Designing conference posters

A one-sentence overview of the poster concept

A large-format poster is a big piece of paper (or wall-mounted monitor) that can communicate your research at a conference, and is composed of a short title, an introduction to your burning question, an overview of your novel approach, your amazing results in graphical form, some insightful discussion of aforementioned results, a listing of previously published articles that are important to your research, and some brief acknowledgement of the tremendous assistance and financial support conned from others — if all text is kept to a minimum, a person could fully read your poster in under 5 minutes (really).

Why a poster?Motivational adviceChoosing softwarePoster templatesSection contentDOs and DON’TsAdding bits of flairPresenting the posterUseful internet sitesUseful literaturePrinting the posterOrganizing a sessionUsing this pageFeedback

If you’re lazy and really don’t want to read this long-winded page, click on the image below for the one-page summary — it’s crammed full of tips and tricks. Just try to keep your poster to 800 words or less.

Advice on designing scientific posters

By the way, if you’re a teacher, please feel free to print the above poster on a poster printer (here’s a PDF). Then you can display it on a wall for students to examine before they start designing their own. Ideally, also print a full-size copy of “Pigs in space: effect of zero gravity and ad libitum feeding on weight gain in Cavia porcellus, a poster I designed for Nature that shows terrible layout. Here’s a PDF.

Why a poster is sometimes better than a talk

Although you could communicate all of the above via a 15-minute talk at the same meeting, presenting a poster allows you to more personally interact with the people who are interested in your topic, and lets you reach people who might not be in your esoteric but no doubt fascinating sub-field. Posters are also handy because they can be viewed while you are off at a bar and even after the conference if you find some hallway real estate to pin them up on. Finally, presenting a poster is especially recommended if you suck at public speaking. And, actually, it’s not all about you: science has demonstrated that people forced to stand (think poster session) are more engaged that people sitting in chairs (think conference talk).

Motivational advice

Poster session at Society for Neuroscience's Annual Meeting. Photograph used by permission. Please don't copy image and use on your site without obtaining a copy from her.The best general advice I can give a first-time poster constructor is to describe the circumstances in which a poster will eventually be viewed: a hot, loud, congested room with really bad lighting. And meeting organizers will invariably situate your poster between two posters that are infinitely more entertaining, such as “Teaching house cats to perform cold fusion” and “Mating preferences in extraordinarily cute red pandas.” And it gets worse: poster sessions are often concurrent with the meeting’s wine and beer mixer, so participants are often a tad drunk and preoccupied with hitting on the attractive person in the room. In these circumstances, your poster needs to be interesting and visually slick if you hope to attract viewers.

If you’re new to the poster concept, you should take five minutes to browse online posters just to see the diversity of layouts that people have used. In addition to a Google search (try, “poster session“, for example), browse the poster collection at Faculty of 1000. But don’t emulate everything you see — most of the posters on the internet are truly awful, and some are likely crimes against humanity. Part of the problem is that most people who end up in disciplines requiring posters (science, engineering, etc.) are never properly trained in the most basics of typography, color choice, and page layout. Another explanation is that people who end up in such disciplines have alleles (mutations) that prevent them from being able to even grasp such concepts. Such mutants are likely to poo-poo the value of white space (the part of a graphic that is free of ink), and opt instead for more text in a tiny font — such people think to themselves, “I have important thoughts, and viewers want to know them ALL!” It’s probably a little of both — genes and environment. Regardless of cause, you shouldn’t model your poster design on what others have posted on the internet.

Conference poster layout (Colin Purrington's)Unlike a manuscript, a poster can adopt a variety of layouts depending on the form of charts and photographs. Indeed, you probably don’t want your poster to look like every other poster in the room. As long as you maintain sufficient white space, keep column alignments logical, and provide clear cues to your readers how they should travel through your poster elements, you can and should get creative. Like this guy.

Getting feedback on a scientific poster by Post-Its.The most important part of producing a great poster is to embrace the rough draft process. At least a month before the meeting, bribe people to critique your poster when you are not present. (If you are present they will say, “Looks good!”) Ask them to leave all their suggestions on small Post-Its that you provide for them, prompting them to comment on content, word count, idea flow, figure clarity, font size, spelling, etc. Note that you can print a miniature version of your poster on letter-sized for friends — they’ll be able to read the text well enough to make comments, except if friends are old and can’t read fine print anymore (senescence, etc.). If you have access to a projector, display your poster on a large screen and ask people to Post-Its onto the screen (again, you should be someplace else).

