Guidelines for a clear, engaging poster
Your poster needs to communicate information clearly and quickly, drawing audience members in so that they are motivated to ask you questions about your research. The visual elements serve to separate different sections of the poster and direct the audience's attention to your key findings.
The poster should have:
- Elements that are aligned and not too close together, with plenty of white space
- Limited use of color
- Judicious use of features to differentiate sections, such as
- Different fonts and font sizes
- Bolding and italics
- Lines or colors to split up the sections
- Attractive, easy-to-read fonts, preferably sans serif, e.g. Calibri, Trebuchet, or Century Gothic
- Lots of well-labeled photos and figures
Create your message
A poster with good design and clear written content can help you to present a strong, cohesive message about your research. Before deciding on the design of your poster, think about:
- Who is your target audience - is it scholars from your field, scholars from different fields, or a general, non-scholarly audience?
- What are you trying to accomplish - are you trying to persuade your audience, inform them, or establish yourself as a reputable researcher?
What is the "take-away message" of your poster?
- A poster is most effective when its focus is one core idea. Before you begin making your poster, write 100 words or less summarizing the purpose and findings of your research.
- What is the take-away message from your project - a creative research method, a finding, a jumping-off point for future research?
- Your most important ideas deserve the spotlight. Don't waste space on minor details.
- Make sure the take-away message is not a small note in the margin.
- It's a good idea to prepare a very brief summary of your research that you can deliver in 30 seconds, and a slightly longer presentation of 4-5 minutes to guide audience members through your poster and its main points. You might also want to prepare handouts by printing smaller versions of the poster.
Make your poster easy to read.
- Avoid wordiness, unnecessary jargon, and abbreviations that aren't commonly known
- Use bullet points instead of full paragraphs wherever possible
- Make lists of central ideas and grouped concepts
- Keep each line of text to less than 12 words if possible
- Try to use no more than about 800 words. Remember that many people will read only the introduction and conclusion. And they will probably be viewing your poster from 5 feet away or more.
- Emphasize key words with boldface or italics
Create a logical visual flow.
- When planning the order of presentation of the information, bear in mind that when reading people tend to move from top to bottom and left to right.
- You can help the visual flow of your poster with headings, arrows, and/or numbers that direct the viewer where to look next.
- The bigger and more central a piece of information is, the more your viewers will notice it.
- Use a basic sans-serif font like Arial or Calibri.
- The title should be at least 54 pt, and the authors' name(s) (with affiliations) should be around 48 pt.
- The banner with the title of the research project and the authors' name(s) should be placed at the top of the poster so that it can be seen above people's heads if there's a crowd gathered around.
- The rest of the text should be black and at least 18 pt.
- Section headings can be in color and about 28 pt.
- Use color sparingly, because cartridges are expensive, and because too much color makes a poster harder to read.
- The best layout is probably three columns, but you may want to lay out your poster differently if your data or images would look better shown in a long horizontal line, for example. (To see some examples of different layouts, you can do an image search for "scientific research posters" on Google.)
- You can put your text inside text boxes, either with or without a border around each box.
- The structure should be very similar to that of a scholarly science article, with a brief abstract or introduction, methods, results, conclusions or discussion, recommendations, and reference section:
- Title: Briefly convey the interesting issue you were investigating.
- Introduction: Use the minimum amount of background information to get viewers interested in your research, placing your issue in the context of previous work. State your research objective clearly and in an interesting way. Since the whole poster is, in a sense, an abstract, it isn't absolutely necessary to include an abstract.
- Methods and Materials: Include photographs, labeled drawings, flowcharts, etc., to illustrate your experimental design, and mention statistical analyses that you used.
- Results: Use clearly labeled charts and graphs, with captions that are engaging and convey important findings.
- Conclusions/Discussion: State whether your hypothesis was supported and why your results are interesting. Say how your findings relate to other published work and to the real world.
- Recommendations: Mention recommended next steps.
- References/Literature Cited: Include at most 3-4 references, and make sure you follow the style guide for your field.
