Woman presenting scientific research with a poster

Designing conference posters

A one-sentence overview of the poster concept

A large-format poster is a big piece of paper or image on a wall-mounted monitor featuring a short title, an introduction to your burning question, an overview of your novel experimental 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 (less than a 1000 words), a person could fully read your poster in 5-10 minutes.

Why give a poster instead of a talk

Although you could communicate research 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. And, it turns out, posters sessions are not all about you: research has demonstrated that people who are standing are more engaged learners than people sitting in chairs (at talks). Posters are also handy because they can still be viewed even when you’re not present. And after the conference ends, you can hang the poster in the hallway of your department for people to admire. Finally, presenting a poster is especially recommended if you are bad at public speaking or can’t comfortably speak a particular language (the reason poster sessions were invented).

Motivational advice

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 “Huff-quacking in extraordinarily cute red pandas.” In these circumstances, your poster needs to be interesting and visually slick if you hope to attract viewers.

Poster session at Society for Neuroscience's Annual MeetingFor templates, tips on what to put in each section, etc., expand any of the sections below by clicking on the title.

Downloadable templates

Below are several templates (3 landscape, 2 portrait) that can be used to make a meeting poster. Just download, adjust the dimensions (if you need to), and start typing. You can, of course, also change background color, text box color, font, etc. The templates are just starting points that can save you a few hours of fussing over the basics like column widths.

1. Horizontal template with results arena

This layout  that gives a lot of central, visible space to the results and demotes unimportant sections (Literature cited, Acknowledgements, Further information) to the bottom portion of the poster that is harder to read. If you’d like to see an example of this layout, please look here. Download: Powerpoint, OpenOffice.

Horizontal (landscape) poster template

2. Horizontal template with big central column

If you prefer a more traditional layout (just columns) but still like the big central area for results, use this (Powerpoint). Note that any content near the bottom part of the Materials and methods and Results sections will be harder for tall people to read (because they’ll need to bend their necks).  If you don’t like tall people, choose this template.

Horizontal (landscape) poster template

3. Horizontal template with four columns

The third option is the four-column approach (the most traditional). Here’s the file to download: poster-template-horizontal-3-purrington.ppt.

Horizontal (landscape) poster template

4. Portrait template with demoted sections

If you need a portrait-style poster template, 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 delete those dots if they offend your sensibilities. I’ve also indicated with the “logos” graphic that logos can/should go at the bottom. Here’s the file to download: poster-template-vertical-1-purrington.ppt (Powerpoint), poster-template-vertical-2-purrington.odg (OpenOffice Draw).

Portrait template for conference poster

5. Portrait template with results arena

If you prefer a portrait-style template with a big results area, use this (Powerpoint) template. As with other templates, put the logos at the bottom of the poster. Or don’t include them at all.

Vertical (portrait) conference poster template

Note: I tend to dislike portrait posters because a big chunk of the poster real estate is below a viewer’s field of vision so you’d need to stoop to fully read. If you are in charge of a poster session, please read my plea about this problem.

Presenting a research poster on your knees

Your poster doesn’t need to look like any of the templates above. 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 (that would be boring).There are also thousands of other templates on the internet, but I dislike most of them because they are too busy and don’t have white space. The University at Buffalo’s templates are exceptions. But don’t be constrained by templates. As long as you maintain sufficient white space and provide clear cues to your readers about how they should travel through your poster elements, you can and should get creative. Here are some I like: example 1example 2, example 3.

Software recommendations

Although the vast majority conference posters on the planet are produced with Microsoft Powerpoint, you’ll end up with a better-looking poster if you use a page-layout application such as QuarkXPress, InDesign (great poster instructions), LaTeX (templates; instructions; example), or Scribus (instructions). These programs allow control of text wrapping around images, automatic text flow among associated text blocks, and much more. You can also make posters with graphics software such as Illustrator, CorelDRAW, FreehandOmnigraffle, and Inkscape. There’s also PosterGenius for those who need a program that will make a lot of the design decisions for you.

If you’re crafty, a handmade poster is far superior to anything that you could make with a poster printer. Plus you’d be the highlight of a meeting. E.g., Jason McDermott’s poster.