Another way to solicit comments is to convert your poster to a JPG and post it to the “Pimp My Poster” group on Flickr, then wait for others to make suggestions. Of course, that might be a long wait, since those “others” are complete slugs. So you might need to send a message to your friends with the URL, or make a Twitter appeal (“Dear peeps, please help make my poster suck less. Comments appreciated.”) Internet-based poster feedback is especially good if you have no friends to look at physical, real-world poster drafts.

Choosing software

The best programs for designing large-format posters are page layout applications such as QuarkXPress, InDesign, LaTeX (poster templates; nice instructions; beautiful example), and Scribus (nice instructions, though without images). These programs allow control of text wrapping around images, text flow among associated text blocks, and much more. But if you know what you’re doing you can also cobble together great posters using graphics packages such as Illustrator, CorelDRAW, Freehand, and Omnigraffle (good overview, with example). Inkscape is also recommended by some (I haven’t tried it yet!), and is free. For those who need a lot help, try PosterGenius. Lastly, Microsoft Powerpoint will work, but that’s only because a lot of people own it and know how to use it. Opt for anything but Powerpoint if you can swing it.

Handmade posters are far superior to anything that you could make with a poster printer and they can be the highlight of a meeting if you know what you are doing. But chances are you don’t. But if I’m wrong about that, send me a photo of you and your artsy poster and I’ll feature it here. Bonus points if you are wearing all black.

Poster templates

My templates (all free) are below, but if you don’t like them just search for others on the internet: there are tens of thousands out there. If you find one of mine you like, just take a few minutes to adjust the dimensions in Page Setup so that you have a template the size you want (conferences usually list specifications). You also might need to delete a column if your desired width is much smaller than the base size of the template — but fussing with those issues now is far, far preferable than later. After the size is corrected, just replace the “blah, blah, blah” with your own gibberish, add some graphics, and you’re done. Please note that you should not acknowledge me in your poster’s Acknowledgement section, though it’s awfully sweet of you to have the thought if you did (no hard feelings if you didn’t; sniff).

poster-template-horizontal-1-purrington1. The “Results arena” layout at right demotes the unimportant sections (Literature cited, Acknowledgements, Further information) to the bottom portion of the poster, freeing up the valuable real estate on the top for interesting stuff, if you have it. If you’d like to see an example of this layout, please look here. You won’t find many other examples of this layout, however, because I’ve been almost entirely unsuccessful at convincing people to try it. If you’re adventurous, go crazy. Here are templates in various formats: poster-template-horizontal-1-purrington.ppt (Microsoft Powerpoint), poster-template-horizontal-1-purrington.odg (OpenOffice Draw).

poster-template-horizontal-2-purrington2. If you prefer a more traditional layout but still like the “Results arena,” use this one. Here is an example. Note that any content near the bottom part of the Materials and methods and Results sections will be harder for most people to read (because they’ll need to bend their necks down). Unless your visitors are short, of course. Here’s the file to download: poster-template-horizontal-2-purrington.ppt

poster-template-horizontal-3-purrington3. The third option is the four-column approach. I tend to like this the least because it separates Results into separate columns, but sometimes you have Results that are best displayed in a linear fashion, so use this one if that’s the case. Here’s the file to download: poster-template-horizontal-3-purrington.ppt

4. Portrait template for conference posterIf you need a portrait-style poster template (A0 size, but you can alter that in Page Setup), you can give this a try. Template has little dots near the bottom to indicate that Literature cited and Acknowledgements should be read last. You can omit those dots if they offend your sensibilities, of course. Or use a line. Or increase the space between the important and less important sections — just signify to the viewer somehow that they shouldn’t drop down to literature after finishing protocol section. I’ve also indicated with the annoying “logos” graphic that logos can go at the bottom. As always, don’t put them at the top of your poster even if you are pressured to do so, and you will be. Here’s the file to download: poster-template-vertical-1-purrington.ppt (Powerpoint), poster-template-vertical-2-purrington.odg (OpenOffice Draw).

5. A0 portrait powerpoint template for scientific posters -- Colin PurringtonIf you prefer a Results arena instead of a boring, linear column, use this template. Conclusions section is two-columned, but you might need to reset the space between the columns via the menu because Powerpoint sometimes forgets these settings. I’ve deleted the “Further information” section this section, but I dreamed up that section, anyway, so it’s not likely to be missed by most viewers. For those interested: I also made first column a tad wider. As with other templates, put the logos at the bottom of the poster. Or don’t even include them (gasp!). Download the template here: poster-template-vertical-2-purrington.ppt.

