In a perfect world, all industrial design programs would require a visual communications class that teaches students how to properly arrange a poster. Unfortunately, unless graphic design is already your passion, most of us are essentially dropped in the deep end when it comes to how to make a nice poster for your presentations. It can be really overwhelming, and calling your friend in ComD every time you open InDesign just isn't sustainable.
Well, you're in luck. I called two of my best Graphic Design friends, one in ID and one in ComD, to layout the basics you need to know to get started when making a presentation poster—from layout to fonts to photoshop tricks.
Line up all elements on your poster with a grid. The grid can come in columns of 2, 3, or 4 and your text and images should align with those columns.
When things line up, it will help things feel less chaotic and more organized, even with lots of information. If you don't know where to start, open up a magazine and look at the layouts of its pages. Do some research and reference design magazines.
Are you worried you need a background? It's okay to leave it white if you're new to making posters. The more references you look at, the better you will get at understanding when backgrounds work. If you really want to add something, try a super subtle pale gradient or an off-white.
A lot of text will make your poster too busy. Leave breathing room, and don't include full paragraphs—nobody will read them. Try separating your poster into two or three big sections and subdividing these sections. Group relevant information, and use the natural reading from top to bottom to convey important info first.
Step away from the screen and look at your poster from a distance. Squint. See what sticks out the most. It's almost never the part you want. The hero image should be what sticks out—that little blue box with text you didn't want anyone to read is not supposed to be the focal point.
Really think about what is most important for people to know, and make that the first thing they see. In most cases, an image should stand out the most, and a title/tag line should explain your product. Try one big image, and several smaller images to explain various features.
This poster has good hierarchy, though leaves something to be desired in terms of the legibility of the text
Do a test print at full size (as cheap as possible in B&W) to check if your text is too big. It probably is (pro tip: Arial at 32 is disgusting). This test print can also check colors and contrast if you do it in color.
Have friend outside your major who is unfamiliar with your project look at your poster and find out what they understand. If they don't easily understand the gist of your project, try again.
Use one or two fonts only: one title font for your main title and one body font for the rest of the text. Do not mix serif and sans serifs. Experienced type people can manage this. You most likely cannot.
It's also good to pick 3 or 4 font sizes. Sort information by importance and assign it one of the font sizes accordingly. Larger, bolder fonts will stand out more. Make all subtitles the same size and all explanatory text another, smaller size.
Avoid using colored text except, for maybe the title. Color is fun, but it can very easily go awry. Understand saturation is and proceed with caution. What appears fine on the computer screen might look bad printed out (again, this is why test prints are useful). No color should be 1000 percent saturates. Ever.
Photograph everything. Even if you already have photos, take more. The worst situation to be in is when you think you have a photo of a sketch model, but it turns out you don't at 3AM before the project is due.
What do you do if you only have shit photographs?
If you don't have a way to take good photos, try simple line art in illustrator. You can easily trace over an image. Make some diagrams, or if possible SolidWorks renders/drawings.
If you want to try and retake some photos last minute, try holding your model in front of a white wall, under the softest light you can find. If you can't find a white wall, try an in-context photo.
If you don't know Photoshop well and are looking for a place to start, look up masking and adjustment layers. You're probably familiar with adjusting things like brightness, contrast, and saturation, but adjustment layers give you a lot more control over where those effects take place. And maybe feather the edge of your images a little so that they don't look too harsh.