Making a poster for a scientific conference

General advice

  • Think about your audience. Posters are about communicating, so most of this poster-related advice is geared towards making you a more effective communicator. The specifics may change depending on your specific topic or culture, but always ask yourself whether there are things you can do to make your poster more helpful to your audience.

  • Beware of templates. Yes, there are a lot of templates for making posters available (many university departments and labs have them). This does not mean they are well-designed. In fact, in my experience people new to making posters generally do a worse job when they use a template of some sort (including from a previous poster-maker) because they inherit any bad design choices.

  • Learn to think critically about posters (your own, and other people's). If you have only ever seen one example poster in your life, you won't have an appreciation for the variety of things that can be helpful (or unhelpful) in a poster. The best way to learn about what makes an effective poster is to look at a lot of posters, ideally on topics you are interested in. For example, you can go to a poster session at a local conference or department poster session. But don't be a passive observer: really think about what things made your job, as a poster session attendee, easier. Can you read the font? Can you follow the logic? What do you want to know that isn't on the poster? You can then learn to apply the same thinking to your own poster. If you can't attend a live poster session, look at posters hanging around your department (or other departments), or poster examples online (the good, the bad, and the ugly).

  • Leave yourself plenty of time. This is especially true if you have not made many posters, or are trying new techniques. It is difficult to do your best work in a week. Once you have made a poster or two you with thoughtful, intentional design choices, you will get faster at it.

  • Get feedback from several people. This should generally include your PI and other authors on the poster. But, you may notice that some people in the world are better at making posters than others, and that just because someone is more experienced than you scientifically doesn't necessarily mean they make the best posters. Seek out people who make good posters and care about design, and learn from them.

Specific advice (in no particular order)

(Not all of these apply in every situation, but many do!)

  • Use a column format (for example, 3 columns), which allows readers to move from left to right along your poster.
  • Use a legible font size for the main text. (I'm generally OK with using smaller font for references if necessary.)
  • Make sure your title is big enough and uncluttered. It's common practice to include institutional logos (I do it, too), but make sure they don't detract from your title.
  • Author names and affiliations should be readable but don't need to be huge.
  • Be consistent: have your headings the same font and use color in a sensible and consistent way.
  • Don't include the abstract in your poster. For most conferences this is available elsewhere, and it's too wordy. Use your space to succinctly introduce the background and question your poster answers.
  • Avoid paragraphs when possible (i.e., always). Your audience is most likely not interested in reading a lot of dense text but wants the main points.
  • Make sure elements are aligned (titles, text, figures...).
  • Use white space appropriately: a dense poster is visually difficult to parse.
  • Use visuals whenever possible. This may seem obvious for results (most of the time). But, figures can also be useful in explaining your theoretical background or experimental design. Sometimes I'll be talking through a poster and find myself describing something that isn't on the poster, which is a good hint that next time I might want to include it. At the same time...
  • Don't use graphics just for the sake of using graphics. In other words, just pasting in some clip art is probably not going to help your poster communicate more effectively.
  • Follow good practice with your results figures: label the axes, include error bars (or other measure of variability in your data), make sure legends are clear and consistent from figure to figure.
  • Make sure your graphics are of sufficient resolution to print well when enlarged to the size of a poster. Whenever possible I recommend vector graphics as opposed to raster graphics. (If you don't know what this means, it's worth looking up.)
  • Have a sheet where people can sign up for a copy of your poster, and send them a PDF. (You can also bring handouts, but I like having the chance to email people after the conference which is a chance to start a conversation if they have any questions.)

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