Note: I dislike portrait posters because (a) the top and bottom portions are not at eye level, (b) too much of the poster is blocked if presenter is standing in front of poster, and (c) aesthetics just displease me … for some reason I just don’t like portrait layouts.

What sections to include and what to put in them

Title: Should briefly convey the interesting “issue,” the general experimental approach, and the system (e.g., organism); needs to be catchy in order to reel in intoxicated passersby. [approximately 1-2 lines]

Abstract: For the love of God, do not include an abstract on a poster. A poster is an abstract of your research, so it’s a waste of space to have an abstract on your abstract. But it’s reasonable to be confused about this: if you are presenting your poster at a meeting, you will probably be asked to submit an abstract…but this abstract is for inclusion in the meeting catalog, not for actually squeezing onto your poster. If for some reason you are forced to include an Abstract section on your poster, please certainly abide by those rules, but consider asking the meeting organizer why on earth their guidelines are so silly. At the very least, don’t make your abstract long. If you want to be snarky, say, “Please see poster for details” [5 words!]

Photograph of arsenic poisoning.  (Click to enlarge.)Introduction: Get your viewer interested in the issue or question while using the absolute minimum of background information and definitions (such things put a reader to sleep, which is dangerous if he or she is standing); quickly place your issue in the context of published, primary literature; then pitch an interesting, novel hypothesis … then you can describe (briefly) the experimental approach that tested your hypothesis. Please note that “X has never been studied before” is a classic but classically lame reason for doing something. Unlike a manuscript, the introduction of a poster is a wonderful place to put a photograph or illustration that communicates some aspect of your research question. [approximately 200 words]

Materials and methods: Briefly describe experimental equipment and procedure, but not with the detail used for a manuscript; use figures and flow charts to illustrate experimental design if possible; include photograph or labeled drawing of organism or setup; mention statistical analyses that were used and how they allowed you to address hypothesis. [approximately 200 words]

Results: First, mention whether your experiment procedure actually worked (e.g., “90% of the birds survived the brainectomy”); in same paragraph, briefly describe qualitative and descriptive results (e.g., “surviving birds appeared to be lethargic and had difficulty locating seeds”) to give a more personal tone to your poster; in second paragraph, begin presentation of data analysis that more specifically addresses your hypothesis; refer to supporting charts or images; provide extremely engaging figure legends that could stand on their own (i.e., could convey some point to reader if viewer skipped all other sections, which they will do); place tables with legends, too, but opt for figures whenever possible. This is always the largest section (except if you have no data). [approximately 200 words, not counting figure legends]

Conclusions: Remind the reader (without sounding like you are reminding the reader) of the major result and quickly state whether your hypothesis was supported; try to convince the visitor why the outcome is interesting; state the relevance of your findings to other published work; relevance to real organisms in the real world; future directions. [approximately 200 words]

Literature cited: Follow format described by your main society exactly (grammar and typography police at conferences will find even minor infractions, trust me); web sites and rumors you heard at Starbucks are equally undesirable sources, so find an actual journal article that supports your needed fact or opinion. Also, if you haven’t read a journal article completely you should not cite it. [5-10 citations]

Acknowledgments: Thank individuals for specific contributions (equipment donation, statistical advice, laboratory assistance, comments on earlier versions of the poster); mention who has provided funding; be sincere but do not lapse too much into informality in this section; do not list people’s titles (e.g., write Colin Purrington not Dr Purrington). Also include in this section explicit disclosures for any conflicts of interest and conflicts of commitment (more info). [approximately 40 words]

Further information: If you haven’t screwed up somehow, some visitors will want to know more about your research, and you can use this section to provide your e-mail address, your web site address, or perhaps a URL (or QR code; example) where they can download a PDF version of the poster or relevant data. Just make sure to edit the URL so it is not blued or underlined). I sort of made up this section, so if your mentor thinks it’s silly, that’s why. Give it a try if you want! [approximately 20 words]

