Poster session at Society for Neuroscience's Annual Meeting

Organizing a poster session

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.


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