Themes, color, tone and aesthetics
Abstract: This chapter looks at the use of themes, color, tone and aesthetics in poster compilation. Expanding on the
concepts often expressed in poster compilation literature, this chapter looks to determine why we ‘like’ what we ‘like’ –
our visual culture. Attracting attention requires layouts that show key points and concepts clearly, create a suitable im-
pression, and give someone reason to believe that they will enjoy studying the poster. Again, once the basic concepts of
layout, color and aesthetics are considered, then posters can be designed that positively entice people to take a closer
look, and also to adopt positive attitudes in the process.
In the previous chapters, we have looked at how a poster needs to attract attention, and how the balance of text and im-
agery and overall appearance influences the viewer’s engagement. These elements tend to form the ‘shape’ of the poster
and influence how it works to present information effectively. However, the aesthetic ideas of using color and shading
are reflections of our visual culture. Superficially these are accounted for against a background of ‘what we like’, how
something ‘looks’, or how it might make someone ‘feel’. However, all of these perceptions are subjective, and may differ
on individual or group levels. This chapter looks at how we perceive the elements that we find aesthetically pleasing,
how these differ between individuals and cultures, and what basic rules can be followed to make posters visually attrac-
tive to an international audience.
Why we ‘like’ what we ‘like’ – visual culture
In his book on visual studies, Elkins (2003 p5) discusses the “preeminence of the visual”, and the way that visual studies
have developed to consider how we see things from a present, rather than a historical perspective. In simple terms, this
makes things more personal and reflects what we experience and how we feel, so aesthetics become an important consid-
eration. In poster research, because of the wide variation and subjectiveness of individual opinions; attention has been
given to the end-qualities of what people like to look at (such as their aesthetic preferences of form or color), but little at-
tention has been given to the reasons for these preferences. From an inter-personal perspective, we are happy to grant
each other the right to hold our own opinions, but when we are creating a work for an audience to look at, then it is im-
portant not only to anticipate how they might appreciate its visual qualities, but also to consider how our own aesthetic
tastes may influence their perception.
Aesthetics in poster compilation
Over the last five decades, compilation has been the main topic of poster literature (Rowe 2017). In a mapping review of
the literature, the aesthetic qualities of posters are mentioned frequently. Engle (1973) was amongst the first to discuss
the preparation of posters, and work by Katzman and Nyenhuis J (1972) discussed the effects of color vs. black-and-
white on learning, opinion and attention. In their studies (which included predominantly pictorial posters), they found
that color elicited more positive judgements than black-white / greyscale, attracted longer periods of attention, but it had
no significant effect of the learning of central or peripheral material.
As technology developed, color became easier to reproduce and incorporate. Wright and Moll (1987) assessed 58
posters for the quality of poster presentations, including considerations of layout, clarity, simplicity, color usage and
overall visual attractiveness, but most of the other early commentaries on poster design tended to concentrate on content-
related issues. In the 1990s, poster compilation became a predominant topic, and Bach et al. (1993) noted how desktop
publishing had allowed posters to be controlled in form as well as content. Poster design is still a ‘hot topic’, with articles
on the subject still appearing in pre-eminent journals (e.g. Woolston 2016, Persky 2016).
Murray, Thow and Strachan (1998) are the first to relate poster compilation to visual literacy, and as well as consider-
ing aspects of appearance, they also consider how the poster’s overall design helps to draw attention. In his book on post-
er presentation, Gosling (1999) included a section on using color, but in subsequent works on the subject, the concept of
aesthetics has only been addressed superficially. The concept persists that color usage is not of particular importance in
poster presentation, but beyond some general advice, there have been no empirical studies on the subject. An exception
to this however, is the study by Keegan and Bannister (2003) that examined the effect of color coordination of attire with
poster presentations, and how this influenced their popularity. Although originally perceived as a ‘spoof’ (MacIntosh-
Murray 2007), this was rebutted (Keegan & Bannister 2007) and the authors asserted that if a presenter’s clothing was
color coordinated with the colors used in their poster design, then this significantly increased (p < .001) the poster’s visit-
ation rates. Although this study has yet to be replicated or expanded, it does give some indication that aesthetic attributes
of color, tone and theme are important aspects of gaining attraction. To this end, it is worth looking at how color usage
might influence poster viewers (and authors) in inter-cultural and international contexts.
Color is a key aesthetic feature that affects how we perceive the world around us. Although we have our own perceptions
of color, it is increasingly used by outside parties to influence us. As visual media have developed, color has been used to
communicate feelings and emotions, from things like the splash of red that recurs in an otherwise entirely black and
white film on the Holocaust (Spielberg 1993), to the ways color is used in communicating messages in advertising and on
the internet. Color (and aesthetics as a whole) are individually subjective, and whilst there are common perceptions that
are generally held on a group level, there is limited empirical evidence that is current and which serves to support these
general theories (O’Connor 2011). This section does not seek to explore the physiological process of color and light, but
rather the psychological and behavioral responses that color use can elicit.
Color features prominently in popular culture, with a number of articles and pseudo-scientific discussions talking
about ‘color psychology’ and ‘color therapy’.
“…symbolic colour associations and colour meanings are often mentioned in conjunction with a range of psychologi-
cal responses to colour including affect, preference, and cognitive judgements; and these in turn are often comingled
with biological and behavioral responses to colour.”
There are a wide variety of meanings and associations attributed to color, and these relate to gender, age, culture and
preference. However, the studies that have been conducted often involve relatively small samples and differing popula-
tions, so it is hard to establish concrete ‘rules’ that categorically determine how someone will perceive or react to what
they see. Thus, in agreement with O’Connor (2011), other studies (e.g. Rostami 2013) recommend an approach of caveat
emptor to considerations of this type.
