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Perfect Posters in 15 Steps

Most conferences include a poster session where researchers present overviews of their current research on large wall-mounted displays. Poster sessions can be a fantastic opportunity to connect with other researchers in a chatty environment, and a well-crafted poster is a great conversation starter.

The chances are, a good proportion of the other people at your poster session will have been making their poster right up to the deadline. Here at Vivid Biology, we take pride in clear and well-presented Science. Stand out from the crowd by taking your time and following our 15 tips for a perfect poster.

1 purpose-01

The first question you need to ask yourself is “Why am I doing this?” (and no, the answer “because my supervisor told me to” isn’t good enough!).

What one key idea do you want to share with the attendees of this conference? If you can’t articulate your purpose in one sentence, the chances are that when viewers look at your poster, they’re not going to get it either. Take some time to decide exactly what it is you want to share.

2 plan-01

Once you have decided on your purpose, plan the structure of your argument. Decide on a small number of sub-points, the necessary building blocks to understanding your key message.

These building blocks might take the traditional format of Introduction, Methods, Findings, and Future Work. But if you have largely used well-established techniques, you might just want to keep it just to the conclusions.

Once you have mapped out what content will be on your poster, come back to the purpose and refine the information you have included if necessary.

3 personalise-01

Make sure you pitch your poster at the correct level for the audience.

Think about language, required background information and how detailed your methods need to be.

If you are presenting your poster at a specialist conference, you language can afford to be much more specialist than if you are presenting it at a generalised meeting. The phrasing of your title, the level of the language and acronyms should all change depending on who your audience is.

4 do the hard work-01

Reel ‘em in and put a conclusion in the intro. Most people will read your introduction and then decide whether to go on – entice them!

Do not bury conclusions in hard-to-see figure legends, but make them easy to find as the headings of each of your sections. Throughout the body of your text, make sure you interpret the data for your audience. It should be obvious which conclusions you are drawing from graphs/figures. If it is not, simplify your figures so that they are clear.

5 keep it simple-01

It can be tempting to want to keep all the detail of your work in your poster – but a wall of text will simply make people walk away. Try not to use any more than 500 words total on your poster. If you’re really struggling to keep this down, you’re probably trying to share too much.

Make your title short and snappy, making sure it relates to the ‘purpose’ of your poster.

Make sure your writing is simple and easy to follow. The key to good communication is simplicity. If a message is too complex, a reader will get fatigued and simply move on. If you find this difficult, online tools such as Hemingway a free online editor can help. Use bullet points and numbering to break key points down and cut out extra text which could be made simpler with an image or summary table.

Try to keep to the ‘30 second rule’: If after looking at your poster for 30 seconds your key message cannot be found, you need to go back to the drawing board. Many of the people viewing your poster will have indulged at the free bar in order to try and make it through the mammoth poster session you have ahead of you. Pitch your poster at a slightly drunk academic.

6 hoops-01

Poster sessions are all too often badly organised, with information about required poster size and orientation being hard to find. Make sure you search out this information before you spend precious time perfecting your poster. Turning up with a poster double the size of the poster-boards will make enemies of your neighbours before the session has even begun!

7 layout-01

A good layout will make the information in your poster all the more accessible. Make sure your poster is clean and consistent, don’t cram in information and leave breathing space around boxes. And please please check that they are aligned correctly.

Whether you go for a traditional poster layout or something more unique, there must be a clear and easy to follow route around your poster. A number of columns worked sequentially left to right is the classic way of doing this, but if you want to do something a bit more inventive go for it! An individual poster will stand out and pull viewers towards it – but don’t confuse people in your effort to be unique. Feel free to use arrows or number sections if you have to.

8 few clear fonts-01

Choose one font for your heading and another for the body of your text and stick to them. The number of posters which change font mid-way is baffling,  and shows a lack of attention to detail. Fonts with serif and paragraphs which are left-aligned are usually the easiest to read. It’s also best to avoid lines of text which go all the way across a poster.

9 be seen-01

Title  –  85 pt
Not all caps, no more than 1 line unless you REALLY have to. And then, definitely no more than 2 lines.

Authors  –  56 pt
Don’t forget correspondence details and funding bodies!

Subheading  –  36 pt
Make these the conclusions of the sections

Body Text  –  24 pt
Keep it as simple as possible

Captions  –  18 pt
No conclusions in here, just necessary information to understand the data

The above font sizes are all for a poster of A0 size.  

10 colour schemes-01

A well-chosen colour scheme can draw the eye and create a stylish look (the “well-chosen” point is important though). . Too bright and you’ll dazzle your audience, and too pale and you’ll bore them.

Try not to use more than a handful of colours, based around a colour scheme:
Continuous colour schemes use colours next to one another in the colour wheel,
Complimentary colour schemes use colours opposite one another on the colour wheel.

Once you’ve decided on a colour scheme, take the time to make the colours consistent throughout the poster – including figures, schematics and results.

11 simplify data-01

Make your data as easy to read as possible – keep it simple and effective.

Do not just take the figures you made for your last paper or report and paste them on to your poster, but simplify them as much as possible. Keep the absolute minimum amount of information in your figures for them to be functional; busy figures will distract from the message, but remember, an image means nothing without a scale bar.

Use minimal, but adequate, labels for axes to allow fonts to be big. If you can’t read the main findings a few meters away, increase them. Do not worry about over-simplifying, if someone is interested in the detail of your data, you can have a one-on-one conversation with them.

12 time away-01

Print it out – Before you send your poster to the professional printers, make sure you check it out on A4 size for the following:

  • Font size: If the text is impossible to read in A4, the likelihood is that it will still be too small when it’s blown up.
  • Do your key conclusions stand out?
  • Are you happy with the colour scheme?
  • ‘30 second rule’: If someone were to look at your poster for only 30 seconds would they find the key point you are trying to get across?

13 printed-01

Phew! You’ve finished your poster! But before you send it off to print, double check the size of the poster boards at the conference. Now also comes the time to make sure you choose the correct material and print finish – fabric posters can be very handy for fitting in suitcases for taking abroad, but tend to look crumpled (and we don’t advise trying to flatten them in the hotel room trouser press!).

Make sure your file sizes are large enough that images won’t be pixellated, generally no images should be less than 300 dpi resolution.

14 present-01

If you are inexperienced at presenting posters, or just tend to feel the nerves when people start approaching, practice running through your poster before heading to the conference.

Prepare and practice a 3 minute ‘elevator pitch’ based on your poster which you can smoothly run through, highlighting the important points. This will be particularly useful when you’ve had 2 glasses of wine and then the PI from that lab you love comes over and you turn to jelly.

15 handouts standout-01

Mini-size poster handouts are not compulsory, but can look professional. You might find them particularly useful if you are using this conference as an opportunity to look for a job – giving a copy of your poster away will help you be remembered after conference is over.

Make sure you ask other lab members permission before printing the poster off, particularly if there is any unpublished or sensitive data on the poster.

A note about software:
We understand the draw of the old faithful Powerpoint for making posters. You know where everything is, and how all the functions work. Yet, Powerpoint becomes clunky when you have too many objects in one area. The default colour schemes in Pwerpoint are also boring, and since it is made for computerised projection, they don’t appear the same on the screen as in print.

There are major advantages to getting to know specialised design packages such as InDesign or Illustrator, which offer an excellent level of flexibility and design. If you put in the time to acquaint yourself with the key features, you will be rewarded with unique posters for years to come.