Should one create slides similar to those that one uses in a good powerpoint presentation? Or are there things that a poster should include that a powerpoint should not include? (and vice versa)
The title is your bait, the first paragraph is your hook. Make the bait big and tasty, make the first paragraph catchy.
A poster is primarily an advert for you. Secondarily, it's an advert for your research. Thirdly, it's an advert for your department. And it will succeed at those things best, if it gives the casual reader an easily accessible introduction into what's novel about your research.
Know the flow: it should be clear to anyone reading, what they should read first, then second, and so on.
Make it clear that it's your work. Get your name and affiliation in big letters, with a photo of you. Include your contact details, and make sure you can be reached on them during the conference.
Don't use powerpoint. A poster is graphic design, so use a graphic design package such as InDesign. If you don't have an eye for graphic design, design the poster with someone who does. Most departments have at least one natural talent. It's often the person who keeps winning the "best poster at conference" prize. It's orthogonal to (i.e. independent of) quality of research.
Use a big, clear typeface. Not everyone you need to reach has the healthy, clear vision that most students have.
Briefly state the problem, the method, the results, and the implications.
Pretty pictures are crucial. The words are there just to supplement the explanation of your work given in the pictures.
Test, test, test. Print it out life-size (tiled sheets & sticky tape are your friend), show it to a couple of colleagues (one hot on your area of research, and one hot on design), watch the order in which they read things, ask for feedback. Implement any advice on content that comes from the one who is hot in your area of work. Implement any advice on design that comes from the one hot on design.
- More images, and less text. A poster is a highly visual, two dimensional medium, and you should use the real estate as such. Since poster viewers will be skimming it while you explain something to another viewer, it's best to have lots of pictures so they can get a gist of the ideas.
- PPT slides are the poor man's way of making slides on the quick. But they're not ideal. Again, it's best to use the entire real estate as a continuous medium, rather than as a set of tiles (unless you can do some creative flowing with the set of tiles).
- Having said all of that, readers still like some sense of progression through the poster, so it helps to have visual cues (arrows, arcs, etc) that help the reader understand the order in which to read things.
I broadly support most of the tips given in the previous answers, but I'd like to add some more general concerns which I feel that you should think of before you even draw the first line:
Take-home message: Think about this long and hard. If you had to describe what was exciting about your work in one single sentence, what would it be? What is the one thing you want people to remember about your work? About your presentation? Make sure you're 100% clear about this before you start writing your poster.
Clarity: Once you have your take-home message, make your entire poster subservient to it. Place it prominently in your title and make it crystal clear in your first paragraph, as EnergyNumbers and Ana suggest. Anything that's on your poster that does not contribute directly to the take-home message shouldn't be there.
Lead your readers/viewers: If your main argument requires a chain of explanations, display these prominently and mark them as such. Make the text flow follow the flow of your argument or reasoning. Place figures where they nail a point home, and nowhere else. Clip arts and colour can be cool, but don't use them if it will distract your readers from your take-home message or otherwise make their eyes wander.
Preparation: Try to think of the three questions people will ask you when you present your results, and try to answer them pre-emptively in the poster. Also try to be as prepared as possible to explain stuff while standing next to it, e.g. make sure it still has all the data you need to point to when making an argument.
This may all sound a bit reductionist, but remember that apart from the space restrictions, you're also dealing with time restrictions. People usually just browse posters while on their coffee break. Your job is to captivate them and make the most of that short break.
This might also all sound a bit too much like leading the viewer/reader like mindless cattle. Don't worry, though, they won't care. I've yet to hear anybody complain about an argument being presented too clearly. If anybody wants details beyond the take-home argument, you'll be standing there to give them, which is why you should be prepared and ready for questions.
Apart from the excellent advice you already received, here are some additional points:
- Bulleted lists instead of flowing text helps make your points more concise. They are also easier to read.
- Don't be too concise. Although text should be minimal and the poster is not a stand-alone thing (i.e. you're there to present it), take into account that people who are interested in your work will ask you to mail them a pdf of it after the conference. They should be able to reconstruct your work from it (after having heard you present it once).
- Make the research question and conclusion stand out. Circle them, put them in bold, give them a different color, anything. A person looking at your poster should be able to read the title, the question and the answer at first glance.
- Make the data as easy as possible to read: circle the important parts in the graphs, point arrows to them, write in words what they tell you.
- Avoid putting tables, unless they are really small. Tables are difficult to read. Wherever possible, replace them with graphs.
- Avoid trying to tell your audience everything. Choose one key point to present.
- Aesthetics have a slightly different logic than usually. An ugly background color might work in your favor for example, as long as it makes your poster stand out. Symmetry, however, is highly valued. Also, I wouldn't go for more than 2 colors (apart from the background color and letters).
- I've heard that sans serif fonts are considered better for posters, though I'm not sure why.
Here you have a great article for the Ten Simple Rules series, by Thomas C. Erren and Philip E. Bourne:
Take a look!