A poster to remember

Today I was at an undergraduate research event with our best and brightest presenting their research via posters – great science, but often dreadful posters.

Posters can be a great medium for getting your science over to an audience. They have the benefit that if you can draw people into your poster you can have a lot more intimate face to face discussion with your peers. But first you have to draw them in…

Increasingly poster sessions in conference are becoming large sprawling events, and your poster is going to have to compete for attention with hundreds if not thousands of other posters, with your audience having little time to browse, they may be distracted by friends and colleagues, they may be tired as poster sessions are often at the end of a long day of presentations, and possibly (probably) slightly to moderately drunk. Here are some simple tips for making a good poster that has impact.

The title

  • Make it large! You have perhaps just one or two seconds to get a passing delegate’s attention, so a title should be prominent .
  • Don’t Write A Title Like This – Write your title in lower case. The eye is drawn to the capital letters, and rather than read the entire title the eye hops from one capital to another. If you have to have capitals in the title (e.g. for proper nouns) try to reduce the font size a little for the first letter to make it distracting. The same goes for acronyms that are in the poster.
  • Make your title the abstract. The title may be the only thing a passing delegate reads so you want to tell them as much about your study as possible in a concise fashion, e.g. “Caribbean reef ecology and coral coverage trends “  verses “Carribbean reef coral cover has declined by 60% in 20 years”.
  • Attention grabbers good – a question, or pun, or a quote – but also tell people what the paper is about and don’t leave them guessing.


  • Have a photo of yourself in the corner of the poster so people can find you later. Poster sessions are often crowded and getting to talk to presenters on the day may be difficult. In particular, senior researchers often get deluged with people wanting their time at poster sessions and have little chance to read posters, and may look at them during quite times, when you are not attending your poster. A photo makes it easier to a presenter at a coffee or lunch break, rather than having to read the name badges of every single delegate at the conference to find the person who wrote the paper you like.


  • Don’t have one. Your poster is a short concise summary of your work. An abstract is both redundant and a waste of space.

Aim/goal/research question/hypothesis statement

  • A small text box with this helps clarify what your study is looking at. Judging criteria for many scientific conferences ask whether posters have clear hypotheses.


  • Give the background for the study, but keep it brief (200 words max) -don’t cut an past half a manuscript onto your poster.


  • One of the least read parts of a poster. You can reduce the font size to gain space for more important parts of the poster as results . It should be 200 words at a maximum.
  • Flow charts are nice easy and visual ways of explaining methods.


  • Posters are a visual medium, so used graphs and pictures.
  • Make these large, colorful (but not to a retina burning extent) and easy to discern and understand from a distance.
  • Graphs and figures should ideally be stand alone, so that just looking at the graph explains everything. So have a clear explanation.
  • 3D graphs can sometimes work, and sometimes just make the image more “busy” or confusing. Sometimes a simple, clear 2D graph is best.
  • Don’t have grid lines or dark backgrounds on your graphs – it makes the harder to read.
  • Arrows with labels and ’post it’ text boxes can help to explain figures. Keep text minimal if possible. Little images on the graphs with your study species etc. can also help to explain the data.


  • Again, posters are a visual medium, so photographs and graphics are a good idea.
  • Don’t overdo it though. If a cutesy picture, or too many photos are distracting a viewer’s attention away from the message of the poster, it is counter-productive.
  • Put a thin grey border around photos – it makes them more visually appealing.
  • Be careful that photos don’t pixelate when expanded to poster size. They may look great on the laptop screen, but could look dreadful when blown up to 2 feet heigh.
  • Photos should either help explain your project or entice a viewer to your poster.
  • A nice image of your study species or study ecosystem immediately informs a passer-by as to what your project is about.


  • So? Was your hypothesis supported? How does your work compare to other studies? What are the implications for the real world? Do you have any recommendations?
  • …AND DO NOT SAY MORE RESEARCH IS NEEDED! When has a scientists ever said “it is done, we know everything”?! Just assume that more research is always needed. A presentation that end with “more research is needed” as the main conclusion ends on a very flat, boring and unremarkable note. You need to end on a memorable one.
  • The discussion should be ideally 500-600 words. 800 words at an absolute maximum.


  • The eye automatically is drawn to the bottom left hand corner of a poster for the conclusions. Put a box with your conclusions there.
  • Summarise your conclusions simply and concisely in 2-5 bullet points, in a large clear font size.
  • Give the implications of your study, i.e., explain “so what?” or why this study is new innovative or important and why the audience should care.

