How I make conference posters

Created on Tuesday, May 24, 2016. I last modified it on Tuesday, October 30, 2018.

I’m super proud of my scientific posters, and I’d like to share my design process with you so that you can be proud of your posters too.


Conference posters are posters that detail your research; you hang them up in conferences so that your peers can learn that you exist and that you are doing good work. I’ve been making websites for most of my life, and it has directly informed the way I approach the design of anything — posters included — which is why I have an unconventional postering style. I’ve talked about my poster design process on social media, but I’ve never detailed it for others to reference. This is that reference. Briefly, the technique is:

First, define the requirements. Then find a good story and tell it simply. Once that's done, look around you for examples of good layout design, and incorporate them into your own poster design. Refine the content and layout of the poster until you are ready to print.

I will first explain the design process, and then I will present a case study where I follow the process from beginning to end. To get you interested, here is the poster I will walk through later:

About my design ethos

I think that visual design is just as important as content. I believe that by adapting lessons from other fields of publishing, we can design posters that are unconventional and surprising, and yet attractive to look at and informative to read. The alternative is to be cursed with posters that all look the same.

I dislike conventions such as standard headings ("Introduction", "Methods and Materials", "Results") when used in posters. I think these are wasted opportunities to communicate more information in interesting and useful ways.

Finally, this process is what works for me, in my project, in my field, at this point in my career. Adopt what is useful and make it your own.

About choosing design software

If you're in a rush, use what you know.

If you already use Powerpoint to make posters, I suggest switching to Microsoft Publisher. It has all of the layout tools of Powerpoint so the learning curve is basically nil, but it adds critical features such as high-resolution output, exact and easy control over page guides, and text boxes that spill content into one another so that your columns automatically reflow.

Other desktop publishing software exists too, of course, like Scribus (which is FOSS) or Adobe InDesign (which is proprietary, but your institution might have a license for it). I used Microsoft Publisher for the poster in my case study.

The process

Step 1. Define the requirements of the poster.

You need to ask:

  1. What dimensions and orientation should the poster have? It needs to fit into the space you’ve been assigned.
  2. What is the poster’s intent? When the poster is hanging alone on a wall when the conference is over, what message should it to send to readers?
  3. Who is the poster’s audience? What prior knowledge are they bringing with them?

Step 2. Find a good story.

Your poster’s story will depend on the intent of the poster and the audience you’re telling it to. If your intent is to give a full account of your project, for example, then your story is a personal one about why you find the topic interesting, and why the reader should find it interesting too.

For posters where the intent is to share results, this is the data exploration/analysis part. If you have any choice in the matter, focus on something that is easy for the audience to recognise and understand (or else accept that you will need to provide as much explanation as the audience needs).

A reader asked: “I struggle with finding a ‘story to tell’ because most of my posters are math posters, where there isn’t really a nice story to tell. Do you have any thoughts on extending this technique for math or similarly, em, ‘dry’ fields?

That really depends on the audience. If you’re sharing your work with experts then you might be stuck saying, “Here’s a proof/conjecture for an established problem in the field.” But if the audience is more general then you have a little bit of wiggle-room to say, “Here’s an interesting problem (or odd question), and I’ve been working on how to answer it.”

Tell the story simply.

Your content will largely determine the visual layout of the final poster, so the content must be ready first. Write all of it before you even look at your design software — everything from the title, to the headings, to the body text, to the figures, to the captions that go with the figures. I aim for an all-included word limit of 300–500 words.

The way you express the story depends entirely on the audience. If you are using a special machine to gather your data, for example, general-interest audiences will need and want more background information about it compared to an audience of experts in your field, who will read “GC-MS” and immediately understand. The same thing goes for diagrams and graphs; some audiences will be at home with gene expression heat maps (see Supplementary Figure 8), others will need instructions on how to read it, and some will need annotations on the graphic to guide them through its message.

A reader asked: “What if I need to make a poster that is figure-heavy, with less text to hold it together?”

Space within a poster is limited; You have zero chance of fitting everything in, and it may be foolish to try. Just as a paper is compressed into a 250-word abstract by only telling the important stuff, at some point in poster design you have to choose which of the figures are your most important figures, or you need to find a way to combine figures to make it tell more than one bit of information. A nice example is a genetic cluster pie map; it shows both the sampling area (as context) and genetic diversity (as a main result). In any case, a poster isn’t just held together by text! You can impart an ordered reading of the poster by using whitespace, a clear reading direction, and a logical ordering of the figures to tell a story. Something like, “I was curious about this so I did an experiment and got these results. But then I got really curious about this particular pattern, and…”

Step 3. Find examples of good layout design.

