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Designing a poster for public consumption is about distilling the message into something that can absorbed in less than a minute
Most guides on producing posters at university concentrate on academic or scientific posters of the type you would see at a conference. Public facing posters are different. They do not need to follow the same layout conventions and must communicate information quickly and clearly to the public.
Focus your message
Don't try to get too much across in your poster. Make sure the important message is really obvious - big and bold. Also, make sure you are focusing the message on the right audience. Use typography and imagery that is likely to appeal to your target group.
Make it highly visual
This is for two main reasons – first and foremost, to get it noticed. There is no point having great information on your poster if nobody bothers to read it! Secondly, to enhance your points (make them stronger/more understandable).
Images are also great ways of crossing language and cultural divides – they are a more universal language that can be understood whatever your ability to speak English or your level of literacy.
Order your content
For a poster to be most effective, it should be clear what order the viewer should read it. That needs to be obvious.
Also, is there a hierarchy of information – i.e. is the most important stuff biggest? The least important stuff small and at the bottom?
Make sure it is fully accessible
People reading your poster may have specific learning differences or visual difficulties, including colour-blindness. There is no point including great information if it is hard to read because of the font, text size or colour contrast. Equally, you need to make sure your words are accessible – avoid jargon and technical phrases that may go over a non-specialist’s head.
It is a good idea to avoid gradients in backgrounds as these can complicate colour contrast decisions.
Also avoid too many changes of layout as these are harder for people with dyslexia to follow.
There is some really good help with this here: ‘Accessible Images for when they matter most’.
people will not read a poster that simply looks like too much hard work. All your amazing information may as well be in a different language if nobody reads it because it looks like they would have to stand in front of it for 20 minutes.
Make sure you leave plenty of 'white space' around the items on your poster to make it look more approachable.
Do choose images that draw attention to your poster.
Such images could be beautiful, interesting, shocking, funny, surprising etc.
Here are some examples, these would have more text on them than the headline shown - this is just included for context.
Do choose images that help explain/illustrate content
Think of the images being evidence for the point you are making.
They should help your audience visualise your point as well as draw attention to the poster.
Do make sure your images are legal
This is a poster for public dissemination – images should be legally available to you to use for such work.
For a lot of academic assignments, you do not need to worry too much about this – as for educational purposes you are able to use even copyright images under something called ‘fair use’. However, if you are designing something that has the purpose of being for public display, then even though that isn’t actually going to happen, you should still design it as though it is – so that means legal images.
Luckily, Google has made that a bit easier. When searching for images, you can display tools and specify usage rights to show only images with Creative Commons licenses (see below). Still check how these can be used though as there are constraints.
Do make sure your important text is big enough to read from at least 2 metres away.
Imagine sitting in a room and reading a poster on the wall – you do not want to have to get up and walk over it to get the important information. Some text like affiliations and references can be smaller as that isn’t part of the main message – but important things like where to get help or what to do next should not be relegated to small print
So set your zoom to 100% and step back a couple of metres – if you can still read your text it should be OK - you may need to do it a few times to look at different parts of your poster. 20 point is probably as small as you should go for important text but if varies with font so it still worth testing.
Do remember you can change line spacing and character spacing
Most of you will be using PowerPoint to create your poster. Remember that even in PowerPoint you have a lot of control over things like line spacing and character spacing. These are available in the paragraph and font settings.
You can see from the example here that it means you can squeeze lines together and adjust the spaces between letters to help with your design needs.
Do use size and colour to show what is important
Not all text will be as important as other text, you can use both size and colour to indicate this.
Size is quite an obvious way of showing hierarchy of importance as can be seen on the left here. Some colours really draw the eye, particularly the brighter ones and can make things pop out as really important. A note of caution though – some of the brighter colours are not as readable against some backgrounds – and if you over use the effect it becomes less effective.
When you have finished your poster - half close your eyes – is it the important stuff that stands out. If, it is something less important – think about adjusting those colours.
Don't use poor quality images.
Resizing small images so that they are blurred or pixelated is the most common error. Make sure you choose images that are large to begin with. For a main image, look for those that are at least 1000 pixels wide or tall.
Don't distort your images when you resize them
This looks extremely unprofessional and can be avoided by using the corner handles when you are resizing rather than the top/bottom/centre handles. If you need to fit a particular space, try cropping images to fit instead of shrinking them.
Don't mix image types if you can help it.
When images are undertaking the same function on a poster, they should be the same type of image if this is possible. Try not to mix photographs with icons with drawings with cartoons for example.
Below on the left you can see that the points are illustrated with a mix of photographs, cartoons and icons. On the right, all icons are used and it looks much more cohesive and professional. It would have been equally effective if they were all photographs or all cartoons – it is just the mixture that does not work.
Don’t use hard to read fonts
Your font choice is very important – fancy ones may give a certain style but they are harder to read. Stick to ones like those shown in the left two boxes below – as you can see from the box on the right, they don’t have to be boring to be readable.
Please don’t use Comic Sans – unless your poster is specifically aimed at children it is not considered appropriate anymore – otherwise, it has become synonymous with unprofessionalism.
Don’t use too many fonts:
Use too many and your poster will look like a ransom note rather than a well designed message.
Don’t put text over ‘busy’ parts of images.
Avoid putting text on parts of an image that reduces its readability. If there is a plain area, use that instead.
If you don’t have a plain area – consider putting a background colour into your text box – that means you can still read the text perfectly well. You can even make it slightly transparent as long as the readability stays high.