DOs and DON’Ts

  1. The number one mistake is to make your poster too long. Densely packed, high word-count posters attract only those viewers who are excited by manuscripts pasted onto walls, and you typically don’t want to talk to those types of people. They’re weird. Aim for 800 words, and remember that fewer is fine, too.
  2. Avoid titles with colons if you can: they are overused. Coloned titles are sometimes devised in order to inject humor into an otherwise mind-numbing poster topic. E.g., “Attack of the Crohn’s: contribution of chromosome 16 allelic variants to inflammatory bowel disease progression.” The other motivation for using colons is to provide greater detail about the general topic introduced by the first clause, which is purposefully vague so as to interest a wider viewership (e.g., “Causes of obesity: additive effects of inactivity and ad libitum feeding on yearly weight gain in Homo sapiens”). Although humor and clarity are great, it is better to achieve them without a grammatical crutch, especially if everyone else is using the same crutch. If you absolutely must have a coloned title, just be sure it doesn’t force you to spill onto a third line.
  3. Format the title in sentence case (option A, below) so that trade names, Latin binomials, genes, alleles, etc. (that depend on formatting to convey mean) are not obscured. Sentence case is the also the easiest to read (yes, somebody did the experiment). Avoid italics (B), title case (C), and all caps (D). Be aware, however, that people of a particular age Think My Advice Is Insane, AND WILL DISAGREE TO THE DEATH!!!! Fifty years ago, they would right: before the advent of computers, titles were typeset in title case and all case, and opinions are slow to change.
    1. Effect of Lycra use on weight gain in Homo sapiens
    2. Effect of Lycra use on weight gain in Homo sapiens
    3. Effect of Lycra Use on Weight Gain in Homo Sapiens
    4. EFFECT OF LYCRA USE ON WEIGHT GAIN IN HOMO SAPIENS
  4. Use a non-serif font (e.g., Helvetica) for title and headings and a serif font (e.g., Palatino) for body text. Serif-style fonts are much easier to read at smaller font sizes…that’s why novels are never set with Helvetica and the like.
  5. Do not add bullets to section headings. The use of a bolded, larger font is sufficient for demarcating sections.
  6. The width of text boxes should be approximately 40 characters (on average, 11 words per line). Lines that are shorter or longer are harder to read quickly.
  7. Avoid blocks of text longer than 10 sentences.
  8. Whenever possible, use lists of sentences rather than blocks of text.
  9. Use italics instead of underlining. Underlining draws too much attention to the word.
  10. When using acronyms and numbers (e.g., ATP, 42) within the body of text, scale down the font size by a couple of points so that their sizes don’t overpower the lowercase text, which they would do if you left them at the default size. Use of “small caps” will sometimes do the trick, but this effect varies with different fonts and with different software.
  11. Set line spacing of all text to be exactly 1. Doing this protects the aesthetics if you have used super- or sub-scripted text.
  12. Do not trust the “tab” feature to insert the correct amount of space when you are indenting a paragraph (the default is usually too big). Set the tab amount manually, with the ruler feature.
  13. When you have quotations, make sure your software hasn’t used the “double prime” glyph, instead. Double primes are the thingies used for inches (e.g., 5′ 11″), and mathematical formulas/formulae.
  14. Correct any errors in spacing wit hin and between words, especially before and after italicized text. (See how annoying that is?!) Note that you can use a single space between sentences (the “double space” convention was needed for typewriters, and we are slow to lose the habit). Use the Search/Replace feature to globally “replace” all double spaces with single spaces, and to locate locations where too many spaces occur between words.
  15. Avoid using dark backgrounds. Dark backgrounds make designing graphics a royal pain. To make your graphics work on a dark background you would need to either invert the figures so that they stand out against a dark background or you would need to frame your figures in white boxes. Both of these are time intensive, plus the latter chews up white space unnecessarily. It’s better to just use a white background. And you save on ink, too, so the media people won’t put a hex on you!
  16. Don’t use colors that will render poster unintelligible to those with color deficient alleles. Approximately 8% of males and 0.5% of females have some degree of color-vision deficiency (example). To test whether you’ve made a terrible mistake in color choice, you can run a version of your poster through the free Vischeck service, or you can download their Photoshop plug-in that does the same thing. In general, avoid using red and green together, and opt to use symbols and line patterns (e.g., dashed vs solid) instead of colors for graph elements. See the Rigden article in the Useful Literature section for an excellent overview of color deficiency conditions and how to design for them.
  17. Similarly, if you have a color sensitivity mutation and don’t know it, you might inadvertently design posters that are difficult for wild types (the biology terms for those with typical alleles) to interpret. You can test your color perception online, by the way. White males of European descent are especially encouraged to test themselves. No inbreeding jokes, please.
  18. Complete the entire poster on a single platform. Switching from PC to Mac or Mac to PC invites disaster, sometimes in the form of lost image files or garbled graph axes. Even if you are lucky enough to transfer content across platforms, switching in this way often creates printing problems in the future. Probably will make your kids look funny, too.