Now that the hard slog of writing is over, we can start having fun actually designing the poster. Go to your local op-shop and buy a big stack of assorted magazines, because magazines are highly visual. Homemaker magazines like Better Homes and Gardens tend to be ripe territory because they have a mix of different topics and interest areas in a single issue, but you want a wide variety of publications and genres.

If you don’t want to find or buy lots of old magazines, you can look at some for free online (but you lose the experience of the printed page, which is part of what makes this step so important):

Why do we use magazines for inspiration?

Because a poster is a designed artifact, and design sells.

Creative people should be sales people because design is a function of selling.
--- Duan Coetzee, CEO AdMakers
Your conference poster sells people on your personality, your work, and your research interests. When the conference is over and your faculty hangs it up to decorate a wall, it will continue selling your message for you. When you upload it to a site like ePosters or to your own website, that poster sells to an international audience. What better way to sell your research than to take inspiration from people who earn their living through the strength of their printed work?

Browse a magazine until you have a double-take moment.

Sit down with the stack of magazines and start scanning through them. Do it at a reasonable pace; slow enough to absorb what is on the page, but not so slow that you begin reading the text.

Eventually a page is going to make you stop and look longer, and when it does, you need to figure out what it was about that page that caught your attention. The best way is to draw it.

Draw a sketch of the page that made you stop.

Make a small block-level diagram of the page on a piece of paper about the size of your palm. This diagram should show the relationships of images and blocks of text to each other. Avoid adding too much detail: in the example shown here, I coded text as boxes with squiggles, and images as boxes with shading.

Write down where you saw the layout, and the element(s) that made you take a second look. Drawing and describing the layout is a deliberate way of figuring out why you like it, and how you can use that information later.

Do this for all of the magazines you found until you have a small library of layout sketches. This is the raw material for the next step.

Step 4. Iterate until you find a layout that works.

The sketches you just made are a source of inspiration, not imitation. If you turned a magazine layout into a poster it would probably be awful, because magazines have an audience and intent that is completely different from yours. The real aim of the layout sketching exercise was to help you see common design solutions to the problem of fitting stuff on a page in a pleasing way. Because you wrote down what made each layout memorable, you can remix the elements you like and omit the rest. Go through your sketches and pick some that you like and find useful. Keep them in front of you as you begin the design process.

‘The design process’ is simply a race to create as many alternate layouts as possible. Import your story (text, graphics, captions) into your desktop publishing software and start arranging stuff on the page. Arrange them in ways that echo the layouts you liked from your magazine research. Once a layout is complete, duplicate the page and start moving those elements around again. By producing layouts over and over, you get yourself over the hump of boring and obvious designs and start pushing into what’s new and creative; your first idea is everyone else’s first idea too. Aim to produce 10 alternative layouts. It may get very difficult towards the end, but the results will get increasingly better.

Here are some general design tips.

  • The realities of presenting a poster in a large conference:
    • It will be loud. You may have to yell and/or stand close to others. For very large conferences, you might consider putting a photo of yourself on the poster so that people know that it’s yours. Otherwise they’ll wonder if you’re just another reader.
    • It will be crowded. People may be viewing your poster as close as an arms-length away because there won’t be room to move back. This is not an excuse to use a small text size; remember that the poster has a life outside the poster hall.
    • You might not like the space your poster has been assigned, and it might mean that traffic to your poster is just not as high as you’d like. Remember that people will still visit your poster as long as it’s hanging, and they’ll get to your poster when there are no crowds.
    • The poster room will probably be poorly-lit, and subtle details will be hard to see.
    • In short, the conditions are not perfect. Use bold design and strong colours to grab people’s attention when they look around to see what poster they’d like to visit next. Make sure that your poster can tell its own story so that people can visit it without you. And finally, don’t just stand there feeling worse and worse if no one visits your poster — it happens! Get out there and visit other posters and talk to other people.
  • How to pick a font size: Print a sheet of paper with all the potential sizes on it. Hang it on a wall, take one big step backwards, and read it. The same technique can be used to see whether a graphic will be large enough on the finished poster. (For the record, I like 35 pt as my body text size.)
  • Be wary about justified text. If you want the text to be justified, you will need to hand-hyphenate it. Microsoft Publisher’s text boxes have auto-hyphenation turned on by default, but hyphen placement is sometimes questionable and it’s better to control that yourself. If you don’t want to do this, just left-align.
  • Images should be at least 300 PPI/DPI resolution. Always generate your images over-large and shrink them to fit — never enlarge because that leads to pixelation (unless you are using vector images, you can do whatever you want to those).
  • Always use guides! Guides help you ensure that elements are always aligned to each other.
  • Always preserve white space (negative space; areas of the page that are ‘empty’). It’s important, it makes or breaks visual design.

