How to design a prize-winning scientific poster: 10 simple steps

A scientific poster and a scientific paper are two completely different beasts. A poster should be a figure-based presentation: eye-catching and quick to scan. In contrast, the research article is a more detailed, text-based presentation of your work. Now you know what you’re trying to design, here’s how…

  1. Check the conference specification

Should the poster be A1 or A0? Portrait or landscape? Too often people check these details after they’ve designed their poster and have to totally redesign, try a quick fix, or just turn up with the wrong thing. The conference spec should be your starting point! Go on the conference website or track down the poster confirmation email.

  1. Know your deadline: contact the printer

Find out what your deadline is early on, before you design your poster. Some printers can turn around a poster in an hour, but others may take 24 hours, particularly if they are busy. Find out who can print it for you and confirm the little details. Can they print the size you need? Do you pay with a grant code or with cash? Are there different printing options? Do they need a PDF? If in any doubt, just ask. Make sure you have your poster in your hand at least the day before you travel to avoid last minute stress.

  1. Gather together all the relevant data

Put all the figures into a Powerpoint presentation or similar. Include everything that you might want on your poster, old data that helps to set the scene and the data you got last week! Don’t be afraid to include preliminary data, or surprising results. A conference is a great place to get feedback on your work, and the more data you give people, the more useful the feedback.

  1. Talk to your supervisor

Now that you have all your data gathered, show your supervisor what you want to include in your poster. They might want you to exclude certain “top secret” results, or ask you to add in extra data. Some supervisors are very particular about the formatting of posters produced in their lab, so just check if they have any requirements before you design the poster.

And, while you’re chatting, make sure to find out about costs. Will the grant cover an A0, encapsulated poster?

  1. Design the template

A picture is worth a thousand words. Don’t ignore the old adage! Design your template around the figures. And make life as easy as possible for the viewer. They should never be unsure of what to read next, so if you have a lot of data use numbers and/or arrows to help guide them. Overall, left to right progression (rather than top to bottom) is good as it means several people can read at once, shuffling sideways when they get to the next section.

Here is an example of an A0 poster layout where you have a lot of small pieces of data that you want to present. Figures (blue) dominate, but are complemented by explanatory text (green).

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Here is an example of an A1 poster layout where you only have a few key pieces of data. Again figures (blue) dominate. It’s a nice touch to add an image, for example of the species you study, attracting fellow researchers to the poster! And add the crest/name of your institution beside your title!

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Of course, these are just examples, there are thousands of winning combinations, but they illustrate how you can achieve clarity and a figure-dominated poster.

  1. Design the colour scheme

Create a two/three-tone background colour scheme to make the poster aesthetically pleasing. Make sure that your text is clear on whatever background you choose, so avoid text directly on a patterned background, and use very dark background with white text, or a very light background with black. Here are some examples:

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For graphs, use the same colour/pattern for the same conditions throughout. Clarity is king here.

Also, remember that 1 in 12 men, and 1 in 200 women are colour-blind, so avoid red/green charts and red/green fluorescent images. Here are some good tips on designing with colour blindness in mind. Magenta/green is a much clearer alternative for fluorescent images!

  1. Insert the figures and data

Here is when your poster suddenly comes together! Try to keep your figures clutter-free. Make sure everything is labelled so that the viewer knows what they are looking at, but remember that this is not a paper. Keep labels simple and clear. I also highly recommend using a figure to illustrate an interesting method.

  1. Add essential text

Your data should be prominent, accompanied only by necessary text. Keep text large, minimum font size 24, but larger for subheadings, so that it can be read from a reasonable distance.

For more information on text formatting, check out this website. Bear in mind some of their example posters have a bit too much text for a scientific poster.

  1. Proofread and print!

It is always difficult to proofread your own work. You tend to read what you intended to write, not what is actually there. Sometimes it helps if you proofread a printed version (only a small A4 required). Do ask your supervisor, post docs or fellow PhD students in the lab to read through it, then send it to the printers!

