Designing dark academic posters

Published: January 17, 2019   |   Read time:

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Many academic posters look boring: white backgrounds, black text, some shade of neutral blue as an accent colour, etc. To stand out from the pack, in the past I’ve made my own (or helped design) dark themed posters. Here’s an example:

Dark poster -80%

While I’ll say that this isn’t my best poster, going through the experience of designing a poster like this has taught me a couple lessons about communicating my work.

Firstly, designing something like this takes a lot of time and manual adjustment. Most images or plotting software typically assume a light coloured background and choose their colour pallette accordingly. Those defaults either don’t show up clearly or don’t look nice on dark backgrounds, so you need to put in a lot of effort in picking vibrant and distinguishing colours.

This preference for light backgrounds also means that it’s difficult to adapt or use figures that others have generated, since their colour scheme won’t show up well on your poster. This required me to entirely remake figures in Affinity Designer or try a combination of effects to adjust images so that they would show up. This, again, required a good investment of time.

This large amount of invested effort wouldn’t be so bad if you could transfer these images to other works. But because papers are on light backgrounds, you will inevitably have to remake these figures with colours that show up well on a light background1. And if you share these figures with a collaborator, they will likely ask you to re-colour them as well, since they are probably using a light background for their presentation, or other piece of work.

It isn’t all bad, though. I’ve received many compliments on dark posters that I’ve designed since they stand out from the crowd. Being so striking against the drab white and pastel colours makes it more likely that people will see and come to your poster in the first place, which is important.

However, I’ve found that many questions or comments I receive tend to focus on the design of the poster itself instead of its content. While receiving compliments about aesthetics are nice, it’s ultimately not the conversation I’d like to be having about my work.

All in all, while dark posters are aesthetically pleasing and eye-grabbing, they’re a lot of work with low transferability and minimal benefit over what you would get by designing a poster with a light background. Of course, colour schemes and figure design are important components of communicating your work, but this is one of those examples where the design considerations are hindered by pragmatic constraints.

Footnotes

  1. But hey, all you fans of yellow can finally use it in an image, again!