For a designer, whitespace is often just as important as the content. I [use it] to guide users through the interactions on a page. I use [it] to communicate what’s most important, what’s related, and what needs attention.
Luke Wroblewski, Developing the Invisible

  • Your poster needs one dominant element to act as the starting point for the eye. Typically this will be provided by a large title, or a bright photograph.
  • The poster must have an obvious reading order, beginning from the dominant element and continuing in a predictable direction. The best way to visualise this is to draw a line on top of the poster, connecting each graphic and block of text in the order they should be read. I do this extensively in the case study.
  • If your dominant element is a colourful one, consider pulling some of its colours through the page (i.e. using that colour in other design elements) to unify the whole poster.
  • When in doubt, omit. Even when you’re not in doubt, keep wondering if you can omit more.

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Step 5. Refine the content and layout.

Seek feedback.

Once you’ve got a nice layout going, get some feedback on it. If you are lucky, you will be asked some questions that necessitate more explanation, more graphs, or different graphs from the one you have now. In that case, you will loop back to Step 2 and go through the process again.

I say “lucky” unironically, because I often find that the layout I settle on when I reach this step is merely good, but nothing special. When people give me feedback and I start exploring their questions, I end up producing more material that needs to fit into the poster along with everything else. The constraint forces me to become more creative, and that creativity always leads to a poster that I’m proud of.

Optionally, create some non-poster content.

QR codes

QR codes are popular additions to posters, even though readers rarely scan them. I used a QR code on my case study poster to link to a digital download of the poster (and also to this guide). Other people have linked QR codes to behavioural videos of their study species, and one student a few years back linked to sound recordings of bird calls to show how they are different between populations.

If you do use a QR code, always tell the user what they are accessing (e.g. “Listen to this bird call on Soundcloud”) and provide a shortened text URL alongside the QR code for users who don’t have a QR scanner installed on their device. If the QR-linked material is particularly important to your poster, you should have those files saved to a tablet computer so that you can show the material to people no matter what. Bring some USB powerbanks because access to a power point is not dependable.

Printed handouts

Print a few copies of your poster on standard office paper and keep them visible in a clear sleeve. If you designed the poster properly, everything should still be readable. People will look for a poster handout if they want to remember your design, or if they want to contact you later, or if your work interests them.

Do some final checks.

Here’s a handy checklist of things to consider before submitting your poster for printing.

  • Title matter
    1. Are the authors’ names spelled correctly and in the right order?
    2. Are your contact details there? You need at least your email address.
    3. Are there spelling errors in the title?
    4. Is the formatting of the title correct (e.g. species names italicised)?
  • Body text
    1. Read the text out loud. Are there any typos? Is the phrasing awkward? Do the sentences flow?
    2. Is all the text formatting correct (e.g. species names italicised)?
    3. Double-check every proper noun for spelling and formatting.
    4. Is all of the text that should be there, actually there? In Powerpoint or Publisher, textboxes can be set to not automatically resize. If you add more text to it, the bottom lines might disappear below the bounds of the textbox.
    5. Are the citations correctly spelled and formatted, with correct dates and other details?
  • Figures and tables
    1. Do figure/table references in the body text point readers to the correct graphic?
    2. Are figure/table captions correctly spelled and formatted?
    3. Are the colours, shapes, and labels correct? I once showed a poster that had the elevation codes inverted, so that the top of a mountain was ‘Low’ and the bottom of the mountain was “High”.
    4. Have you used colourblind-simulation software like Color Oracle (FOSS) to check that your figures can still be interpreted by people with colourblindness?
  • Overall layout
    1. Do you have the logos of your sponsors/funding bodies somewhere?
    2. Zoom in at 100% and look at every image. Are any of them pixelated? Replace them.
    3. Is everything properly aligned to everything else? If you designed using page guides, this should not be a problem.
    4. Is the spacing between page elements consistent? Use the Distribute Horizontally/Vertically features.

