Poster design 101

By Gordon Rugg

Every year, students in assorted non-artistic disciplines have to produce a poster. Every year, students who don’t view themselves as artistic complain bitterly about having to do this.

In this article, I’ll look at some of the issues involved in practical poster design at taught degree level, and at how they can be tackled systematically, without needing any artistic skills. The results aren’t likely to win any design prizes, but they should look competent enough to be presentable, and should save non-artistic students from a lot of grief.

In case you’re wondering why I’ve specified taught degrees, the answer is that in research degrees, students often have to produce posters for conferences. The guidelines for these are very different from those for taught course posters, and from publicity posters in the commercial world. This article is just about taught degree posters, and even for those, it comes with the disclaimer that your department may have very different ideas about how to do things, in which case, go with what they want, since they’ll be doing the marking…

I’ll also look at some broader issues in user-centred design, such as the concept of functional distance, which takes us into the origins of the classic command: “Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes”.

Part 1: Distances

Distances, like most things, can be divided into categories, with different categories being used for different purposes in different disciplines. You can do different things at different distances, hence the concept of “functional” distance.

From the viewpoint of infantry soldiers, the categories of distance include “out of range” and “a long shot” and so on. How can you tell which category you’re dealing with, so you can adjust your rifle sights accordingly? Rough rules of thumb include “when you can see individual soldiers” and “when you can see individual faces”. The legendary “you can see the whites of their eyes” was a close functional distance, roughly equivalent to pistol range.

In more peaceful contexts involving information, such as poster design or signage for buildings, there are three particularly useful functional distances.

Extreme functional distance

The first distance is the point where someone first sees your poster, or sign, or whatever, and can only see it as a whole, not the component parts within it.

Whatever you’re designing, your design needs to handle a worst case. In the case of a poster, the worst case is someone seeing your poster from the far side of the room. In the case of a building or a sign, the worst case is someone seeing it from the far side of the site. What can you show them at that distance which might encourage them to come closer?

At extreme distances, the viewer will typically won’t be able to read any words, so they’ll have to rely on pattern matching, which involves colours, shapes, etc. There are various ways in which you can work with this.

The simplest one is to use a distinctive colour; for instance, having a striking red poster. This can work well if you’re the only person using a red poster. However, if anyone else has made the same decision, then you immediately lose your distinctiveness. Similarly, if you’re doing signage, you’ll be constrained by the conventions of your signage system, which will probably use different colours systematically for different purposes.

A more robust solution is to use shape; for example, by having a distinctive picture as a prominent part of your poster, as in the schematised poster on the left below. This also lets you show the viewer what your poster is about.

One drawback of this obvious solution is that you’re using a lot of space just for an illustration. Sometimes this doesn’t matter; for example, if you’re designing a poster with a brief of not overwhelming the reader with too much text. Other times, though, you’re trying to fit as much content as possible into a limited space, so you need to do something subtler.

A subtler solution is to use the picture as a background for the entire poster, and to make it nearly transparent, as in the image on the right below. This means that the image is visible as a whole from a distance, but then fuzzes gently out when the viewer is close up, so it doesn’t distract from the text, or cause legibility problems.

An equivalent pattern-matching solution for nonverbal signage would be deliberate creation of unique landmarks that are visible from key points on the site.

Intermediate functional distance

At this distance, the viewer can both read some text (e.g. section headers) and do pattern matching on components (e.g. on medium sized illustrations within the poster). You need to think about what sort of text will encourage viewers to come closer. This doesn’t mean turning all your headers into click bait; just one or two tempting titles should do the trick (for example, “Glazed memories” in the image below). Similarly, you should think about what signals your illustrations are sending, both individually and as a set of images.

Closest functional distance

At this distance, the viewer is close enough to read small print on the poster (about 10 point) and to read graphs etc in detail. Because posters are large, the viewer will have trouble keeping track of the overall structure of what you’re saying, and may physically step back to remind themselves of that structure.

This leads us on to the next part of this article, which is about structure.

Part 2: Structure, content and space

A key point to remember about the content of your poster is that every discipline has its own idea of what a good poster should contain. In some disciplines, posters are expected to be information-rich to an extreme, with huge amounts of highly technical text, and complex graphs. In other disciplines, persuasive phrasing and elegant artwork are preferred. If you’re unsure of the conventions in your discipline, it’s a good idea to find them out.

If you’re in a fairly rigorous discipline, you might find the following principle useful for planning the structure and content of your poster:

Each topic has its own space; each topic has its own sub-space.

What does this mean? It means that if you’re going to have eight sections (e.g. Introduction, Literature Review, Method, etc) then you give each section its own space in the poster. Each sub-section gets its own sub-space, as in the image on the left below. For clarity, I’ve just shown the Introduction, which contains three subsections.

It’s a good idea to include somewhere within the poster an example of work that you’ve produced, with arrows and notes to explain key features of the work to the viewer; this reassures cynical viewers that you’ve actually done something. The image on the right below shows schematically how this works, with each arrow leading to explanatory text.

This may not be great art, but it lets you fit everything neatly into a space where it belongs sensibly, and it makes life easier for the viewer, in terms of making sense of what you’ve written.

So, that’s practical poster design 101: Three functional distances; giving each topic its own space on the poster, and each sub-topic its own sub-space; and finding out what the conventions are in your field about level of detail etc. That should be enough to get you started.

The same underlying concepts are useful in other contexts. Functional distance in particular is very useful, but isn’t as widely known as it should be.

If you’re interested in nonverbal signage and related topics, you might find this article useful for external signage, and this one useful for signage within a building.

Notes, references and links

You’re welcome to use Hyde & Rugg copyleft images for any non-commercial purpose, including lectures, provided that you state that they’re copyleft Hyde & Rugg.

There’s more about the theory behind this article in my latest book: Blind Spot, by Gordon Rugg with Joseph D’Agnese 

You might also find our website useful:

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