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).

Screen Shot 2015-07-14 at 12.18.16

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!

Screen Shot 2015-07-14 at 12.35.35

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:

Screen Shot 2015-07-14 at 12.55.09

Screen Shot 2015-07-14 at 12.46.36

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!

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