Embrace the rough draft process

The most important part of producing a great poster is to embrace the rough draft process. You’ll want to get honest feedback from people in your laboratory and from smart strangers who might not really care about your topic. Perhaps the easiest way to get feedback is to print a miniature version of your poster on 8 1/2 x 11″ paper. If people can’t read the text (especially on the figures), that’s a sign that your font size is too small. Another way to get feedback is to use a projector to display your poster on a large screen or monitor, then ask people to verbally critique. You want an audience that can walk up to the screen like it’s a poster at a meeting.

Getting feedback on a scientific poster by Post-Its.

Ideally, print a draft poster at least a month before the meeting and get people to critique your poster when you are not present. I.e., hang it in a hallway with a huge sign that pleads and begs for honest feedback about layout, word count, spelling, font, color, content, etc. Tell them to leave comments on Post-It notes (so provide these in container, with pens). And, again, don’t be present for this. If you are lurking like a proud parent, people will say, “Looks beautiful!” out of politeness and a desire to get away fast. If your hallway is populated with slackers, motivate them by providing food rewards in a box attached near poster. Attach sign to box: “Please tell me how to make my poster better. Mini candy bars are my pathetic thanks.”

What to put in each section

Below are some rough guidelines on what to include in each section of a scientific poster and how to pitch that content. The word-count guesses are for a poster that is approximately 3 x 4′, so adjust accordingly if your poster is a different size. Names of the section headings are somewhat flexible, too, especially if you’re not crafting a science poster.

Advice on designing scientific posters

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 passersby who are trying to avoid boring interactions, a real danger at conferences just like in the real world. [approximately 1-2 lines]

Abstract

Do not include an abstract on a poster (a poster is an abstract of your research, so having two summaries is a waste of valuable poster space). Some meetings require an abstract, of course, and if that’s the case be as brief as possible. But if you can get away with it, just omit the section —there are rarely poster police at conferences, and they’re not going to tase you if your poster lacks an abstract.

Introduction

Write this section to target an intelligent person who is not in your field. Assume they don’t know your study organism at all and assume they are predisposed to find your topic unimportant. E.g., if you’re an astronomer, imagine a visitor who has a degree in biology or mathematics. Quickly (first sentence or two) get your viewer interested in the issue or question that drove you to take up the project in the first place. Use the absolute minimum of background information, definitions, and acronyms (all of which are boring). Place your issue in the context of published, primary literature. Pitch an interesting, novel hypothesis, then describe (briefly) the experimental approach that can test your hypothesis. Please note that “X has never been studied before” or “my mentor gave me this project” are lame reasons for doing something, even if true. Also note: unlike a manuscript for a journal, the introduction of a poster is a wonderful place to display a photograph or illustration that visually communicates some aspect of your research question. A nice image can draw people in even if you look boring or have a boring poster title. Keep length to 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 a photograph or labeled drawing of organism or setup. Mention statistical analyses that were used and how they allowed you to address hypothesis. Keep length to 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 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). Opt for figures over tables whenever possible. This is always the largest section (except if you have no data). Keep length to 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 (assume they’ve skipped the Introduction). State the relevance of your findings to other published work. Add relevance to real organisms in the real world. Add sentence on future directions of research. Keep length to approximately 200 words.

Literature cited

Follow format described by your main society exactly. Grammar and typography police at conferences will find even minor infractions.

Acknowledgments

Thank individuals for specific contributions (equipment donation, statistical advice, laboratory assistance, comments on earlier versions of the poster). Mention who has provided funding. Do not list people’s titles (e.g., write Colin Purrington not Dr Purrington). Also include in this section disclosures for any conflicts of interest and conflicts of commitment (more info). If you have a lot of conflicts, put them all in a Conflicts section. Keep length to approximately 40 words.

Further information

If you haven’t botched the content and tone, some visitors will want to know more about your research, so provide your e-mail address, your web site address, or perhaps a URL where they can download a PDF version of the poster or relevant data. If you provide a URL, format it so it’s not blued or underlined. Full disclosure: I made up this section, so if your mentor thinks it’s silly, that’s why. Keep length to approximately 20 words.

