How to design an award-winning conference poster

By Tullio Rossi, reprinted from the LSE Impact blog

A good academic conference poster serves a dual purpose: it is both an effective networking tool and a means by which to articulately communicate your research. But many academics fail to produce a truly visually arresting conference poster and so opportunities to garner interest and make connections are lost. Tullio Rossi offers guidance on how to produce an outstanding conference poster, considering the scripting, concept, design, and logistics.

Before we get started, I want you to think about three things that you know about scientific posters. Think hard now.

Done? Great! Now erase those ideas from your memory. Forever.

We need to start fresh.

The problem is that 90% of the scientific posters that you’ve seen at conferences and in the corridors of your university are terrible. I mean very terrible! Therefore, any ideas you might have about what a scientific poster should look like are probably, well…terrible. But it’s not your fault, and we’ll set things straight in this post, so hang tight!

First off, let’s make clear what a poster is not.

A poster is not a bottomless pit where you dump all of your data and technical lingo. Only carefully selected information and visuals should go into your poster. I know you have eight fancy 3D plots that you can’t wait to share with the world, but ask yourself, are they really necessary? Do you really need eight of them when just one would do the trick?

Now let’s talk about what a poster should be instead.

Above all, a poster should be a networking tool. The primary purpose of a poster is not to communicate every little detail of your fantastic research, but rather to attract people’s attention and serve as a conversation starter. Think about the typical conference poster session; it’s at the end of the day, and there is often a copious amount of alcohol in the mix. Seriously, after a long day of presentations, no one wants to read walls of text as the wine kicks in. What they want is for you to share the story of your research and engage in informal conversation about it. Repeat after me: a poster is a conversation starter. And the poster is not going to do the talking for you.

Second, a poster is a communication tool. A poster should use visuals to draw people in from a distance. Then, as people step closer and begin reading it, go ahead and give the background information necessary so that they can put your work into context, understand what you have done, why you have done it, and come to realise its broader impact.

Does this ring a bell? It’s no coincidence that the key information you’d include in your poster is the same information that you’d find in any scientific abstract. And here’s the secret: a scientific poster is simply a visual abstract. It’s also known as a graphical abstract. A concise and visual summary of your research. Its purpose is to be accessible and to drive attention to your research.

As academics, we like to write using impossible words, passive tenses, and convoluted sentences. We believe this is the way it should be done and what makes us seem most intelligent. The reality is, this is a selfish way of writing and does not take the reader into account. So please, break this vicious cycle of selfish scientific writing and design your poster with the reader in mind from the start.

How? Let me show you.

Step 1 – Scripting

Before you consider opening PowerPoint, or any other design software, open Microsoft Word. Any word processor will do, but make sure that it has the ability to track your word count and check your spelling. The latter is particularly important, as I learned the hard way by missing an award because of a typo!

1. Background
2. Questions/knowledge gap
3. Methods (keep this to the bare minimum or skip it if you can)
4. Results
5. Conclusions
6. References and acknowledgements (smaller at the bottom)

Step 2 – Concept

Here is where the fun starts. Grab a piece of paper, or open up your design software, and make a first draft.

Step 3 – Design

Use a limited number of colours, say three-to-five, and stick with them! Graphs included. My suggestion is that you have two or three shades of a primary colour of your choice, an accent colour that stands out, and a couple of text colours. In a colour scheme of this kind, you can use the accent colour to draw attention to where you want people to look. The important thing is that you use the accent colour in moderation. Let me show you what I mean.

See how the 87% and the dot points stand out? This is the effect you want to recreate on your own posters. Feel free to steal these colour schemes, and in case you need some more inspiration, Material Palette is a free tool that creates colour palettes for you based on two colours of your choice.

Step 4 – Getting your poster ready for print

This was a long post with lots of information, so I’m impressed you made it this far! Now that you’ve learned these solid principles, you’re halfway there to making an award-winning poster.

Oh, and one last thing. Remember when I said that a poster is a conversation starter? It’s true, so you need to prepare and sharpen your pitch! Practice walking people through your poster in about a minute, and then start a conversation with them. How? Asking them what they work on is a good start. The secret to a good conversation is showing interest and listening. People love to talk about themselves and their research, so let them talk! It’s as easy as that.

This blog post originally appeared on the Animate Your Science blog and is reposted here with permission.

Animate Your Science is a communication agency that empowers researchers to change the world by communicating in an effective and accessible way with video animations and graphics.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Impact Blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

About the author

Tullio Rossi is has a PhD in marine biology from the University of Adelaide. He is the founder of Animate Your Science, a company whose objective is to help scientists to get their work noticed and make a positive impact on society through the creation of video and graphical abstracts that are engaging, understandable, and shareable on social media. He is a rare breed: a marine biologist, graphic designer, and communicator all rolled into one. Tullio is Italian, but currently resides in Adelaide, South Australia. When he’s not helping scientists get discovered, he loves travelling to exotic places, exploring the underwater world, and dancing salsa!