If you do spot a mistake, don’t despair. You can always correct it with a permanent marker or print out the correction and stick it over the mistake.

  1. At the conference, engage and discuss!

This is the most important point of all. Engage with everyone who looks at your poster, “Hello, would you like me to take you through it?”. Some will be happier to read it themselves, but many people like the author to guide them. If you have designed a poster dominated by figures then it is quite natural to take someone through the poster, explaining what each figure shows. Remember it is a discussion! Find out what the viewer works on themselves, and this will let you know how much detail to go into. Conferences can be brilliant experiences! Experts in your field will be spending time looking at your work, and they can be so helpful! Bring a notebook with you, as you might want to quickly jot down any comments/suggestions as you get them, or take an email address!

Now that you know how to design your poster, best of luck! Share your finished poster with me on Twitter @labcoatlucy.

What do you think makes a good poster? What irritates you when you are at a conference? If you have any advice for people designing posters, please leave a comment!

Jane Goodall: primatologist and author

Jane Goodall made the first serious study of chimpanzees in the wild. She spent decades in the forest of the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania living among mankind’s closest relatives. Her observations transformed our understanding of chimpanzees and the lives of our early human ancestors.

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In February 1935 a chimpanzee was born in London Zoo for the first time, prompting Mr and Mrs Goodall to give their one-year-old daughter Jane a large and hairy toy chimpanzee. This gift would inspire Jane to become one of the most celebrated scientists of the 20th century.

Adventurous and determined, 26-year-old Jane Goodall travelled from England to Africa where she met Louis Leakey. He sensed her passion for animals immediately and became an invaluable mentor.

Leakey suggested that Jane might take on an ambitious project to study chimpanzees living on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. The remains of prehistoric man had been discovered there and he thought that an understanding of chimpanzee behaviour might shed light on the behaviour of our Stone Age ancestors. And so began a journey.

The young European woman required a chaperone to live in the African chimpanzee reserve, and so Goodall’s mother gave up the security, comfort and climate of Southampton, England to spend months in an isolated African forest, just so that Jane could pursue her research. Never mind Jane’s damehood, I think Mrs Goodall deserved a sainthood for that!

At first, the chimpanzees were extremely wary of humans. They would flee when they saw Goodall, and so in the early days she had to watch them from over 500 yards away using binoculars. Gradually, they became used to her presence. She was able to observe them from closer quarters and got to know individual chimpanzees.

Goodall noticed that the chimpanzees each had their own personalities. They showed emotions such as happiness, sadness and fear. They communicated with one another, and made many human-like gestures: hugging, kissing, shaking their fists and patting each other on the back.

Unusually, rather than numbering her subjects of study, she gave them names: David Greybeard, Goliath, Flo and Flint to list a few. When she saw a similarity, she named the chimpanzees after people she knew. An interesting compliment.

Goodall’s fascination with chimpanzees gave her an incredible motivation and energy. Every day, she woke before dawn then scaled the steep slopes of the mountainous Gombe Stream reserve to find her chimpanzees. She followed and observed them all day and into the evening, then worked late into the night writing up her observations. Even in the rainy season, when the grasses were over 6 foot high, she would rise before the sun and get soaked through with dew rather than miss even an hour with the primates.

Goodall’s dedication was rewarded. In her first six months (and importantly before her first grant ran out) she made two groundbreaking observations.

At the time, chimpanzees were thought to be passive vegetarians, but Goodall observed a chimpanzee eating meat: a baby piglet. Later she would even witness chimpanzees hunting infant baboons and red colobus monkeys, though this hunting behaviour was rare.

Her other major discovery came when she witnessed a chimpanzee fishing termites out of a termite nest with a twig. The chimpanzee first picked leaves off the twig – the first recorded example of a chimpanzee modifying an object to use it as a tool. One of the commonly accepted definitions of a human was a creature who “made tools to a regular and set pattern”, but Goodall’s observation put that idea on its head. In response to this discovery, Goodall’s mentor Louis Leakey said:

“Now we must redefine tool, redefine Man, or accept chimpanzees as humans.”