DOs and DON'Ts

  1. The number one mistake is to make a poster too wordy. 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. Below is an example poster that has almost 2000 words, 1000 too many.Word count of poster with too much text
  2. The 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.White space example
  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 so that trade names, Latin binomials, gene names, allele names, and such can be immediately recognized as such (because they are capitalized or italicized). Using title case or all caps obscures that information. NB: Older People Really Like Title Case So Many Disagree With Above Advice. SOME EVEN LOVE ALL CAPS!!!!
    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
    3. 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 JPG of your poster through Coblis, or use the built-in simulator in Photoshop. 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.
  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. If you include photographs, add a thin gray or black border to make them stand out against background color (even if it’s white). Thin line around photograph of Galapagos flycatcher
  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. 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.
  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. Don’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.Placement of logos on a scientific poster
  35. Unlike boring institutional logos, adding a research-related image to the top of a poster can draw in visitors. E.g., the wheelchair icon to the left of the title in the poster below (NB: he has situated institutional logos at the bottom).
  36. 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.
  37. 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.
  38. 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.
  39. 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.
  40. This is probably obvious … but don’t plagiarize. If this is not obvious, please see my page on the topic.

Printable poster with design and content tips

If you’d prefer to view content suggestions and “dos and don’ts” as a poster, below are two options you can download and read. If you’re a teacher, you can print this poster large (here’s a PDF) and hang it in a hallway for students to digest in the weeks before they begin to craft their own.Poster example (Colin Purrington's)

Advice on designing scientific posters

Example of a terrible conference poster

Here’s a made-up example of a bad conference poster that I crafted for the journal, Nature (see article). I could easily have used a bad poster on the internet (there are tens of thousands), but I worried the author might notice, find out where I live, and shoot me. Below the image is a list of reasons why the poster is bad.Example of a scientific poster, with tips on why the poster is bad.

Problems

  1. Far too much text. You should shoot for 800-1000 words. Most posters seem to be have ~3000 words, which is the main reason why they look so bad and why so many viewers avoid poster sessions.
  2. Background image is distracting (i.e., it distracts from text and illustrations).
  3. Text box backgrounds are dark, which makes text really hard to read.
  4. Text box backgrounds are all different colors, for no reason (distracting).
  5. Text boxes are different widths (distracting, hard to follow flow of poster).
  6. Some text boxes too wide (aim for 45-65 characters per line).
  7. Text boxes not separated from each other by pleasing “white” space.
  8. Text box edges not aligned (distracting).
  9. Text justified, which causes bad inter-word spacing. Also makes reading harder (brain uses jaggedness of left-justified text).
  10. Logos are distracting, useless, crowd title.
  11. Title word art distracting, hard to read, juvenile.
  12. Title is in all caps, which is harder to read and obscures Latin name.
  13. Title is italicized, which also obscures Latin name style conventions.
  14. Author font and color is annoying (comic sans should be reserved for comic books, internet memes).
  15. Author font color is too loud relative to other text.
  16. Results are presented in sentences instead of visually with charts.
  17. Section headers have too much formatting (big font, bolded, italicized, underlined, and colored — ack!).  Choose one. [Note: I forgot to number the sections…that would have been even worse.]
  18. Terrible graphic of Guinea pig on scale. Need one of the actual set up (pigs eating while weightless, for example).
  19. Inclusion of an Abstract consumes space needlessly. Abstract section should be banned from posters. Posters ARE an abstract.
  20. Plus the science is terrible! (Bad science is correlated with bad graphic design, by the way.)

I encourage teachers to print the poster and hang in a hallway a month prior to when students’ posters are due. Here’s the PDF if you want to do that.

How to make your poster more engaging

Your poster is yours, so you should feel free to add objects to increase the effectiveness of your message. Doing so will dramatically increase the number of people visiting and remembering you and your poster.