- Acknowledgements: Thank individuals for specific help and contributions.
- Further Information: Your email address or website.
Images and charts
- The same amount of space or more space on the poster should be taken up by images or graphs as by text. A good rule of thumb is about 50/50.
- Save your images as file type JPG, JPEG, PNG or GIF; JPGs handle gradients and soft color transitions extremely well but aren't so good for sharp contrasts and thin lines like those that might be present in a chart or a pen sketch. PNGs handle fine lines and sharp contrasts better than JPGs.
- You will need to use images of 200-300DPI (dots per inch), or they will look fuzzy when enlarged and printed.
- Each figure or image must have a caption that explains its main point; charts and graphs must have a key or legend. Refer to your figures by number in the text.
- Don't use tables that are more than 3 or 4 rows by 3 or 4 columns, as they are too hard to decipher quickly.
- If you want to use images that you find on the Internet, make sure they aren't covered by copyright restrictions, and give an appropriate attribution. (For help, see the article on Fair Use from the Columbia University Copyright Advisory Office.) If citing an image from a scholarly paper, you can give a citation to the article in your references.
Use of Color
- Maintain a good contrast between the background color and the text color.
- Neutral or grey background colors will be easier on the eyes than a bright color. In addition, color photos look best when mounted on grey.
- A gradient color fill in the background uses a lot of ink, and will not always print well.
Proofreading and Printing a Poster for the Science Research Institute Presentation
- Save your file as a PDF and print it out on 8½" x 11" paper to get a rough idea of what it will look like when printed.
- You can magnify it to proofread it, so that the text is easier to read, by photocopying it onto 11" x 17" paper, magnifying by 140%. If there is anything on the poster that you can't make out clearly at this size, you need to make that element of the poster larger.
- Keep your poster file size small. If you go over 10MB, you will increase your chances of running into jams, clogs and errors printing. Image size is what will make a poster file too large to print. Too large files often are related to images that were imported at much too high resolution.
- Submit it to the Dean of Studies Office for printing.
Practice Exercises to do in the SRI Poster Making Workshop
Insert an Image
- Find an image on the Internet to use for practice, by going to Wikimedia Commons. Search for a science-related image (e.g. bacteria, or an image related to your own research). Save the image on your computer's desktop or Downloads folder, and remember what it is called. (On the computers in the instruction lab, you can only save items to the D:\temp folder.) Click on "Use this file" in Wikimedia Commons to see what attribution statement you would use if you wanted to insert this image into your poster.
- You can also search for rights-free images using Google Images, and go to Tools - Usage rights to select "Labeled for reuse" or "Labeled for noncommercial reuse."
Insert a Chart from Excel
- Use this Excel file: drinks.xlsx.
- In Excel, select both columns, rows 4 through 11, and click on Insert - Charts - Column.
- Click on the text box containing the chart title and change it to something like "Drink Preferences."
- Click on the edge of the rectangular frame around the chart, and then click on the green plus sign that appears to the right of the chart. Check the box for "Axis Titles" and edit the text in the vertical and horizontal axis title text boxes (e.g. "Number of People" and "Drinks that People Liked"). On a Mac, click on the chart, and use Chart Layout on the ribbon at the top.
- Right click on the edge of the rectangular frame around the bar chart, and copy it. From here, you can paste it directly into your poster, or you can paste it into Photoshop or another drawing program and save it as a file that you can paste in later.
Getting Started with Illustrator
- Open Adobe Illustrator.
- Go to File - New.
- Give your project a name (i.e. "Earth Science Poster").
- Under Profile, choose Print.
- Under Units choose Inches, then input 42" x 42" under Height and Width.
- In Color Mode, select CMYK (this is the color profile for print materials; RBG is for web materials).
- Under Raster Effects, select at 300 DPI.
- Select "OK." Now that the canvas is set up, under View select Smart Guides and Rulers - Show Rulers.
Images & Charts
- Go to File - Place.
- Select an image to import from your computer, and select “Place”.
- Click on your canvas to place the image.
