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Technical Writing: Poster Constraints are Special

T. R. Girill
Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab.

Technical Writing: Poster Constraints are Special

In late 2019, two biology graduate students published a note in 
(AAAS's) Science recounting how they had missed some great feedback and
collaboration opportunities when their conference posters were casually
planned and carelessly executed, distracting or confusing viewers who
stopped to talk about them.  As with all technical communication,
effectiveness here calls for thoughtful attention to the CONSTRAINTS
that viewers/readers face when they encounter a science poster, which
these student authors realized only too late (A D'Mello and D. Flynn,
"Respect the Poster," Science, Nov. 8, 2019, 366, p. 766).

Broad Student Relevance

K-12 science students often face the same problem, especially inexperienced
or ELL students who participate in their first school-district, regional,
or county science fair.  Poorly focused technical posters often leave
project viewers (including official judges as well as interested
community members) confused or bored.  Astute poster design, however,
can feature a project's strengths, which in turn can lead to future
opportunities for the student.

But good intentions are not enough.  Effective poster design calls for
deploying relevant, helpful techniques, just as with all successful
user-centered engineering.  And, as with other design problems, attending
to the most significant user constraints--in this case on poster viewers--
limits the problem space and suggests just which techniques to stress.
In three key ways the constraints on poster users differ greatly from
the more familiar constraints on those who read and use technical reports
or articles.  Explicitly alerting your students to these differences can
set them on a more constructive poster-design path.

Special Poster Constraints

A science poster is definitely not just a technical report printed out
and pasted up on a big board.  It is unusual in three crucial ways:

1. Size.
Most text that students draft ends up on standard printer pages in a
small font (some journals use a VERY small font) easily read at arm's
length, with few graphics.  A poster is often 4-by-6 feet, demanding
much larger visual features, whose callouts and captions must scale
up to match.
2. Distance.
The audience is only one or two feet from the report page that they
try to read, but they are often six feet or more from a displayed
poster.  At that distance, small fonts become indecipherable and fine
graphic features indiscernible, especially under indirect auditorium
3.  Social Context.
The reader is often quietly alone with a report on their desk, but 
poster sessions happen in noisy, crowd-filled rooms, where the heads 
and torsos of many others, moving and shifting, frequently block a 
clear overall view or obstruct a key diagram or explanatory passage.

Iterative Design Helps 

To turn these unusual poster constraints into a communication opportunity,
most students need to quickly frame a prototype (perhaps by using 
4-by-6-inch sticky notes on a wall), stand back 6 feet, and then iterate
versions of the text and graphics until the poster features handle the
size, distance, and social-context limitations well.  

This usually means not 1500 words or more of text in tiny font but only
about 300 (carefully chosen) words in large font.  It means gradually
developing alternative graphics (images, diagrams, tables) that explain
themselves and that reveal the project's key relationships, processes,
and results, with minimal reliance on text (which should mostly be
formatted as easy-to-see itemized lists, not unbroken paragraphs). 
Finally, it means that (usually after multiple adjustments) the overall
visual structure of the poster chunks (which can be in rows, columns,
or some kind of to-the-center spiral) calls attention to whatever project
strengths the student wants to stress (improved method? unexpected result?
valuable application?).

A poster with sparse text and big, lean, carefully focused visual 
features will lead the audience away from the presentation pitfalls
lamented by the students in their Science note.  The relevant usability
principles are unchanged, but students must consciously apply them to
this unusual constraint situation to get a positive communication 

[Want more background on technical writing in science class? See 
For a thorough poster-design overview for students, see  ]

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