1. Add hidden panels

If you have information that only some viewers might find interesting, use a hidden panel approach (zoos and museums do this a lot). 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.Hidden panel on conference poster

2. Add 3D images

If you have three dimensional data or complex molecular structures (examples; more examples), make 3D images. 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. Attach glasses with string if you think somebody will walk off with them.3D glasses

3. Add objects

If your topic is related to a thing or object, attach it. E.g., if you study sexual dimorphism in freakishly large beetles, glue them onto the poster so people can gawk. It’s so much better than a photograph, and certainly better than simply stating they are freakishly large. If your thing is fragile, just put it into clear protective container and then attach the container. Use 3M removable tape if you want to minimize damage to underlying poster paper. Neodymium magnets are even slicker — just attach a magnet to your thing, and affix a second magnet onto the back of the poster. Note that researchers of large things can always use miniaturized version made by a 3D printer (example). Attaching an object will increase visitor traffic by at least 20% (I’m making that up, but I’m sure it’s measurable).Box of cigarettes attached to academic poster

4. Add doodles

Use removable tape to add a transparency sheet over a graph or photograph if you want to make non-permanent doodles with Dry-Erase markers. You can then doodle on critical parts of your poster, then erase.

5. Add slideshows and movies

If you wish to show movies or photographs, attach an iPad (at right; another example) or equivalent. Here’s a video showing how to attach. If the movies and photographs look OK on smaller screens, use an old iPod or iPhone. You can also buy cheap digital photo frames at Targét. Note: provide headphones if audio is banned in session room (common). And if your media presentation is critical to the poster, put it online and then provide the QR code (for URL) on the spot underneath the iPad so that viewers can still see the movie even when you remove the iPad (so people don’t steal it when you’re away from your poster).iPad on conference poster

6. Add sound

If your topic is related to sound, attach a sound device that contains your sound (bird calls, engine rattle, etc.). A cheap “sound postcard” will often do the trick if you don’t want to risk your iPad. 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.Photograph by Colin Purrington

7. Add virtual reality content

Add virtual-reality content (and VR goggles) if you need a way to enhance the poster-viewing experience in some way. There are some great examples over at SeriousGeoGames (scroll down for poster pics).

8. Add odors

If your topic is related to olfaction, try to get the odor onto your poster somehow. Microencapsulation is one way to make scratch-n-sniff areas, but if you work on a common odor there might be a scented ink that you can just buy. E.g., you might go for the smell of fresh cut grass if your poster is on effects of grazing. You can also buy odor sample bags to trap smells for later use (just attach them to your poster with instructions on how to extract a whiff).

Printing

Before you print a poster, print to a PDF first and confirm — at 100% magnification — that colors, fonts, and images look perfect. If you’ve never printed to a PDF before, it’s easy: on Windows machines, select, “Save As”, and on Macs, “Print To.” If the PDF looks awful, go back and fix your source file. One trick is to upload the PDF to http://pdf-analyser.edpsciences.org/, which will give you a listing of the resolutions of all images contained, plus will flag any fonts you’ve used but weren’t embedded in the PDF. If you own Adobe Acrobat Pro, you can get the same information by running a preflight diagnostic.

Once you have a PDF that you’re pleased with, send it to your campus poster printer, a local media business (Office Max, Staples, Kinko’s, etc.), or to a poster printing service that prints academic posters. If you opt for an online service, they’ll mail it to you (in a tube), even to your meeting location if you so desire. I’ve use PhD Posters in the past because their locations are run by people with PhDs (really) who value good design and know about academic conferences … plus they haven’t plagiarized my site like certain other popular companies. In many cases, conference organizers have arrangements with online poster printers that offer a discount, so check with the people in charge. Ideally, do all the above in time that you can re-print if you discover a problem only on the printed version. You might have made a $200 mistake, but if you’re trying to impress people, and you probably are, it might be worth the do-over.

These days, there are lots of options on paper thickness and gloss, plus even the option to print on various types of fabric that can be folded. One huge advantage of fabric posters is that you can store the poster in your briefcase/backpack, and thus minimize the chance you’ll inadvertently leave the poster behind at the airport (when your poster is in tube, this happens). Astrobetter has a nice review by Emily Rice. Another huge advantage of cloth posters is that when you are done presenting you can make geeky clothes.