  19. Give your graphs titles or informative phrases. You wouldn’t do this in a manuscript for a journal, but for posters you want to guide the visitor.
  20. If you can add miniature illustrations to any of your graphs, do it. Visual additions help attract and inform viewers much more effectively than text alone. Tables benefit from this trick as well.
  21. Choose the right graph. Please see “Watch your figures” for help choosing among bar graph, line graph, etc.
  22. Most graphing applications automatically give your graph an extremely annoying key that you should immediately delete. Just directly label the different graph elements with the text tool.
  23. Acronyms and other shorthands for genotypes, strains, and the like are great when talking to yourself but are terrible for communicating with others. Use general, descriptive terms that would make sense to somebody who is not familiar with your research area. You can always add the strain ID within parentheses: “Control genotype (Col-0).”
  24. Y-axis labels aligned horizontally are much, much easier to read, and should be used whenever space allows. Football players and other viewers with fused neck vertebrae will be appreciative.
  25. Format axis labels in sentence case (Not in Title Case and NOT IN ALL CAPS). People can read text formatted in sentence case faster.
  26. Never give your graphs colored backgrounds, grid lines, or boxes. If your graphing program gives them to you automatically, get rid of them. If you personally know any of the programmers who made software that has such settings as defaults, break their fingers so they can’t code anymore.
  27. Never display two-dimensional data in 3-D. Three-dimensional graphs look adorable but obscure true difference among bar heights. 3-D graphs belong in Time magazine and 1st grade. Again, if you know anyone on a software design group that makes 3-D bar graphs the default output, make them suffer. They make the world suffer, so they deserve whatever you can dream up.
  28. Make sure that details on graphs and photographs can be comfortably viewed from 6 feet away. A common mistake is to assume that axes labels, figure legends, and numbers on axes are somehow exempt from font-size guidelines. The truth is that the majority of viewers want to read only your figures.
  29. Use web graphics with caution. If you’re looking for a good generic photograph of something, I highly recommend searching through Flickr; then you just send an e-mail to the owner and ask whether you can use his/her wonderful photograph in your poster, with proper credit of course. You need something high resolution so that it doesn’t look pixelated (fuzzy) when printed.
  30. If you include a photograph, add a thin gray or black border to make it more visually appealing.
  31. If you can’t find the perfect illustration or photograph, get one made — you can use it in multiple posters, future talks, and even in that great article you’re writing for National Geographic. There are lots of illustrators and photographers out there for hiring, but here are two that I follow on Twitter: Ainsley Seago, Alex Wild. They are both scientists, so they know science and the power of images.
  32. Give the source for any image that is not yours. And only use an image (illustration, photograph, etc.) that is fully public domain. If it’s not public domain then you are probably violating somebody’s copyright. Really, folks, you lose valuable karma points if you use stuff without permission. When in doubt, ask the author/photographer/illustrator.
  33. Placement of logos on a scientific posterDon’t clutter the top of your poster with logos. If you are required by your mentor to include logos on your poster, put them on the bottom of the poster, and make them vanishingly small — passive aggressive and fun!! Here is an example image of a poster with logos at the top, if you’d like see why it’s a graphical fail.
  34. Format your Literature cited contents according to the inflexible rules that your main society has set forth. They all have rules, and they all like them to be followed. References that are only haphazardly formatted mark a poster, and you, as unprofessional. When asking somebody to proof your poster, specifically ask them to be super-critical of your citation style. Keep your font size the same as the size of the normal body text…shrinking the font looks awful, even if everyone else is doing it.
  35. Always write, “data are,” not “data is.” “Data” is a plural noun (“datum” is the singular). Really. Many people roll their eyes at this advice and say that “data is” is acceptable because that’s what people often say. Well, the data might support that fact, but the prevalence of bad grammar doesn’t make bad grammar less badder [sic]. Similarly, lots of people wear bell-bottoms, but that fact doesn’t magically make bell-bottoms attractive…they’re always awful. So do your part by double-checking your usage before printing. But for the contrary view, please read this. And if you happen to work at a data analysis software company and are all-powerful, could you please perform a massive search-and-replace on your manuals right before printing?? There should be a law that prevents statistical software companies (like SAS) from selling software or manuals (like JMP) with the error. If you’d like to pressure SAS to do the right thing, please vote for my campaign on betterific.
  36. If you don’t know the difference between “effect” and “affect,” then don’t use those words. The Oatmeal’s “10 words you need to stop misspelling” explains it nicely.
  37. Resist the strange trend to use “woman” as an adjective. For example, don’t write, “woman scientist” when you could just say, “female scientist.” If you cannot resist the peer pressure, then at least be consistent and write, “man scientist,” too. Awful, eh?

