A primer for Mathematicians negotiating the learning curve for conference poster sessions

Mathematicians don't do poster sessions?

This isn't completely true; applied mathematicians have been doing so for ages, particularly when presenting at meetings in applied sciences.  At pure mathematics meetings posters have not been a big deal, in general.  Most mathematical conferences do not feature poster sessions.  Thus, many of us in the Mathematical Sciences are behind the game when it comes to this activity, endemic to the rest of the sciences.  So I have put together a brief collection of miscellaneous thoughts and advice.  As I am not one to speak (I am negotiating the learning curve myself!), I solicit input and helpful links from visitors to this page.  In particular it would be helpful to have examples of posters done by students in more "pure" fields of mathematics.

Why should we start now?

I can think of no definitive answer.  Here are some thoughts.
What does a poster session involve?

Poster sessions are done differently in different sciences; a poster is either a free-standing presentation, or one hung on a wall, generally no more than 3'x6', and usually somewhat smaller than that, although a freestanding presentation might be a bit larger.   A poster should major on visual presentation of information, with relatively short boxes of explanatory text.  Use of colour and diagram is key to good visual impact.  Small handbills may accompany a poster (this is completely optional!); in mathematics one might even prepare entire preprints of an article for distribution, but it should not be expected that all, or even many, visitors will want to delve this deeply into one's presentation.  As far as the nature of a "live" presentation, sometimes each poster is allotted time for an oral presentation; at other times there are featured posters allotted segments of a session. 

I advocate a more "passive session", in which posters are simply put up in a public area and presenters asked to be on hand to answer questions at certain times, and no oral presentation is prepared beforehand.  This way a poster session can happen simultaneously throughout a conferences, with participants browsing casually as their interests carry them.

How to get started?

There is no better training for the creation of posters than looking at what others have done.  Visit poster presentations in other sciences, or browse departments that display what they consider to have been very good posters in the past.  Also, before you begin you might consider what other uses you will make of the poster.  Is it a candidate for permanent display in your department?  Will it be entered in a competition?  Will it be modified for subsequent uses, or evolve with the research?   Might it be seen by the general public by being put in a library, museum or travelling display?  These considerations should affect the content, presentation style, preparation time and quality of materials that go into the poster.

Some of the most impressive posters are produced as a single physical sheet, composited on a computer and printed on an oversize printer.  Most university printing centers have the appropriate equipment and paper -- all you need supply is the image.   NOTE:  You can expect to pay for what you get!  An oversized full-colour printout on  high-quality poster paper can cost something in the $100 range (but don't forget -- you are likely to make use of the poster more than once; regard it as an investment).

Any software capable of handling large-scale images is suitable for this purpose.  For example, some have found PowerPoint to be an appropriate tool.   Depending on the nature of the project, a small-scale printout of the same image might serve as a suitable accompanying handbill.

Here is an example of a poster-sized image prepared using powerpoint, for a project in Chemistry.


Here is a PDF image of a poster in applied mathematics (Mathematical Biology) by a graduate student.
What does a poster in PURE mathematics look like?

This is a good question, and I sincerely desire that you help me answer it -- by encouraging your students to produce some high-quality examples for display at upcoming meetings with poster sessions, such as WCLAM 2008 and PDMW 2008.  This will demand inventiveness, creativity, and "thinking outside the box"  --  all important traits for a pure mathematician!