Acknowledgements & references

  • Really the only people who are interested in these are those who are in them. I would suggest reducing the font size substantially so that they are there, but they are not taking up valuable space that could be used for explaining results. Tuck them away in a nook or cranny on the poster.
  • But woe betide you if you miss Prof. X’s paper when they come around to read or judge your poster…
  • Don’t put references/acknowledgements in the bottom right hand corner of the poster – this is prime real estate that should be used for your conclusions.
  • Having references as numbered footnotes helps to ensure you do have appropriate references, but the text of your poster is not cluttered up with in text citations, and is therefore easier to read.


  • You never know when a funder may be at a conference. Include small thumbnail images of funder logos, but place them at the bottom of your poster. If you put them at the top of the poster people think you are affiliated with those bodies, and the images distract the eye from the poster title.

Supplementary material

  • Handing out small A4 copies of the poster is a good idea, although these days many take photos of posters with their phone.
  • If you have additional information (such as more details on methods etc) you can provide these as a hand out too, which gives more information on your research but without cluttering your poster
  • A website address (especially a tinyurl) or qr code can be a way to link to extra online information about methods and so forth. If you are linking to online materials you can even include sounds and videos.

Gimmicks & toys

  • Sometimes you can stick materials onto your poster. One of the best devices I’ve seen was a digital photograph frame which had images related to the study . It could be a way of making the methods section more interesting by showing images and slides about how the study was conducted. Movement attracts the eye, and so a device like that could help to grab attention to your poster.
  • Lift up panels can sometimes work – for example on the surface there is a question, and beneath the panel there is the answer. It works in museums and it can work with posters, if used sparingly. It can definitely out the curious 5 year old in some delegates.

Contact details

  • Include your email address on your poster (and twitter handle/ website). Don’t include your telephone number unless you really want to be called by creepy stalkers…

Business cards

  • An envelope with your business cards attached to your poster is a good idea. But most conference delegates go home with a handful of cards and then can’t remember why they took them a week later. Put the title of your poster on the back of the card, with a couple of summary bullet points and a link to a copy of the poster and/or supplementary materials.

General design

  • Don’t use dark backgrounds, use dark text on a light background.
  • Don’t give graphs colored backgrounds, grid lines or boxes.
  • Have images and graphs large enough they can be read 6’ away.
  • Select your font carefully – comic sans is never appropriate. Have something that is professional and easy to read.

Don’t print your poster at the last minute. Print out a draft and test it – can you read everything easily from 6’ away? If you give it a glance when passing, can you easily glean the title and conclusions? Do the images catch your attention from the corner of your eye?

Don’t forget that at a big meeting, the average delegate will look at your poster from 1 to 3 seconds, so they need to get the poster’s message within that brief time frame and you want to entice them in to read more.

Posters are still, unfortunately considered by many to be a second class type of presentation. There is definitely an institutional bias against them. Universities and agencies frequently won’t fund presentations that are “just a poster” which is, quite frankly extremely disappointing.

But posters are a great medium for communicating science:

  • Posters are a better way of communicating some data than spoken presentations.
  • Posters have a longer lifespan than oral presentations. You can go back and check information, which you can’t with spoken talk. Photos taken of your poster and handouts given, mean that delegates will likely cite and refer to your study after the meeting than an oral presentation. Plus you can hang the poster in the hallways of your offices, or in the lab, and it can keep communicating its message outside of the meeting.
  • Oral presentations often have a limited audience size – unless you are a plenary speaker, a spoken talk probably has an audience of less than 100 people, especially at a big meeting with many concurrent sessions. Theoretically every delegate in a meeting could pass by your poster.
  • For many, posters are the “gateway drug” into scientific presentations. They are less nerve wracking than spoken talks, and you are less likely to be asked embarrassing questions by grandstanding a$$hats that frequently happens after spoken presentations. Also the feedback you get from a poster can been really encouraging and useful.
  • Posters give a good “station” where people who want to speak to you can easily find you – which is really useful at really big meetings.
  • Posters are more forgiving for those who have contracted the ubiquitous “conference lurgy” or who are suffering from overdoing all the conference social activities.
  • Posters allow one-on-one interaction and connection with peers in your field that that oral presentations don’t. Mentoring often abounds in the poste halls, and any great collaborations and friendships have been spawned beside a poster, in a way that does not happen with oral presentations.

There are several great blogs about poster design. I particularly recommend betterposters.blogspot.com/2014/09/critique-mouse-lungs.html  and http://colinpurrington.com/tips/poster-design but there are many other good sources of information.

One comment

  1. Sanne · May 10, 2015

    Thanks for this great post! I’m prepping for my first research symposium and while it’s not a science poster, this is all really useful nonetheless!

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