Goodall never let herself be limited by conforming to “the norm”. Although she didn’t have an undergraduate degree, she went to Cambridge University in 1962 to study for a PhD. She was only the eighth person to be allowed to do so and, as Cambridge was founded in 1209, that’s only about one person every century. They clearly saw some serious potential in her!

Even after completing her PhD project on the Gombe Stream chimpanzees, Goodall returned. This was to be a lifelong project. With further time spent amongst the chimpanzees, she witnessed more advanced behaviours. She observed the beginnings of cooperation in their hunting and saw chimpanzees sharing meat. This was the first nonhuman primate to show such behaviour in the wild. And even some humans still haven’t mastered the concept of sharing food.

Over time the team expanded as students arrived keen to study the chimpanzees. This allowed Goodall to spend time on other pursuits. Goodall is a prolific writer for both children and adults. She is also an activist, raising awareness of the threats facing wild chimpanzees, including habitat destruction and the bushmeat trade. She founded a conservation organization The Jane Goodall Institute which aims to protect wildlife and the environment more broadly.

Now, she is Dame Jane Goodall. She is a UN Messenger of Peace championing environmental protection and conservation on a huge range of issues from climate change to the depletion of fish stocks. This is an elite role indeed. There are only a dozen other UN Messengers of Peace including Leonardo DiCaprio (@LeoDiCaprio), Edward Norton (@EdwardNorton) and Yo-Yo Ma (@YoYo_Ma).

Goodall has transcended science to become a star on the small screen. Goodall voiced herself in an episode of the ‘The Wild Thornberrys’ where she and Eliza saved animals from poachers. The primatologist was even satirised as Dr Joan Bushwell in The Simpsons, which is a sure sign of fame!

Jane Goodall had anything but a traditional scientific career. Her story highlights the value of a good mentor, and, more importantly, the need to study something about which you are truly passionate. If nothing else, it’ll make it easier to get out of bed in the morning…

If you have any suggestions for who I should write about in my next ‘Women in Science’ blog post, please leave a comment or tweet me @labcoatlucy. Thanks for reading, please share if you’e enjoyed it!

‘In the Shadow of Man’ by Jane Goodall (1971) – this autobiography is beautifully written.

A short (and funny) interview: Jane Goodall teaches John Oliver some proper begging behaviour, and shows you how to eat a banana like a chimpanzee!

The Jane Goodall Archives from the National Geographic Society

How to prepare for your PhD viva: 10 top tips

Thesis.A few weeks ago I was searching the internet for advice on how to prepare for my viva. I knew I should be doing something, but wasn’t quite sure what! After asking friends and colleagues for advice and reading a lot of websites, I figured it out. Now, I want to save you all that hassle.

Here are my top tips on how to prepare for a (science) viva voce, while it’s still fresh…

  1. Read over your thesis thoroughly!

At least a couple of weeks before the viva, read through your thesis slowly, cover to cover. Don’t be afraid to add post-it notes, and highlight to your heart’s desire. (Make sure that your copy is exactly the same as the one you gave your examiners!)

  1. Make notes in the margin

While you are rereading your thesis, if you find any areas where you feel that your understanding is a little superficial, then do some quick reading on it and make notes in the margin. It is particularly important that you know your materials and methods inside out. You should be able to explain why you did everything that you did.

  1. Prepare a list of errors.

You will undoubtedly spot a few typos, and maybe worse, when you reread your thesis. Don’t be embarrassed, just make a list and bring it with you to the viva. It shows that you’ve prepared, and your examiners will be grateful that they don’t have to waste time on boring editing. (Note: even if you find typos, don’t start editing until after your viva!)

