How to prepare an academic poster: a terrible guide that no one should follow…

Academia thrives on posters. At school whenever I was asked to make a poster project I always wondered why, they just seem like busy work for kids given by teachers who had run out of ideas. But it turns out that at the age of 32 I am still making them on an almost twice yearly basis.

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If there is generally one thing that academia struggles with then it is communicating ideas with others – and posters are a surprisingly well established answer to that. They’re cheap, you can have lots at a conference, and it’s easier to persuade people to look at them rather than try to stay awake during your 5 minute talk.

So given their importance I thought it would be a good idea to post a guide for everyone who ever needs to design an academic poster but is unsure of what exactly is best practice. Regular readers may remember my very popular ‘guide to writing an MSc thesis‘ – which is now used at several universities.

The Template

Now before you even get to start designing your poster you may be constrained by some design choices from your company or university. I’ve worked at a few different places that already had a special poster template which they wanted everyone to use. This had the benefit of giving all posts that slick uniform feeling.

Of course the people making the templates tend to be in ‘marketing’ and not always academically focused. But having the university logo take up 1/3 of the usable poster space is obviously important. Universities with nice clean layouts with lots of content space for their academics are clearly not trying hard enough to market themselves. If you find your poster is lacking in marketing then maybe offer to stick some extra logos in to maximise marketing potential.

Title & authorship

Next comes the title of the paper. This is crucial to making your poster unique amongst the other 100 or so at the conference. Some people claim that a title should be short and to the point. But from the various conferences I’ve attended it’s clear the commonly accepted method is to make your title as long as possible and include as many of the details about your work as possible. Treat it more like an abstract to your poster.

A benefit of this seems to be that the text of your title is now so small that people will have to come close to read it. This I assume is a good technique for drawing people to the poster where they are more likely to get invested.

Layout

Layout is inextricably linked to the content/text which I’ll cover in a second. Now normally when planning out a poster or display the key is to draft a layout of the display with what you think is required to make a good display.

Now academic posters work a little differently. Here you want to get all of you results and notes together and then try desperately to cram as much of it in to the poster as possible. Focusing too much on key findings or important methodology really neglects the more tangential data that really doesn’t add anything but at least shows you did lots of work.

Also this is mostly a point for western audiences but people read from left to right typically so if you have columns, you may be tempted to make the left most to be read first, then the middle and then the right. But people love change and you shouldn’t be a slave to convention, jumble them up! This will make people read all the poster as they have to frantically search for the next part of text.

If you really get stuck for layout ideas then you can always just make a load of power point slides and stick them up.

Text

As mentioned in the layout section, more is better in academia and so this is true for text. Just like a journal paper, try to get as many of your random thoughts on this work down as possible. Again this may seem to go against presentation wisdom but academia is different and at any poster sessions you’ll see people proudly showing off posters with text crammed into every square inch of free space.

Legible poster

Of course this has a benifit that ties in nicely with the title. Fitting all that text in is going to mean you’ll have to shrink it down. This will draw the reader in even closer! The title might have made them take a step closer but the text should have them peering intently at your poster.

Images

Now with all that text you might not have much room for your images but these are the core of your poster. You may already have images you made for a journal paper or a report, just put these straight in, there’s no need to reformat them to make them more readable on a poster format. You can even just use the same small images and blow them up bigger for the poster. Everyone will be too interested in your data to notice a little bit of pixelation.

You may also be tempted to redo some of the images to make them have a cohesive style with a similar colour palette that fits with other images. However, this would only serve to show that you’ve spent too much time messing about with pictures and not enough on the science. Pixelated messy images are a sign of a highly focused scientist.

Finally, the images should be positioned around the text where they look nicest. Don’t worry too much about putting images near to the text describing them. Again, this will help encourage the reader to read the whole poster and look around for the right text.

Final thoughts

Once your poster is complete it should have everyone craning their necks, straining their eyes and scrabbling around to find information. If people reading your poster have a constantly confused look then you’ve succeeded in crafting a true academic masterpiece.

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