However, the practices in international advertising and marketing may offer some insights as to how different groups
tend to react. De Bortoli & Maroto (2001) present multi-national findings which link opposing ends of the spectrum with
opposing connotations (Figure 19).
Fig. 19. Color and its associations [after Kanner 2005]
In early research (Adams & Osgood cited Adidam & Reizgevicuite 2007) found that the feelings associated with red,
green and blue had a cross-cultural universality, and Madden et al. (2000) found that an international study of eight coun-
tries found blue to be a favorite color, followed by white, green and black. Indeed, if we look back to Chapter 5, the ran-
domly selected posters in Figures 10-11 feature blue and white as their main colors. White is the most popular base color
as it presents a clean canvas. It also represents formality and order, which is reflected in the term ‘white space’ which is
used to describe the blank spacing between objects in a poster (text panels, images, tables etc.).
The color wheel (Figure 19.) shows firstly how a single color can be balanced with variations of itself, commonly re-
ferred to as tints, tones or shades. Continuing with the blue/white example, Figure 20 shows how these are described and
achieved by way of color theory. In the context of posters, there needs to be a good contrast between the background col-
or and the colors used for text, image features etc. In the examples shown earlier, the main colors are within the same
color range. Predominantly, a white font is against a dark background, and a black font is used against a light background
to achieve an effective contrast.
Fig. 20. Tint, tone and shade [image courtesy of Jacobolus - Own work, Public Domain,
When another ‘pure color’ is featured (white, yellow, cyan, magenta, black, red, green or blue), it is either isolated as
part of a clearly separated image, or if it is part of the main design, it is drawn from an opposite area of the color wheel,
and importantly it is then adapted in tint, shade or tone to fit the background color. As such, common ideas that e.g. ‘yel-
low goes with blue’ etc., do not stand true because depending on the form of the base color, the applied color might ei-
ther be too bold or too weak, so making it difficult to look at or read. When considered in the context of a viewer creating
their first impression from afar, bold color use may attract attention, but it may also be off-putting if the scheme is not
carefully thought out.
Preferences in color, design and aesthetics differ, and stereotypes have arisen based on nationality, gender, age, do-
main etc. Although there are cultural examples where some countries have a more evident use of (strong) color than oth-
ers, this is not so evident in poster presentation, and this reflects the aims and objectives of the person presenting, rather
than any issues of their nationality or culture. As Woolston (2016 p115) mentions, the ‘how to make a poster’ conversa-
tion has been going on for years, and although we see ‘visual clunkers’, these often are a result of putting too much con-
tent on a poster, rather than garish uses of color.
The design of posters is highly individual, and needs to be tailored to the topic in hand. The traditional approach of
text-heavy, ‘academic’ posters has often been guided by the IMRAD format (Introduction, Methods, Results & Discus-
sion). In terms of delivering information, this approach incorporates all of the key elements used to get an overview of a
study, and replicates the approach commonly used in journal articles. However, a conference poster is not a journal arti-
cle, and when taken in the context of larger international meetings, a poster is designed to attract attention, then to pro-
vide key information about the presented work, and to also act as a medium that facilitates dialogue around a given sub-
ject (see Persky 2016 for a corroborative contemporary opinion).
Fig. 21. Lighter poster layouts
As shown in previous chapters: based on published reading rates, we lack the capacity to be able to read most of what
is on offer at anything but small events. Because of this, it is also unlikely that any but a handful of specific posters can
be purposefully pre-selected for viewing, so attracting attention is of vital importance. Until sweeping changes have been
made to how we value and manage conference outputs, it is well worth considering a poster that departs from a text-
oriented design. Overly textual posters are off-putting not only because they are uninspiring, but also because we can
predict them as being time consuming and laborious to read … so we often pass them by. Likewise, an overly visual
poster may give the impression that it is ‘just a pretty picture’, and we will likewise have to commit time and effort if we
want to get any further information. Lighter designs such as those shown in Figure 21 can be taken in in a much shorter
time, they use visual devices to show information, and they are also more likely to attract attention. Literally hundreds of
posters can be on display during a single poster session, and peoples’ time and motivation is likely to be limited. For this
reason, it is important to plan your poster carefully, and the elements which relate to topic will direct your choice of de-
1. What is my main topic?
What are the two or three most important issues involved?
People are not interested (at this point) in fine detail.
2. How can I SHOW what is involved?
o Are there examples of how other people have visualized this type of data?
3. How can I SHOW sequential thinking, how things work, or how they relate?
Can I show a logical argument?
Do I have facts for each stage?
Am I sure what this means or where it might lead?
People are not interested (at this point) in guessing how stuff fits together, and will not spend time searching for important
Once you are sure about your core content and have an idea of how you might like to present you point, then you can
have fun in designing layouts and themes you feel: a) attract attention, b) show key points and concepts clearly, c) create
a suitable impression, d) … that someone will ENJOY looking at. Especially, the poster viewers thinking is initially like-
ly to be vertical (selective, analytical and sequential) as opposed to lateral (using intuition and imagination), so it is im-
portant to provide a clear logical flow. Planning poster content in this way will thus make the selection of des ign features
more purposeful and potentially more effective. Although most literature recommends that a poster should be able to be
read within four minutes, perhaps we should refer back to Whimster’s (1989 p274) view that posters are “as much show
business as science”. If we use designs such as those featured in Figure 21, then the key elements of a title, the purpose of
the study, the main message and some evidence (Whimster 1989) can easily be viewed and understood in two minutes.
Whether the viewer then engages in further discussion is unpredictable, but having caught their attention and provided
them with an idea of the work, then the presenter has the foundation for conducting a more expanded discussion.
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