data in the size limit as possible. (Added cringe: they use PowerPoint to do the layout because they already know how to use it.)

The worst examples are coming most quickly to mind, of course. There are many scientists out there who really do "get it" and produce clean, decent-looking, highly readable posters. I am very glad to see the links provided in this thread, and will surely be passing them along.

Technical posters tend to the low-tech; there are still presenters who just tile a printout of their paper on the bulletin board. The ability to use wide-format printers for this purpose has provided an unlimited box of crayons, and there will always be some who want to use all the colors at once.

Educating people on how to communicate clearly is an unspoken part of my job here. IF I can get them in the room. The stereotypical scientist likes to work up to the very last minute, doesn't have particularly agile verbal/visual communication skills, and can't spare the time to have a third-party "translate" for them. Sometimes, they barely leave time for us to print the things out. The few times I've helped someone visualize and organize their tech poster have been very satisfying, if only because I have a little more confidence that their message is getting out there.

Another thing designers need to be more concerned about is the fact that our own research is often ignored, both by our peers within design and by the wider world.

There's a need for a greater recognition and dissemination of design research before we start helping in fields where such matters really aren't a problem. It's only designers who are offended by the sort of posters we're talking about - let's fix something that really needs fixing: our own communication skills.

Jessica, amen. I see far too many sophmoric posters at Universities, most of which look assembled with crayolas and posterboard from Wal-Mart. Down with the 'science fair' treatments and up with the designers.

Don't even get Edward Tufte started on what's wrong with the use of PowerPoint in scientific presentations: "PowerPoint chartjunk: smarmy, chaotic, incoherent". http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/11.09/ppt2.html
Betty G

Oh God. I can't imagine anything worse than working for a smarmy self-important "I can do this myself, what do I need you for" academic "client". Blech. That kind of public service design just makes me tired.

Prof Intern.

The latest volume on the Poster Collection of the Zurich Museum für Gestaltung sets out to prove, there are advantages to working in black and white. In a compilation of international posters created over the last 40 years, Poster Collection 09 brings to light a surprising variety of approaches where the color of the paper and the black of the ink are the only materials at hand. Those materials alone provide the creative will with the tools it needs to create a succinct statement. Examples come via designers like A.G. Fronzoni, Werner Jeker, James Victore and Büro Destruct, and range from the political manifesto to the poetic abstraction, from modernist cool to postmodern eclectic.

+ Link: Mr. Mr.

Seems to me that we, as a design community, are not above some of the blame here. Since these people are not graphic designers, their effort should be somewhat applauded; they're working within their abilities and trying to help others do the same. That said, I don't think anyone disagrees that there's much need for improvement!

My point is, that since we as graphic designers see the problem and know how to address it, why aren't we seeking these opportunities out, rather than putting the onus on disciplines who (like soooo many others) don't understand exactly what graphic design really is? Correct me if I'm mistaken, but Ben Fry wasn't sought out by the genetic scientists he works/ed with; he approached them after identifying a problem he could help solve.

Might the best solution be some kind of software that lays out technical posters for scientists automatically? Like Keynote for large formats?

Mathematicians and computer scientists customarily typeset their own papers using LaTeX, which will produce decent-looking, well-structured documents, even for users who have no typographic expertise. The writer needs only to leave the software alone and not meddle with the settings, in order to get a quite reasonable end product.

No, automated tools will never bring real insight. Obviously a good designer can do better than a computer program; but simple software is always available, and consistently tolerable.
David Ramos

I find it curious that so many posts on Design Observer seem to be elaborations on the theme that 'only designers should do design'. This is no exception. Which is sad, because a title like "What makes a good poster?' should be an opportunity to share some knowledge and experience with people who don't have a design background. Instead, however, anyone who googled themselves here would find themselves having their head bitten off for daring to presume that they too could make a poster.

