How to create a scientific poster


Phil Lucas | MPH
10 minute read

The history of posters is rather interesting. Posters were used primarily for advertising and announcements - e.g., for drumming up excitement and anticipation for the arrival of the circus. Now, in a scientific setting we use scientific posters or conference posters to drum up excitment and interest in our research, however, often this original and simple purpose of a scientific poster can get lost leaving the audience uninterested and disengaged. Exactly what we don't want.

To ensure you create a great scientific poster, follow our simple step-by-step guide below.

The star of the show

Think of a typical poster as an advertisement and announcement of your research - a way to attract attention to your work for the purpose of networking, collaborations, discussions, support, ideas… and so forth. We want to drum up excitement for our research and we want to create anticipation for more information or results. At a conference in Rotterdam, I struck up a conversation with someone from a company who was interested in one line from my poster, ‘...encapsulation of this peptide to enable delivery to its target may be the most effective mode of administration’. The company specialised in novel encapsulation processes and we ended up meeting to discuss future research projects.

My point is, so much of scientific research is about networking and multidisciplinary collaboration.

Getting offered a poster presentation at a research symposium or conference is an excellent platform to facilitate this process, so use it wisely and do not take it as a ‘poor man’s oral presentation’ slot.

Design a poster for its own specific purpose with as much thought and attention as the french artists used back in the 1800s - without losing the scientific message, integrity, and professionalism - of course. We may not have a fantastic white horse than can perform amazing tricks to wow our audience, but we should pick the star of our show (method/results/conclusions - whatever will resonate with the audience most (see below)) and what we believe is the most interesting part of the research story so far. Then build around that.

A scientific poster is not a mini research paper, it is not a 15-minute oral presentation in poster form, nor is it a visual data-vomit of difficult to decipher graphs and terminology.

Posters are a tool we use to communicate research, so keep it simple.

1 - Know your audience

Think about the conference - is it a general medical conference or a conference specifically for your disease-therapy area? Will all attendees have a scientific background or will they be a mixed crowd with varied levels of scientific knowledge? Also, think about what you want out of this - what is your take home message? This is the stage where you drill down who you want to read your conference poster and why you want them to read it. This is always the initial crucial step in any scientific communications or medical writing - for more information read our blog on tailoring messages to different audiences.

know your audience

2 - Structure

There are a few things to think about under this heading and I like to work this out before scripting because then you know how many words you have to work for each section. Although a poster is NOT a mini research paper, using scientific structure is important.

Intro → methods → results → discussion → conclusions → references/acknowledgements

The intro section should put the research into context quickly and succinctly - give the reader the reason why your research is important, why it matters to them, what issues does your research address? Basically, make them want to read more.

The methods section - if possible keep it to a minimum. Unless this section is the star of the show. If anyone is interested they will ask and it is a good way to save some space.

The results section can include some graphs but select these carefully. Remember your audience again - most people not used to looking at graphs don’t like graphs! Try to keep them as simple as possible. If people are interested they will ask for more detail, you can follow up your chat with an email and boom - you’re networking!

Conclusions are best when kept short and sweet too - just a summary of the important information. I like to think of them more like your take home message.

3 - Layout

Keep the layout simple and define the areas with panels or boxes. Make sure the reader knows which order to read everything in. I suggest searching for ‘scientific poster templates’ to get an idea. If you want to be radical - check out this YouTube video ‘How to create a better research poster in less time (including templates)’, where quite a different layout is suggested and I kind of like it.

IMPORTANT: Check the conference rules/guidelines. They may request that your poster hangs landscape rather than portrait. You will also get size details, so be sure to get your poster printed.

4 - Design

Common sense should prevail here. Don’t use colours that clash or are going to hurt your eyes - try to keep the colour scheme 'classy'. Make sure you keep your company or logo in mind when you are choosing your colour base. They will have to work together.

Negative space is also important so please don’t feel the need to cover every single area of your poster - it has been recommended by some design experts that 40% of your poster should be clear!

negative space

The font sizes of your text should stay consistent throughout the poster, with only titles or headings varying with size. Unless there is a specific design need it is best to stick to one font that is easy to read.

Remember to add some eye-catching visuals that will draw people in - think about what would grab your eye when you are walking around a poster session. Would it be a wall of text or some interesting cell image or graphic that might spark a curiosity to know more?

Additional tips

Remember to add your contact information so that people know how to contact you. Another nice tip is to have a number of copies of the poster printed in A4 so that you can give them to any interested parties. Sometimes it is nice to add your photo beside your contact information if you have room.

Always remember to add references to any images you used that were not your own, and any papers that you have cited. Even if the font size is small, it is expected to be there.

5. Poster Printing

Before you decide to get your poster printed it is so important to get a review of your work. You have now looked at it for so long and agonised over the smallest detail that you cannot see the wood for the trees, and could miss typos or difficult to read sentences. Or you may think a graph or summary is very clear, but someone else has no idea what you are talking about! It is a good idea to get someone who is familiar with your area of work to review the poster presentation and someone who isn’t. They will probably have different comments or thoughts on it and it is good to get varied perspectives.

I always like to print the poster on A4 (or larger if possible) as you will always spot something you have missed on your screen review.

Ask the poster printing service about the many options available - matt, shiny, paper, canvas etc and see what would be best for you. For travelling, it’s handy to have it printed on canvas so that it can be folded and carried quite easily. Make the options work for you.

6. Pitch it!

Although this isn’t a presentation you still have to be able to ‘sell’ yourself and the work, so have in mind what you want to say. Think of it as a 60-second pitch/presentation and always invite people to ask questions or for some feedback.

Remember, if you can’t explain it simply then you don’t understand it well enough.

In conclusion, your scientific or conference poster is a visual communication tool. It serves as an advertisement for your work, allowing you to present your key research findings and engage in conversations with your target audience. Although many factors, such as personal preference, scientific discipline, choice of software, will continue to influence how different individuals design and present their posters, incorporating even a few of these tips in your next poster will help to elevate its main points and make it stand out in a bustling conference poster hall. Good luck!

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