Fabric conference posters

Of course, many conferences these days feature posters on monitors. But you should also print your poster so that you have something to hang in your hallway when you return.

Note that if you receive your poster and the images look pixelated or the colors displease you, just print out high-resolution replacements and attach them with tape to cover the bad versions.

How to present a poster

At most meetings you’ll be required to stand next to your poster and walk a visitor through it. But you should have designed it so that it’s understandable without you around. Because it’s not all about you.
Presenting a poster at a conference Here are some tips:

  1. If your conference promotes a meeting hashtag (e.g., #geekfest18), 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. If your society hasn’t advertised the official hashtag at least a year in advance, nudge them to get on board with modernity.
  2. Attach a sketch of your research topic to yourself at the start of the meeting. Or a miniature version of your actual poster. 4×6″ sticker label paper is ideal. Add text like, “Lincoln Conference Room, Fri @ 7pm”, so people know where/when to find you. You can also opt to make the drawing on a card that matches the size of your meeting ID, and then attach with tape on back.personal-poster-sticker
  3. Add your email address and phone number onto the back of your meeting registration ID. When people ask for your contact information, just flip it around and they can copy what they need.
  4. Do not refer to notes when explaining your poster.
  5. When presenting your poster, use your fingers to point out specific parts of your poster.
  6. 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 could evolve gills when subjected to repeated dunkings, 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 evolve gills, but instead drowned.” Keep it general, and make it clear to the visitor why you find the topic interesting.
  7. 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…”
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. Attach a few business cards to your poster. Even if you are an academic and think owning a business card destroys your soul. If you want to stay informal, just order yourself a stack of cards that feature photographs of your research organism (or star system, or whatever you work on). I’m fond of MOO (see my cards).
  11. If you must leave your poster for a bit, attach a note alerting any viewers to your expected time of return or telling them where you can be found. Put your phone number on the note. E.g., “Hey, this is crazy, but if you want to chat about this poster, text me at 800-867-5309.”
  12. If you’re assigned to a dark corner in the poster session room, buy a cheap flashlight and stick it on a leash for visitors. Or, better, attach a clip-on, battery-powered lamp. I found one for $7.99 on Amazon that might work. But buy three so you have good coverage. I don’t get any kickbacks, fyi. I’m just trying to help you out.Lamp for illuminating posters
  13. Attach a photograph of yourself near or on your poster so that people can find you more easily.
  14. Have on hand, but don’t aggressively peddle, manuscripts and reprints of your work. If you have space on the mounting board, just pin them up for the taking.
  15. Make shrunken versions of your poster as handouts. If you have resisted the urge to shrink your font size, the text will still be legible.
  16. 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 the Internet (Twitter people do this all the time). If you have unpublished research, or research that might be deemed offensive to non-scientists, attach a “Please do not photograph” note on the poster.No photography stickers for poster session
  17. Keep a black pen and correction fluid in your pocket in case a viewer discovers an embarrassing tybo.
  18. If you are obsessive compulsive and have a large wardrobe, try to choose your clothes to match your poster color (more people will visit). If you’re color blind or fashion-impaired, please ask somebody for help.Pretty in pink conference poster
  19. Attach a clear plastic cup full of candy to your poster, along with a note saying, “please help yourself.” People love candy. Stand off to the side of your poster, then swoop back in when victims take the bait.
  20. People are more likely to visit if they see other people already crowded around your poster, so ask your friends to stop by and linger. They can leave when they fulfill their job.
  21. Do not chew tobacco. Nicotine patches are fine, but remember that too many patches can cause rashes and cardiac arrest.
  22. Don’t chew gum or tobacco. Most people find the sight of chewing repulsive. I’m just the messenger here.
  23. 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.
  24. Do not wear Axe Body Spray. (For those in UK, Australia, and New Zealand, this means don’t wear Lynx Body Spray.) It’s an awful smell that advertises that you’re insecure and single. Come on guys, just bathe in the morning and you’ll be fine.
  25. If you’re the plan-ahead type, make a JPG of your poster (or research organism) and order yourself a t-shirt and wear it around before the poster session. It would be funny, plus would attract people to your poster who might not otherwise care at all. When everyone starts doing this it won’t be as funny, so act now.
  26. If you’re outgoing or just miserably unhappy with your assigned poster location, just attach some string onto the top to convert your poster into something wearable and portable, and then go find an audience. Make sure your hands are free so that you can still point at parts of the poster. If this option sounds too fun, just go ahead an order a sandwich board, and get creative what you print on your backside.Two researchers wearing their academic posters
  27. 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.

