DOs and DON’Ts of poster design

  1. Word count of poster with too much textThe number one mistake is to make a poster too wordy. If you construct a poster that looks like a journal article has been cut out and arranged on the wall, you’re not going to attract many visitors. That’s because the potentially viewer will assume you haven’t digested the important information into a format that is going to be understandable to the average viewer. Aim for 1000 words or less. That might mean 700 words in paragraph form (body text), plus 300 words in the legends of all your figures and tables. Yes, the words in your figures count toward the total.
  2. White space exampleThe second-most common mistake is related to the first: a failure to maintain a pleasing amount of white space around text boxes and figures. A cramped poster is hard to read, and the brain simply cannot effectively process the information provided, regardless of how amazing it is. 
  3. Avoid titles with colons if you can: they are overused. If you absolutely must have a coloned title, just be sure it doesn’t force you to spill onto a third line.
  4. Format the title in sentence case (option A, below). Adding unnecessary formatting (examples B and C) obscures trade names, Latin binomials, gene names, allele names, etc. Using title case and all caps seems to be a holdover from 18th century. Older Folks in Charge of Conferences Sometimes Insist on Maintaining These Traditions, of Course.
    1. Effect of ken and barbie knockouts on sexual preference in Drosophila melanogaster  
    2. Effect of Ken and Barbie Knockouts on Sexual Preference in Drosophila Melanogaster 
  5. 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 rarely set with Helvetica and the like).
  6. Do not add bullets to section headings. The use of a bolded, larger font is sufficient for demarcating sections.
  7. The width of text boxes should be approximately 45-65 characters. Lines that are shorter or longer are harder to read quickly.
  8. Don’t vary the width of text boxes (it’s visually distracting).
  9. Whenever possible, use lists of sentences rather than blocks of text.
  10. Use italics instead of underlining. Underlining draws too much attention to a word.
  11. 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. Use of “small caps” will sometimes do the trick, but this effect varies with different fonts and with different software.
  12. Set line spacing manually to make sure spacing is uniform. Doing this is critical if you have used super- or sub-scripted text. If you don’t, only some lines will have extra space, and that would be visually distracting.
  13. Do not trust the tab button 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. And never, ever use spaces to create a tab-like space (it just doesn’t work).
  14. When you have quotations, make sure your software hasn’t used the “double prime” glyph, instead of quotation marks. Double primes are the thingies used for inches (e.g., 5′ 11″), and mathematical formulas/formulae.
  15. 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.
  16. Avoid dark backgrounds for text boxes. Dark text on white is the easiest for most people to read. Also, dark backgrounds make designing graphics much harder. It’s better to just use a white background. And you save on ink, too.
  17. Avoid color combinations that create problems for 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.
  18. 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.
  19. 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. 
  20. 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 as much as possible.
  21. 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.
  22. Choose the right graph. Please see “Watch your figures” for help choosing among bar graph, line graph, etc.
  23. 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.
  24. Acronyms and other shorthands for genotypes, strains, and the like are terrible for communicating with people outside of your laboratory. Use general, descriptive terms, even if they require more space, which they do.
  25. Y-axis labels aligned horizontally are much, much easier to read, and should be used whenever space allows. 
  26. Format axis labels in sentence case (Not in Title Case and NOT IN ALL CAPS). People process sentence-case text faster.
  27. 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 are friends with any of the programmers who make software that has such settings as defaults, please plead with them to revisit that decision.)
  28. Never display two-dimensional data in 3-D. Three-dimensional graphs look adorable but obscure true difference among bar heights. 
  29. 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.
  30. Thin line around photograph of Galapagos flycatcherIf you include photographs, add a thin gray or black border to make them stand out against background color (even if it’s white). FYI, photographs imported from TIFFs often look better than JPEGs because the latter are often compressed too much (or too many times). Gruesome details if you’re interested.
  31. Provide the source of any image that is not yours. And only use an image (illustration, photograph, etc.) that is fully in the public domain. When in doubt, ask the author/photographer/illustrator for permission. Or buy it.
  32. Use web graphics with caution. You need something with high-enough resolution so that it doesn’t look pixelated (fuzzy) when printed. 
  33. If you can’t find the perfect illustration or photograph for your poster, get one made. A good image can be used in multiple posters, future talks, and even in manuscripts. There are lots of illustrators and photographers out there, and they are starving. Give them a call.
  34. 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 small. Here is an example image of a poster with logos at the top if you’d like see why it’s a graphical fail.
  35. Format your Literature cited contents carefully. References that are only haphazardly formatted mark a poster, and thus you, as unprofessional and incapable of grasping the importance of details. When asking somebody to proof your poster, specifically ask them to be critical of your citation style. Ask several people, too: no one person is going to catch all your errors. Keep your font size the same as the size of the normal body text — shrinking the font looks bad.
  36. Write “data are,” not “data is.” “Data” is a officially a plural noun (“datum” is the singular). Many people roll their eyes at this advice and say that “data is” is totally acceptable because that’s what folks often say. Although it’s true that some scientists (and most non-scientists) say “data is” when speaking, you should protect yourself from the scorn of grammar prudes at conferences. There are a lot of Type A people in science. Just saying.
  37. If you don’t know the difference between “effect” and “affect,” it’s probably best not to use those words. The Oatmeal’s “10 words you need to stop misspelling” explains the difference nicely.
  38. If you use “woman” as an attributive noun (“woman participant”), be consistent and use “man” in the same way (“man participant”). If either sounds awkward, revert to using adjectives (female, male). But (full disclosure) I’m a male biologist, so if you’d like to hear that same advice from a woman, please read the Grammar Girl or browse The female Scientist.
  39. This is probably obvious … but don’t plagiarize. If this is not obvious, please see my page on the topic.

Poster tips infographic

Many of the above tips are included in the following image (a variant of the one on the home page):

Poster example (Colin Purrington's)

Poster design overview • Section contents • DOs and DON’Ts • Bad example
Templates • Printing • Poster additions • Presenting • Resources


Comments are closed.