How to make an awesome poster

Several months ago, my aunt asked me a bunch of questions about climate change. I answered her here in a serious of carefully researched posts, many of which took me hours to write. Her answer? “You say to-may-to, I say to-mah-to” with a link to an abc news story insinuating that snow in winter means climate change science is bunk. At first I was angry with my aunt. She’s not stupid, but I gave her the data and she didn’t change her mind! What’s wrong with her!

But reading back through those posts, I realize that I forgot something very, very important about science communication:

Communicating science means telling a story. Communicating science well means telling a good story.

This is not an easy thing to do, but doing it well pays off. Every format – a blog post, a phone call, a book – requires the story to be tweaked and edited. One of the formats that I’m most comfortable telling stories in is the scientific poster. Making a good poster is trickier than you might think. Posters are a bit like haiku – you’ve got a very small amount of space and not a lot of flexibility in structure, but you need to get across a whole lot.

sickle moon –
the emptiness

– Gabriel Rosenstock

In a haiku every single word is chosen with exceptional care: each carries a wealth of meaning and a heavy structural burden. The same is true of elements of a poster; everything included must be necessary and information rich without seeming complex or crowded.

my dead brother…
hearing his laugh
in my laughter

-Nick Virgili

My first poster was a complete disaster. Ugly, confusing, overwhelming, and boring.

My posters since have gotten much better. I start each poster now thinking of the moral of my story – the one (short) sentence version of the research finding I want to share. Then, I outline the plot – why do we care? what do we need to know to understand the topic? what data makes my point? where did my data come from? Anything that doesn’t contribute to the moral of the story is cut.

There’s a lot more that goes into getting this on the poster in a visually appealing way, but all that is easier once you’ve pared the story down.

Photo by John Ingold. Artist not credited.