Poster Design for Technical Literacy



Poster Design as a Missed Opportunity for Technical Literacy


T. R. Girill
Technical Literacy Project (rev. 4)
October, 2018 (WP)

Handbook TOC

[This analysis is planned around six selected example
posters and comparison poster-like cases, all available online.
Each is cited and linked in the text, and the URL for each
appears in the reference list.]

The Problem

Posters (and their close kin, classroom bulletin boards) are
too often wasted as an opportunity to learn authentic lessons
about technical literacy.
Good students manage to do them fairly well, poor students
blunder along, but nobody gains many strategic insights for
real life from making posters.

Aside from just turning students loose, the usual default
approach refers students to collections of practical tips
and templates, such as these:

Colin Purrington,
Designing conference posters,
covers tips, examples, templates, even software(concise yet very useful and thorough)
Jeff Radel,
Designing effective posters,
University of Kansas Medical Center website
(29 pages, also good
but more verbose)
Jan Pechenik
short guide to writing about biology, 6th edition

(New York: Pearson Educational, 2007), pp. 244-250
(7 pages, excellent concise review but lacks details or examples).

These are certainly helpful, and sometimes humorously revealing,
sources. But they tend to be ad hoc.
They leave poster design isolated from both general
usability principles
and from other kinds of scientific communication.
With just a little extra work and a wider perspective, however,
poster making can reinforce (or even introduce) the importance
of effective nonfiction communication techniques for working

An Alternative Approach

To maximize poster making as a text-design learning activity,
one needs to overtly contrast posters with virtually all other
typical science communications.
Posters need high usability, but even when (or perhaps
especially when) they have it they are not good
models for other science publications, and vice versa.
A good short technical article blown up to poster size does
not make a good poster (e.g., Dunn, 2008).
And a good poster shrunk to (two-page) article size seldom
makes a good technical article (e.g., Mason, 2006).
So more self-conscious awareness of how technical posters are
unusual is vital if students who make posters are to
learn about (or reinforce what they have already learned about)
good-writing guidelines and text usability principles from
this activity.

Three Different Constraints

Think of a science poster as a
text engineering 
project, a
design effort like any technical writing, except that most of
the design constraints on a poster are opposite from
the usual ones.
Three important contraints illustrate the consequences of this

(1) Grain Size

Science articles present rich, fine-grained analysis, which
their writers must manage in detail.
Science posters, however, present mostly sparse, coarse-grained

Consider the good-description organizational
guideline that you should

Divide a described object into parts,
describing each part
sequentially in detail and
revealing its relation to the
other parts.

For articles, this is a way to manage content,
offering information piecewise so that the audience can handle
its complexity.
For posters, this is a way to manage real estate, the
huge surface that confronts the audience but is usually viewed
from a distance.
The carefully crafted paragraphs that build explanations in
a good article are not enough to yield a good poster (as the
“posterized” Dunn
article from Science shows).
Here instead the poster designer needs to choose and deploy
obvious, large-scale visual chunks, such as boxes, bubbles, or
other framed colored zones (as in Mason, 2006).

(2) Amount of Text

Science articles contain lots of words, often as many as their
authors can squeeze into the allotted pages.
Good posters, even on complex technical topics, are word sparse.
This sample-poster comparison chart shows that while even a
two-page Science article (which can be printed large
to create a fake comparison “poster”) contains 1550 words,
typical well-designed technical posters usually contain only
one-third to one-fifth as much text:

Sample Posters Compared

Alternative Samples Properties Affecting Usability
Words(*) Pictures Headings Path
(A) Science 2-page Dunn article,
“posterized” for comparison
1550 0 0 linear, but no visual cues
(B) USGS topographic map (part),
enlarged for comparison
1 0 completely flexible
(C) Mason “Microarray”
(award-winning) process poster
375 8 9 numbered cues
(D) Green “Metacarpal”
specimen or artifact poster
510 12 10 text cues

(*)Excludes heads, references, captions, and acknowledgments
(if any).
Consider the good-description content
guideline that you should

Omit irrelevant background and confusing detail to focus
attention on relevant technical features.

For articles, the threshold of relevance for this
guideline is fairly low.
Article readers tolerate, even demand, an elaborate characterization
of your methods, for example, so that they can study them for
flaws or try to reproduce them in other settings.
Discussions (of results) are often intricate for the same

For posters, however, the threshold of relevance is quite high.
Only the most significant aspects of a project or process can earn
space in a poster’s large-print display.
Almost all method and discussion detail must be sacrificed
here. Space constraints (amplified by the reading-time
constraints of the poster’s moving audience) require that only
the best results, the most innovative strategies, and the
boldest interpretations can appear and consume some of the very
limited supply of poster words.

(3) Use of Figures (Graphics)

In articles, text dominates graphics, even when the figures reveal
key trends or relationships.
On posters, graphics dominate text, even though text is vital
to assert key claims or explanations.

Consider the good-description signal
guideline that you should

Integrate figures and text with labels and references
for coherence.

Once again, this plays out differently in the context of articles
and posters.
In articles, readers expect careful textual analysis and
argument, and they can invest the time to follow them.
Graphics (figures) support and clarify the text. This support, however,
can be “deep”–some readers will measure pictured objects or
plot extra lines on graphs to interpolate extra values, just as
they would rely on and study the details of a topographic map
(e.g., USGS, n.d.).

On posters, the graphics replace most of the text,
out of necessity.
And they play not a map-like role, but rather one more
cartoon-like: bold and thematic rather than intricitately
subtle (that does not mean inaccurate, but differently
Heads, arrows, and large-scale diagrams or tables must do the
work that text performs on paper, because these are usually
the only poster features that viewers can access from across
a crowded room.
Nobody could read a textual alternative, nor annotate it for
study if they could read it.
As the picture, heading, and path columns in the “Sample Poster”
chart (above) reveal, the count of visual features is both
relatively and absolutely high for well-designed technical posters.
These graphic features are thoughtful but simplified substitutes
for the (appropriately) missing text.



The same text usability principles apply to science poster
design as to paper planning. Nevertheless, the results should look quite
different because most of the constraints on design, especially the
(a) publishing goals, and
(b) reader needs
differ greatly between the two cases.
This chart summarizes the shared framework as well as the
divergent results:

Articles and Posters Compared

Journal Article Technical Poster
Publishing goals:
Structure Formal
(often IMRD standard)
(easy, appealing path)
Many words
Provides careful analysis
Rich enough to replicate
Few words
Delivers vivid highlights
Strategic, focused for interest
–data density
–prime role
Map (information in layers)
High (often tables)
Visual explanation
Cartoon (bold key relationships)
Low (often plots, pictures)
Visual interest
Reader needs:
Overview Abstract: a summary meaningful apart from the article Brief introduction: an appealing gateway to the poster
Close (inches), attention to detail
Quiet and private
Slow, thorough review
Yes, frequent
Far (+6 feet), glanced across room
Noisy and social
Quick survey
No, impossible


Dunn, E. W., L. B. Aknin, and M. I. Norton. (2008).
Spending money on others promotes happiness. Science,
319 (21 March), 1687-1688. URL:
Green, D. J. and A. D. Gordon. (2006).
Metacarpal proportions in Australopithecus africanus [Poster].
Center for Advanced Study of Homonid Paleobiology.
Mason, M., X. Ding, and J. S. Dorick. (2006).
Development of high-throughput microarray for evaluating
CYP1A1 induction [Poster]. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
USGS. (n.d.)
Sample USGS topographic map.