Scientific poster design

Turning science into art using a GREAT poster presentation

Poster presentations are perhaps the most fun part of a conference. However, for some it is also an under-appreciated presentation form. And that really doesn’t need to be the case. This under-appreciation might be due to the plethora of sub-optimal poster designs, making participation in a poster session sometimes less attractive than it should be. This problem frequently results from the attention given to a superfluous display of content (i.e. “look at ALL the really cool stuff I did”), rather taking note of the form and function of a poster in the process of presenting this content in a clear and concise way. This is, of course, not made easier when organizers of poster sessions and poster competitions do not provide clear guidelines for what they consider to be a good-quality poster.

Tips and design workshop

There are a few simple ways to improve the ‘poster experience’. During the last few years I have set up several training sessions at university to help develop these academic skills and improve on the scholarly quality of poster presentations by undergraduates, graduates and tenure staff for e.g. international conferences. My top-tips have been used by large national conferences such as the Netherlands Earth Science Conference (NAC). My masterclass ‘Interactive effective poster design‘ has been offered to participants of the ICT.Open 2019 and ICT.Open 2020 conferences. The aforementioned conferences are organised under the auspices of the Dutch Research Council (NWO).

The design challenge to you

Poster design
Example of poster design, using interactive content such as QR-tags and a 3D-printed meteorite velcroed to the poster.

What makes a poster a great poster presentation is often considered to be subject to personal taste and traditions within a research group. However, there are a few ‘best practices’ when it comes to designing a poster. Remember that it often takes a few seconds for a person to decide whether they will stop and continue reading. A good design therefore helps to draw people to your poster and keep them there to read its content. It is therefore good to note that a great poster is not designed in one morning or one day. Like a slide show for an oral presentation, you might want to iterate on your design several times to fine tune it.

Here are my Top-5 tips for designing a poster:

1. Readability

Posters should be readable from a distance. When multiple people are admiring your work at the same time, not everyone may be able to read the content if its text and figures are too small. Adjust your design accordingly. For example, your title needs to leave an impact, so think of using an appreciably bigger font size. In contrast, use smaller font sizes than the regular body text of the poster for all the administrative sections, such as the affiliations, acknowledgments and references (or see these radical new ideas for better poster design). Think of contrast; dark-colored letters on a light background are easier to read than light-colored letters on a dark background (same goes for photos used as a background, but avoid if possible). TEXT IN CAPITALS is more difficult to read than regular (sentence case) text. Here is a lifehack to check the readability of your poster: print your A0-sized poster on an A4-sized sheet of paper. At this scale all your body text and caption should be readable; if its not, your font size is too small.

2. Text and word count

A poster is a presentation form; think it is more of an illustrated abstract. It is by no means meant to be the equivalent of a peer-reviewed paper printed on an A0 sheet. The optimum word count for an A0-sized conference poster lies around 500-600 words. The challenge is to design a poster that has enough information for a reader to understand and enjoy your work without needing you there (e.g. when looking at it when you are away on a coffee break); while you can also use the poster to illustrate and discuss your work when interacting with someone directly during the poster session (i.e. actually presenting your poster!).

3. Structure and layout

Help your audience in reading your poster. Use a recognizable structure and flow of the story. Provide context for the work you present and include a clear conclusion/take-home message. So, use a design that helps to tell the story. For example, (1.) apply numbering to your sections, or (2.) be creative in using colors (but not too many, (check this interactive color pallet guide) or use other means that show the connectivity of your text, figures or different sections on the poster. Condense your information into powerful phrases; use bulleted lists as opposed to lengthy sentences, or even worse; full paragraphs (yikes!). In a block of text the sentences can be broken off at ~10 words to help readability. Also pay attention to aligning text blocks and figures and leave some breathing space around your text and figures to make sure the poster doesn’t look cluttered.

4. Figures

When including figures on a poster, note that a figure for a poster needs to be a bit more ‘robust’ and readable than the ones you design for a scientific peer-reviewed paper (e.g. thicker lines, lower complexity). It’s a philosophy comparable to the readability of the poster with respect to font sizes. If you can’t read a figure at the scale of an A4 print, it will not draw attention on a poster or properly convey its information. Also, figures need to be self-explanatory. If you are not standing near your poster, a reader should still be able to make out what the figure conveys.

5. Creativity and interactivity

Go wild, be creative! Make your poster stand out among the many other posters in the haunted ‘poster forest’ that you often find at a conference. However, try to be methodical about this and don’t let it be at the expense of the scientific content of your poster. Avoid too many colors in your poster; three tops (check this interactive color pallet guide). Make your poster interactive. Use e.g. anaglyph images and a pair of 3D-glasses or include QR-tags for directing readers with their smartphone to online content such as a video of your work, a website or your email address to contact you. Connecting print to the digital world is advised. A modern way to do this is via NFC. Curious how this works? Check out my separate webpage on NFC tags. Are you presenting a study related to a landscape feature, planetary body or a specific study object? Add a relevant 3D-print related to your study (velcroed to the poster) or use other creative means (check out these crocheted temperature records). Gadgets really help!

The tips and best practices above were distilled from various academic skills courses in poster design at the University of Amsterdam, Delft University of Technology, a course handout from Cornell University (USA), and my personal experience with poster sessions at various national and international conferences.

If you are an organizer of a poster session at a scientific conference, consider giving your contributors a few tips to foster the design of better poster presentations, especially if you are awarding a ‘best poster’ award. Got questions or want to reach out to me? Send an email .

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