To see people presenting posters or talking about poster design, there are thousands of YouTube videos. But note that almost all the posters featured have far too much text so don’t emulate the formats you might see there.

Suggestions for poster session organizers

Many posters these days are absolutely terrible, but professional organizations can help. A big part of the problem is that poster design philosophies are often vertically transmitted within a laboratory or department like a disease. E.g., if the Principal Investigator is a huge fan of using bright, pixelated photographs as background images, all the impressionable undergraduates in his/her laboratory will adopt that aesthetic for the rest of their lives. A professional society can break this cycle by providing poster presenters with guidelines about content and design. There are also some decisions that get made years before the conference begins that can dramatically improve your poster session.

1. Make sure posters can be viewed without stooping

Before you book a venue for the conference, ensure that the site has poster supports that allow the bottom part of a poster to be approximately chest height or higher. If venue doesn’t have those types of boards, find a different venue. Alternatively, modify the poster size specs (reduce height, use landscape orientation) so that the posters can be situated high on the board (i.e., not extending to fill the whole board). If you don’t do the above, people will have to stoop or sit to read the lower portions. Here’s another example of what you want to avoid. I’d say that 90% of the photographs of poster sessions on Twitter display this problem. Poster sessions are best when posters are easy to read.

Viewers stooping to read conference poster in dimly-lit room

2. If rooms are dark, provide lamps

Very few conference venues are well lit, and it’s really hard to read small text in such conditions. So splurge on a fleet of LED lamps that people can clip onto their posters. Like the $7.99 one below that I found on Amazon (I don’t get kickbacks, fyi). Get three per poster. Alternatively, send a message to your presenters in advance and tell them to buy something like that.

Lamp to attach to research poster

3. Don’t turn poster sessions into lectures

Some meeting organizers have people present their posters to a room full of people (example 12, 3). I’ve never been to one of these but I think it completely undermines the whole point of a poster. I.e., unless the screen covers the entire wall of the room, members of the audience simply cannot read anything on the poster. It’s really just an opportunity to watch somebody point excitedly at parts of a poster. Which could be fun, but it makes it hard to have the personal, informal interactions that are a part of a normal poster session. People will still be at the back of the room looking at their phones.

Presenting a poster to a seated audience (photograph from Val Nfonsam)

4. Don’t require banners, footers, or logos

Mandating graphics on posters takes space away from actual content and can visually overwhelm figures, making it harder for viewers to navigate what’s important. See example at right for an especially horrific banner and footer, complete with clip art and motivational slogans. On this poster the content is shifted down by approximately 12″ (!), plus shmooshed by footer as well, requiring author to reduce font size and figure size to make it fit in the remaining space. If you really want to brand things with your association name and motto, provide presenters with a removable stickers that can be applied to posters when they are displayed in the hallways back at their home institutions. Those stickers (or cards), if well-designed, would be great advertisements for the society or organization. If you want to provide a fun photo-op to get the word out about meeting, you can also make durable, portable photo frames that people can pose inside.

Conference poster with banner

5. Don’t require an abstract on the poster

A poster is an abstract. It’s totally fine, of course, to ask for an abstract so that one can be included in a conference booklet. If you just can’t let go of this section, put a 2-sentence limit on it.

6. Give a word count target

Perhaps the most valuable advice a society or organization can provide to presenters is a word limit. It’s of course going to depend on poster size, but once you know that, give some serious thoughts to providing an estimate of how many words could reasonably be crammed into a poster of that size if font size was kept at, say, 30 pt, and there were no figures. The example at right shows a poster with almost 2,000 words. I’d recommend 800-1000 words. You need to provide a number because “keep your word count low” could mean “under 5,000 words” to many (or all). Another way of providing the advice is to provide a minimum size (in mm) for a printed word or letter. Or you could say, “letters should be the size of your index finger’s fingernail or larger.” But that might cause a correlation between hand size and font size, so be careful.