- Enlarge your image by holding down the shift key (to maintain the same aspect ratio) and expand.
- Right click on image to view image editing options, such as Transform - Rotate.
- Go to File - Place and import a second image.
- With the two images, rearrange the layout to see how the smart guides work, and allow you to view different forms of alignment.
- Open a chart that you created in Excel, and select Copy. Then Paste in Illustrator. (You can also add images using Paste).
- Select the “T” tool.
- Create a text box for the heading.
- Enter in heading text in box (i.e. “Effects of mercury on topsoil”). At the top toolbar, select font and size (we suggest 150 pt); select a center paragraph orientation.
- Change the color of the font by selecting the font color box on Characters tool bar. Add a border to the title by adding a 5 pt. Stroke; test out different border colors by selecting border color box.
- Select “T” tool.
- Create large text box.
- Paste / write text (we recommend that you write out your copy ahead of time in word processing software; suggest a 35 pt font size).
- Type - Area Type Options. Under Columns, type in 3. Increase the gutters to .5”.
- Resize text box; use smart grids to align with images and header.
- Delete the 3 column text box; create another text box with less text.
Shapes and Shading
- Select rectangle tool in left-hand toolbar; right click to choose Rounded Rectangle.
- Draw a rounded rectangle over your text box.
- In the top toolbar, change the color from black to a different and lighter color (you can also select option with red line which is “none” for no fill).
- Right click rounded rectangle, and select Arrange - Send to Back, so that text appears.
- Select rectangle, and in top toolbar add a 5 pt Stroke with a black color to add a border.
- Holding down shift key, select both your text box and rectangle. Right click and select “Group.” Now you can move text box and shape as single object.
Exporting to PDF
- Remember to save your project file.
- File - Save As.
- Under format, select Adobe PDF. Create the file name by using your last name followed by the first letter of your first name. For example, a poster by Amy Jones would be called JonesA_poster.pdf.
- Under compression, keep default of “Do not downsample”.
- Select “Save PDF”.
Setting up a 42" by 42" slide
- Open up PowerPoint.
- Delete the two placeholders, labeled "Click to add title" and "Click to add subtitle." To do this, click on the edge of the placeholder box, then hit the delete key.
- To set the page size, on a Mac go to File - Page Setup...; on a PC, go to Design – Slide Size - Custom Slide Size and select "Custom" under "Slides sized for:"
- Make the width 42" and the height 42" (on a PC, select "Ensure Fit").
- Go to the View menu and check the boxes for "Ruler" and "Guides" (on a Mac, select "Static Guides").
- There should now be a horizontal and a vertical guide line in the center of your slide.
- To set up guide lines for your 1 inch margins, select the guide in the middle of the slide and hold down the Ctrl key (Options key on a Mac) while dragging the guide line to the left so that it is 1" from the left hand edge of the slide (20" from the center). This will create a new guide line rather than move the existing one.
- In the same way, create three more guide lines 1" from each edge of the slide. They don't show when the slide is printed.
- Here are some PowerPoint templates you might want to use:
- 3 columns with guidelines that are visible if you click on View - Guides (you can add more guide lines, which don't show when the slide is printed, by holding down the Ctrl key, or the Options key on a Mac, and dragging a guide line)
- 3 columns with wider central column for results (by Colin Purrington - more templates available on his website Designing Conference Posters)
- 2 columns with textboxes and central large area for results.
Inserting Text Boxes
- Go to Insert – Text Box and create a text box at the top of the slide where you would like to place the Title or banner.
- Right click on the edge of the text box and from the menu select "Format Shape" (on a Mac, go to Format Shape...).
- Click on "Line Color" and select "Solid line" and also choose a color (on a Mac, click on "Line" and choose the color in the "Solid" tab).
- Contact us:
- Poster design websites:
- Designing Conference Posters by Colin Purrington (has a great list of Dos and Don'ts)
- Better Posters: a resource for improving poster presentations by Zen Faulkes.
- Illustrator tutorials:
- Excel tutorials from the Barnard Empirical Reasoning Center (ERC):