  1. Prepare answers to your 10 nightmare questions.

This is my favourite tip! Writing down answers to the questions you don’t want to come up forces you to prepare proper, well-researched responses. The viva suddenly seems a lot less intimidating once you’ve “faced your fears”! And, if any of the questions do come up, now you have great answers. In the end I had almost 20 nightmare questions on the list. Just keep adding as you think of them!

  1. Research your examiners

Chances are that you are familiar with the research of your examiners. Make sure you reread their most relevant papers and look out for any new material. Consider how your work is relevant to their research. You are an expert in your field, so your examiners are probably genuinely interested in hearing your thoughts on how your results or methods might affect their work.

  1. Make a list of your top 20 papers.

Go through each of your chapters and list the papers that were most important to the research (standing on the shoulders of giants and all that). You might have 20-30 at the end. If you have time, write a paragraph on each, focusing on the methods and results. But remember, this viva is about your work. You are not expected to know every paper you’ve referenced inside and out. In the end, I probably didn’t need to do all of this extra work, but “the literature” is one of the things that PhD students often feel nervous about, I certainly did! Having done this preparation I felt confident that I could hold my own, and so it was definitely worth the effort. (It may vary depending on your institution, but I was allowed to bring these notes into my viva. I didn’t refer to them once, but it was a confidence booster and it meant I didn’t have that feeling of having to cram for an exam).

  1. Practice summarising your thesis aloud.

“Summarise your main findings” is a common start to the viva. It is thought to help a student settle by starting them off with something that’s easy. So make sure that you find it easy to talk about. Don’t rote learn a perfect summary, but get used to talking about your research aloud. Put on a timer to 5 or 10 minutes then try it, but don’t allow yourself to restart. Or you could practice talking about your work with friends or family. Make sure that this “easy question” is just that, and does settle you rather than startle you. (In some countries, you need to prepare a presentation for your viva. In that case, make sure you are well rehearsed. You should have given the presentation at least three times, aloud, without any breaks.)

  1. Prepare the little things.

How are you getting there? Do you need to arrange to stay with someone? What are you wearing? Organise these things a good while in advance. Google maps now lets you enter the day and time you want to arrive at a destination so you can get an idea of the traffic. This was lucky for me, as a two-hour journey took three and a half hours in the morning rush hour, but I was able to plan for it! Clothes-wise: wear something fairly smart to show respect to your examiners, but make sure that you are comfortable!

  1. Be honest.

I attended a viva preparation session run by Cambridge University for its grad students. Many of the students were worried that in a viva “we didn’t have the time” or “we didn’t have the money” were not acceptable answers, even though they were true. Your examiners are active researchers, they sometimes can’t do experiments they would like to do because of limited resources! That being said, you want to show them that you have become scientist, so don’t leave it at “we didn’t have the time”, continue on and say, “but if I had had more time, this is what I would have done…”, and if you didn’t have the money, explain that you used a cheaper method etc.

  1. Be confident.

The examiner’s job is to challenge your thesis. A good examiner will make you feel relaxed, but by their very nature vivas can feel quite confrontational. Do not take criticism personally and do not take it as a sign that the viva is going badly. All experiments have some weaknesses. If the examiner points them out, it is ok to agree but highlight how you have tried to compensate, perhaps by using other methods to show the same result. Your examiner may play the devil’s advocate or misunderstand something about your research, so if you don’t agree with them about something, explain why! This is your work, you know it best!

If you are at the point of having your viva voce, then you have already done all the hard work. The examiners just want to check that it was you who did the work presented in the thesis, that you understand what you were doing, and that you have earned your new title. Remember that you are the expert in the room. I passed my viva (last week), and you can too.

Here are links to some of the websites that helped me prepare for my viva: – this blog post contains a lot of good example questions, and they also suggest the 10 nightmare questions prep! – has a lot of good advice about how to answer questions once you are in the viva

Did I miss something? Please leave a comment with your advice to PhD students preparing for a viva!