Word count of poster with too much text

7. Give advice on how to pitch the poster

Many posters are so crammed full of acronyms and jargon that they are intelligible only to members of the same laboratory and, sometimes, only to the Principal Investigator and his/her closest collaborators. That’s a bad poster for the general meeting attendee who is hoping to get exposed to some science outside of his/her focus. For those people who are first crafting a poster, advice like this can give them the courage to craft a better, more general poster.

8. Show examples of good posters, with commentary

Find a few good posters from previous meetings and provide some commentary about each poster so that attendees know what is good about them. Note that “best poster from last conference” still might be pretty bad, so it’s probably better to find a great poster from a difference conference.

9. Don’t provide templates

The main reason I’m against templates is that if you provide a template with lapses in aesthetics, color choice, font size, etc., everyone at the meeting will adhere to those lapses. An example is the photograph in #3, above — she had no choice but to use the awful template, or else. Another reason to avoid templates is to encourage posters to look different. When every poster in the room looks the same, a little bit of everyone dies inside. Let people be creative. Finally, templates mandated for conferences are often PowerPoint files, which forces everyone to use Powerpoint instead of software that is more suitable for professional page layout. It’s true, of course, that almost everyone uses PowerPoint for posters, but your society can help break this dependency.

10. Provide guidance on a permanent web page

Whatever tips you end up recommending, make sure the advice resides on a stable web page on your professional organization’s main site, not on some page that changes each year.

11. Post judging criteria prior to meeting

If posters will be judged, tell attendees what criteria will be used. Ideally, post the forms that the judges will be using. And, please, don’t give top award to the poster with smallest font: that just encourages people at future conferences to use even smaller fonts. Seriously, judges have to stop doing that.

Voting for people's poster prize

12. Sponsor a “people’s choice” award

Even if you have official judging, set up a box in the poster session room for attendees to nominate posters for a “most enjoyable/creative/novel” (or whatever) award. There’s always one at a conference, and it would be nice to give them credit somehow, even if the judges didn’t give them any love. You can also post a QR code at the meeting, or send out a voting form via Twitter with the meeting hashtag (voting done with a Google Doc, fyi).

13. Use mini posters

If you have a mixer or other social event at the start of a conference, provide colored pens and challenge poster presenters to sketch their research (or organism) onto sticker labels that they can then affix to their shirts. Attendees can then point to their mini-posters whenever they please (e.g., for elevator pitch). I’ve done poster-design workshops involving these sketches for 15 years (at Swarthmore College, Sigma Xi meetings, NYAS, EPA, DOE, etc.), and they are effective and fun. This article gives details. Note that if presenters have uploaded images in advance of the meeting, you (the person in charge) can print them out onto card stock sized to match the meeting IDs … then just task attendees with attaching those cards with tape. Then people can refer to their poster throughout the meeting.

14. Protect posters from unwanted photography

Sometimes posters show research in progress, and many people would prefer that their unpublished results aren’t broadcast to the world on Twitter. Certainly, if the poster author is present and grants permission for a photograph to be taken, that’s all great. But session organizers should provide a system of stickers so that presenters can mark their posters in some identifiable way.

No photography stickers for poster session

15. Provide boxes for poster tubes

Tubes underneath all the posters look messy, plus are tripping hazards for people who might be coming from wine/beer mixer. Here’s an example I found on Twitter.. It’s like the bins for umbrellas at restaurants and libraries.

Boxes for poster tubes at conference

If any of the above seem to ring true for conferences you regularly attend, please consider sharing this page with the powers that be.

Articles, books, links

Articles

Books

  • 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]
  • Pechenik, J.A. 2016. A Short Guide to Writing about Biology, 9th edition. Longman, New York. [Amazon]
  • Tufte, E.R. 1983. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Graphics Press, Connecticut. [Amazon]

Websites

Contact

If you have a question, please contact me.

COPYRIGHT 2018 COLIN PURRINGTON