Bad poster exampleTo illustrate many of the DON’Ts detailed above, here’s a poster I dreamed up so I didn’t have to critique an actual poster by an actual person (they tend to get mad at me during my talks). Click the image to view full-screen. If you are a teacher, please feel free to print this out large and then display in the hallway several weeks prior to the poster due date. But tell them not to emulate it (that’s key). Showing this poster will improve student poster quality by 30% (or your money back!). Please also see my reasons why it’s awful.

Adding bits of flair

  1. If after printing your poster you notice that your photographs don’t crisp close up, print higher resolution images on fancy paper and glue onto your poster, covering over the nasty ones.
  2. Photograph by Colin PurringtonIf your topic is related to an audio subject, attach a sound device that contains your sound (bird calls, engine rattle, etc.). A cheap “sound postcard” will often do the trick. Just fill the picture frame with an illustration of the sound-generating organ or machine, and indicate where on the photograph the viewer should press to activate the sound.
  3. If you wish to show your poster viewers a whole bunch of photographs, go out and buy one of those cheap digital photo frames and attach with Velcro next to some text that tells viewers how to operate the device, and what the photographs are. Or use an iPod. Or use your iPad. Here’s a video showing how to attach Velcro to it. Works for showing movies, too. If you have a critical movie, put it online, too, and print the QR code on the poster site underneath where the iPad will be attached…then you can remove the iPad when you’re not around to police it.
  4. If your topic is related to olfaction, make sure that one of your figures is a scratch-n-sniff. FYI, you can even buy printer inks that are laced with common smells (how about fresh cut grass for a poster on grazing effects??). You can also buy “odor bags” (yes, that’s what they’re called) to trap odors for later use…just attach them to your poster with instructions.
  5. If your topic is related to a thing or object, attach the darn thing to your poster. Use 3M removable tape (or equivalent) if you want to minimize damage to underlying poster paper. You can also use two magnets, depending on your object and the thickness of your poster board (you attach the second magnet on the back of the poster). Attaching an object will increase visitor traffic by at least 20% (I’m making that up, but I’m sure it’s measurable).
  6. If you have three dimensional data or complex molecular structures (examples; more examples), there are software programs that can generate stereoscopic images that are viewable with cheap 3-D glasses. Here are directions on making your own stereoscopic setup for about $19.98 (before taxes) using Legos and two novelty key-chain cameras. Have a pouch near the figure so that viewers can help themselves to glasses even when you have abandoned your poster.
  7. Use tape to add a transparency sheet over a graph or photograph if you want to make non-permanent doodles with Dry-Erase markers.
  8. If you have information that only some viewers might find interesting, use a “hidden panel” approach. Just print your interesting extras onto your poster, but cover the area with a hinged piece of poster board onto which you have glued something else. Zoos do this a lot (e.g., “Why is the giraffe’s neck so long? Lift this panel to read about the answer”). Overuse of this would be annoying, but there are circumstances where it can really liven up an otherwise mind-numbing poster.