I also loved making posters at school. In fact I don't think anything I have done as a professional designer has approached the sheer delight I had in the school art room, making a poster for the film club. And I would suggest that here is an answer to the question posed by the title: "What makes a good poster?" Sheer, infectious enthusiasm. You don't need to have an MFA to do this - it may even be preferably that you don't. And what makes a bad poster? Poor execution rarely offends my eye as much as pretentiousness, spurious 'references', contrived irony, boredom, the poorly disguised desire to be doing something else, wanting to show off to one's peers, gratuitous self-expression. Sins it is hard to imagine the amateur committing.
James Souttar

Years ago when I worked in healthcare, I recall assisting a physician in the creation of a poster presentation on the topic of The Allergenic Affects of Bat Guano. Interestingly enough, this same physician was elected last week to the United States Congress. (His victory, no doubt, was aided by the allergenic affects of career-politician guano.)

I've always had a hard time referring to these as just "posters." I've always preferred a qualified term such as " scientific poster presentations." Jessica makes some very good points as to how universal design principles still apply. However, the "posters" that most designers are attracted to contain an emotionally charged or evocative element that just doesn't have a role in most scientific poster presentations.
Daniel Green

I think context here is important.

I think it's silly when designers make fun of engineers/non designers from the academic side doing posters and such. Though I use to do the same.

Who cares about design in this context, NO ONE! Advanced visual design or aesthetics are not and shouldn't even be considered.

Designers need to remember what contexts their work is important, and it's not a power point on electrochemistry. If there is some importance it is very miniscule.

This seems kinda like people of common interest trying to make their skills seem important where they aren't and its kinda pathetic. Again, I'm guilty and people of other proffessions prolly do the same.

In the case of Ben Fry, he is dealing with large amounts of data and ways to represent them. Not a poster or a brochure etc...


And if a scientist does care about an elegant science poster it's possible but is hardly necessary or relevent in the context compared to others.

And if that scientist does care it doesn't mean he values design, and the others dont. The others just value it where it's context is more imporant, their homes (place not space), their cars, their clothes, the industrial design products, their paintings on the walls, their furniture, etc...

I see I'm not alone in my puzzlement over this article. It seems "the right tool for the right job" has been tossed and "everything must be designed or else ridiculed" has taken its place.

I, like others in this comment thread, have done graphic design for a department at a university. I've seen what engineers, scientists and programmers have produced for presentations, including whitepapers, posters, web pages and PowerPoint slides. In every case they've been dry and wordy, visually uninspiring, and lacking anything that resembles hierarchy.

Having said that, these engineers, scientists and programmers would have it no other way. They considered design to be marketing (still do). Anything that even hinted at the "M" word was considered evil, selling out, wussified, etc. As much as I disliked what they produced, the fact is they and the people to which they presented their information preferred it that way.

We, as designers, have a tendency to take a design-centric view of the world around us. But as communicators, we shouldn't forget that lots of people don't speak our "language" as fluently as we do.

Sure, we could expect people to rise to the challenge of understanding our metaphors, our brilliant choices of typefaces, our clever use of abstraction, etc. Then again, chemists could expect us to rise to the challenge of understanding why chemical reaction A is significant when taken in the context of catalyst B and the effect of the yellow sun on the Earth's atmosphere and, and, and... You get the idea.

I am one of "those people" who didn't study design and dares to make posters. In my case, we typically do research right up to a week before a conference and then slap together a poster at the last minute. Some physics posters are actually quite good considering. I dare you guys to come to my lab and do some research with our lasers... We have a branding and design bloke in our university and he is the most hated person by far.
klaas wynne

I'm afraid i am one of those design students (interior design) who has strongly being influenced by the Bauhaus Academy thinking,
yup.. one of those who wants and able to do most of the science combined with art stuff.

My take on posters are that designers like Marc Atlan changed the way we communicate with emotions and simplicity and i admire his way of driving the consumerist into the design world more & more.

We all wanna buy stuff we see don't we ?
Muhamad Razif

Although Jessica's suggestion to get the design students to create posters for science faculty would certainly enhance the designers' science education, the faculty would be better served if we gave them design lessons instead of doing their posters for them. Academic posters are a form of communication that the faculty themselves ought to master, just as they need to master visualization and presentation software. College professors don't go to design firms to have their Powerpoint presentations spiffed up; nor should they ask designers to make their academic conference displays look more like theater posters.
Ellen Lupton

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