What Makes a Great Poster?

Posters are a common form of research communication, particularly in STEM fields. They’re effective, they’re fun to browse at conferences, and they don’t require any public speaking. Yay!

They can also be a mission to create. If you’re not a talented graphic designer (*cough* ME *cough*) it can be tough to figure out what will make an eye-catching design.

With the PG Symposium coming up, we thought we’d put together a few tips for producing a winning poster.

What should I write on my poster?

First of all, don’t include an abstract. Your poster is like an abstract for your research as a whole. Including an abstract within the poster will just use up valuable space. Besides, you will have probably included a poster abstract in the conference / symposium programme.

Secondly, don’t write too much. Poster readers tend to only spend a few minutes at each poster, possibly juggling a drink and a programme, probably distracted by chatter. Their powers of concentration are not at their peak. Words should be used sparingly, and they should be clear and understandable.

Which brings us to our third point: write in a way that suits the audience. At a specialist conference, that may mean that lots of technical details are appropriate; whereas for more general audiences like those at the PG Symposium, you’ll need to avoid jargon and specialist language so that readers from other fields can understand your research.

What should my poster look like?

It should definitely be eye-catching – make sure you have images, diagrams, and figures to balance the text and add visual punch. It should also be clearly laid out. There’s no need to be (or hire) a graphic designer, but do pay attention to your poster’s layout. View it as a whole; is there a logical flow of information from top to bottom? Is the poster pleasing to the eye, not too crowded, and with enough visual interest? Is the content neatly aligned within columns?

One principle I’ve found especially useful is to create a colour scheme. I know what you’re thinking: you are creating a research output, not planning a wedding! But a colour scheme makes the poster look professional and avoids visual confusion. Choose a key image, and identify the dominant colours in that image. Then use those as the basis of your palette. If your image is mainly blue and grey, you can select shades of blue and grey for your background, headings, and diagrams. Just keep it readable!

Speaking of readable: keep shapes and graphs in 2D. 3D images look strange when printed, and are harder to read.

What practical considerations should I keep in mind?

Build in lots of time for printing. Seriously. For my first poster presentation, I figured I’d just print it on the day. Big mistake. I ended up stressed out of my mind, running all over town trying to find a printer that could handle the paper size. (AUT students need not run around – you can get posters printed at PinkLime.) Just to be safe, aim to finish designing the poster a week before you actually need to submit it for display.

Another key point is to ensure that anyone who is interested can follow up on your research. You can make yourself ‘findable’ by including your name, names of co-researchers (if applicable), your institution, and your department.

In terms of the actual design process, you can create your poster in MS Word, PowerPoint, Adobe Illustrator, InDesign, PhotoShop, or really any programme that allows for text and image design. Choose a programme you’re comfortable with, and make sure that it allows for any special components you may have (formulae, graphs, figures, etc).

Ensure that images are high definition so they print well. There’s nothing more heartbreaking than proudly unrolling your poster at the printers’, and finding a giant fuzzy blob in the middle of it.

Finally, make sure you check for size restrictions with the conference or symposium organisers. Conference posters are generally required in A1 or A0 size, but it’s always best to check. (A1 or A0 size will be accepted for the PG Symposium.)

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About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink. She has a research background in science and narrative. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. She has previously researched fictional representations of evolution and quantum mechanics. She has taught such diverse texts as Blade Runner and Bridget Jones’s Diary, and her most obscure skill is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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