Presenting the poster

  1. Presenting a poster to multiple peopleIf your meeting promotes a meeting hashtag (e.g., #geekfest14), broadcast a short title and your poster’s time and location on Twitter. Here are some examples of people trying to drum up an audience in advance.
  2. Do not chew tobacco. Nasty habit anywhere, but really bad at poster sessions. Nicotine patches are fine, but remember that too many patches can cause rashes and cardiac arrest.
  3. Do not chew gum. People who do not chew gum find the sight of gum chewing mesmerizing and repulsive.
  4. Keep your hands out of your pockets, especially if you are a compulsive key or coin jangler. Fill your pockets with pushpins if you think you won’t be able to resist. Don’t do this, however, if you are a hemophiliac. That would be bad.
  5. Do not wear Axe Body Spray. (For those in UK, Australia, and New Zealand, this means don’t wear Lynx Body Spray.) In fact, that’s sound advice even outside the context of a poster session — it’s an awful smell that advertises any number of inadequacies, if not all of them, and it can kill you if overused. Come on guys, just bath in the morning and it will be fine. Moreover, a slick poster about slick science is entirely sufficient to get those crazy hordes of young, cute scientists at the meeting to rip off your clothes.
  6. Do not wear sunglasses indoors. People will assume that you are high on drugs or are an egotistical jerk. Or both. Of course, you might be one of those people who gets severe migraines from interior fluorescent lights, so you get a pass, of course. Or you might be a Terminator with a damaged prosthetic eye that you want to hide; you get a pass, too.
  7. Do not refer to notes when explaining your poster. You are not in first grade.
  8. Speak to your viewers as you explain your poster. I.e., don’t talk at your poster.
  9. A typical poster visitor appreciates a 2-sentence overview of why your research is interesting and relevant. Get them hooked on your question before explaining anything more about your poster. For example, you might point to the illustration of the submerged hamster in your “Materials and methods” and say, “I was interested in whether hamsters can mate underwater, which would be adaptive if the ice caps melt away.” Then point to the graph in Results section and say, “I found that hamsters didn’t mate underwater, but instead drowned within 25 seconds.” Keep it general, and make it clear to the visitor why you find the topic interesting.
  10. Avoid vagueness such as “this figure shows our main result.” Say something concrete, like, “We found that brainectomized rats finished the maze more slowly, as you can see from this graph that plots time…”
  11. If more viewers arrive halfway into your spiel, finish the tour for the earlier arrivals first. That’s unless the new arrivals are super important, and the first crowd just a bunch of worthless groupies.
  12. When in doubt about how to act at your poster, imagine that a viewer will be considering your application for a job ten years into the future, or will be considering your graduate school application next week. This is pretty much how it all happens.
  13. Attach a few business cards to your poster. Even if you are an academic. If you want to stay informal, just order yourself a stack of cards that feature photographs of you or your research organism. I’m fond of MOO (see my cards) for business cards.
  14. If you must leave your poster for a bit, attach a note alerting any viewers to your expected time of return or telling them at which bar you can be found (really).
  15. Dark poster session roomBring a lamp. OK, so that’s probably not something you’re really going to pack, but if your poster presentation is really important, just remember that sometimes your poster location is going to be in dense shade — the photo at right was from an actual meeting, and the people that got stuck there looked really sad. If you find yourself in this situation, buy a cheap flashlight and stick it on a leash for visitors.
  16. Attach your photograph near or on your poster so that people can find you more easily. Sure, you’ll have a name tag, but those the person who designs the name tags will invariably make your name small and the organization logo large…and it will be hard to read. Also, anatomy and wardrobe sometimes dictate that the name tag is not properly situated for prime viewing.
  17. Have on hand, but do not peddle, manuscripts and reprints of your work. If you have space on the mounting board, just pin them up for the taking.
  18. Have on hand full-color, “shrunken” versions of your poster on 8.5 x 11″ paper (or whatever’s normal for your part of the planet). If you have resisted the urge to shrink your font size, the shrunken text will still be legible. Print a Braille copy, too, if you have access to a Braille printer (or a 3D printer with Braille font).
  19. If a person wants to take your photograph, or wants a photograph of your poster, be warned that he or she might post a very high-resolution version of your poster on an Internet site. If you have unpublished research, or research that might be deemed offensive to non-scientists, consider saying, “No, thanks,” to the paparazzi, or ask them not to post the photograph. Or scream, “photographs will steal my soul!” And then tackle them.
  20. Keep a black pen and correction fluid in your pocket in case a viewer discovers an embarrassing tybo.
  21. If you are obsessive compulsive and have a large wardrobe, try to choose your clothes to match your poster color. Research (see Keegan and Bannister 2003 in “Useful literature”) has shown that your poster will be visited more if you match it. If you are color blind or fashion-impaired, please ask somebody to help you dress (a lame pick-up line, but give it a try if you’re desperate).
  22. Attach a clear plastic cup full of candy to your poster. Then situate yourself a few posters away so you can pounce on people when they take some. They will feel obliged to stay and talk to you.
  23. Serve wine, if everyone is over 21. The word will get out fast, however, so bring a lot, and consider tagging people’s hands with a colored Sharpie so you can recognize them when they come back 10 minutes later for more.
  24. personal-poster-stickerAttach a miniature version of your poster to yourself. Or just an exciting image that relates to your research — just make a sketch on a sticker label and slap it on your chest. If you don’t want people ogling your chest, put it on your back. Add text like, “Lincoln Conference Room, Fri @ 7pm”, so people know where/when to find you.
  25. If you’re the plan-ahead type, make a JPG of your poster and order yourself a t-shirt or two for the meeting. Sure, it cries “desperation,” but you might, in fact, be desperate. Would be funny, too. Sometimes potential employers and colleagues want somebody who can plan ahead, is extroverted, and is funny.
  26. If you’re truly desperate, the ultimate stunt at a poster conference would be to get your content onto a sandwich board. Then just mingle with people over near the wine and beer table. And for the love of God, send me a photo of you working the crowd. Here’s a Google search for companies that can set you up.
  27. Similarly, if you have a cloth poster you can wear it as a cape. You lose a little respectability, perhaps, but some of you never had that to start with. Just saying.
  28. Thank your viewers for visiting. If they have stayed more than 4 minutes, you have succeeded. If they say, “This is really interesting–I’ll definitely come back later,” you have failed.
  29. If you get really bored at a poster session, pretend that somebody else’s poster is yours. Make things up, make a scene, etc. Timeless fun. Oh, the stories…

Printing the poster

Save As (Windows) or Print To (Mac) a PDF file first, then examine the PDF file at full magnification to proof for color accuracy, pleasing font rendering, and crisp image detail. If the PDF looks awful, go back and fix your source file. Repeat process until you’re too frustrated to go on in life, then print (from the PDF). If you don’t own a poster printer, you can send your file to one of many online companies that print posters and then mail them to you, even directly to your meeting location. In some instances the conference organizers have pre-arranged discounts with a printer service, so check with the people in charge before you choose a service. I used to list a lot of these companies here, but I got sick of the daily emails from those where not on the list.

Useful literature (I don’t get any kickbacks, fyi)

  1. Block, S. 1996. The DOs and DON’Ts of poster presentation. Biophysical Journal 71:3527-3529. [PDF; I fixed the typo in the title of the published article, so if you're copying my citation, don't]
  2. Briscoe, M.H. 1996. Preparing Scientific Illustrations: A Guide to Better Posters, Presentations, and Publications, 2nd ed. Springer-Verlag, New York. [preview via Google Books]
  3. Day, R.A. 2006. How To Write and Publish a Scientific Paper, 6th ed. Oryx Press, Phoenix. [Amazon]
  4. Foulsham, T., and A. Kingstone. 2011. Look at my poster! Active gaze, preference and memory during a poster session. Perception 40:1387-1389. [link]
  5. Keegan, D.A., and S.L. Bannister. 2003. Effect of colour coordination of attire with poster presentation on poster popularity. Canadian Medical Association Journal 169:1291-1292. [link]
  6. Lang, T.A. How to Write, Publish, and Present in the Health Sciences. ACP Press. [link]
  7. Matthews, J.R., J.M. Bowen, and R.W. Matthews. 1996. Successful Science Writing: A Step-by-Step Guide for the Biological and Medical Sciences. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. [preview via Google Books]
  8. Pechenik, J.A. 2009. A Short Guide to Writing about Biology, 7th edition. Longman, New York. [Amazon]
  9. Rigden, C. 1999. ‘The eye of the beholder’—designing for colour-blind users. British Telecommunications Engineering 17:2-6. [PDF]
  10. Tufte, E.R. 1983. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Graphics Press, Connecticut. [Amazon]
  11. Wolcott, T.G. 1997. Mortal sins in poster presentations or, How to give the poster no one remembers. Newsletter of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology Fall:10-11. [PDF]
  12. Woolsey, J. D. 1989. Combating poster fatigue: how to use visual grammar and analysis to effect better visual communications. Trends in Neurosciences 12:325-332.

Plea to all-powerful meeting organizers

Poster judging formIn case you haven’t noticed, most posters these days are absolutely terrible, and this is largely your fault. You probably list allowed sizes, deadlines, and other such details, but you haven’t given your conference participants what they really need: some philosophical advice, some style advice, some directive about brevity, and some beautiful examples. If you are able to come up with useful guidelines and links, make sure that the advice web page is placed on the society’s permanent web page, not just on the temporary site associated with the year’s meeting information. If possible, post your judging form online so that presenters can see that content and aesthetics will be evaluated (as in sample form to right). Don’t give poster prize to the person with the smallest font, please. Really. Stop doing that.

You can also read my post, “Open letter to poster session organizers.”

Other poster advice sites

Using this page

© Contents copyright Colin Purrington (1997-2014).

Woman in black presenting poster to the man in orange.  (Click to enlarge.)I’d be honored if you wanted to link to this page — no need to OK with me. And spread the word on Twitter and Facebook so that others can suffer, too. If for some reason you’d like to quote me (using those quotation mark thingies) or to acknowledge the source of a half-baked idea you liked, here’s the citation:

Purrington, C.B. Designing conference posters. Retrieved <today’s date>, from http://colinpurrington.com/tips/academic/posterdesign.

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