Step 6. Print it!

Yay congratulations! Output your poster in the file format your printing people ask for. Most places want PDFs. If you’re using Publisher, go to Save As and save it as a PDF to ensure high-quality output.

Bug warning!

Microsoft Publisher has a bug where, if your default printer is a black-and-white one, it will sometimes output PDFs where coloured text turns grey. To fix this, just set a colour printer as your default (even a virtual printer like CutePDF works).

The case study

1. Defining the requirements

As I explained before, this is the finished poster I’m using as my case study. Please read it for context before we continue.

I designed it for my institute’s Higher-Degree Research Forum, which is an event where Masters- and Doctorate-level students are asked to present their project. This year my cohort was asked to make posters. From making two posters for this institute before, I knew that the poster size is A0 (841 × 1189 mm, or 33.1 × 46.8 in), and the orientation is portrait because they hang them from poster hangers. Because the event is primarily for the benefit of the students, and because the institute is staffed by researchers from many different fields in ecology, I always stick to clear, high-level storylines.

2. Finding and telling a good story.

My first preference was to have a storyline that was based on a character: I would analyse my data, hopefully find an insect that colonised different host plants at different elevations of the mountain, and then use that to say, “See? Look what’s happening here!”

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find such an insect that matched this pattern, at an abundance where I would feel confident writing about the pattern. So I explored my data further and finally settled on what I have, which is the pooled diversity of insects and host plants.

I made my graphics in a variety of programs. I used XMind 7 Pro to make Figure 1, R and RStudio to make Figures 2 and 3 (using the packages ggmap and ggplot2 respectively), and plain old Microsoft Excel to make Figure 4. XMind Pro can output vector graphics, which is essential for making high-resolution images that will print well. R can output any format and size you want, and it’s particularly great from making maps because the output is higher-resolution than you can normally get from Google Maps. To get the output from Excel, I designed the spreadsheet at full size and then copy-pasted the cells directly into Publisher, which preserved them as embedded tables.

3. Finding examples of good layouts.

I went through a bunch of old magazines and made around 20 sketches. But in the end, only two of the sketches informed the final poster:

"Make it pop!", Country Home Ideas, vol. 10 num. 5. I wrote, "I liked the header block with its triptych, but the rest of the page was uninteresting."
"Start and end your day with dairy", Better Homes and Gardens, April 2015. I wrote, "I liked how the sidebar spilled over the banner image, and how overlapping images break up the boxiness."

What drew me to both of these layouts was that both pages were led with strong graphical elements at the top, and these graphics were interrupted by other elements that broke into them. I really liked that aspect.

4. Iterating until a layout works.

Iteration 1. I laid down the Make it pop! layout just to see how it would work, and unsurprisingly, it didn’t work for a poster. It wasn’t meant to handle this much text.

Iteration 2. I liked the banner section but I didn’t like the wasted space of the triptych of round images, so I played with the idea of putting a blurb in that space instead. I also began working through the size of the columns and the lengths of my headings.

Iteration 3. Having a massive blurb at the top did not work at all, so I moved the title matter into the blurb box and put it on top of an image (thanks, David Lochlin!) to establish it as the dominant element of the poster.

Iteration 4. With the dominant element sorted out, I made a font contact sheet to decide on font sizes and weights for headers, body text, and captions.

Iteration 5. I started to bring in some of my text so that I could gauge the amount of space I had to work with. This is perhaps 400 words, which was too much considering I still needed graphics and captions. I refined the banner by making the backing box transparent, allowing more of the photo to be visible. I also compressed the banner and shrunk the margins to buy more space in the body.

Intermission: Picking a colour palette.

When I found the Design Seeds website I thought, "Wow, here is a woman who knows more about colours than I've forgotten." I always use Jessica Colaluca's colour palettes, they're just great. Since I had a dominant photo with great yellows and oranges and reds, I wanted those colours to propagate through the rest of the poster. I chose:

Color Market

Color Pick

Iteration 6. The banner was basically finalised at this point, so I brought all of my graphics and text in and began working on the body. I added an accent colour to the text headings: orange-red from the Color Market palette, to pull the colour of the flowers down into the rest of the page and tie everything together. The colours that I used in the graph are colourblind-friendly ones from ColorBrewer, and I later changed the colours of my map labels to make them colourblind-friendly too.

You may notice that I prefer using expressive sentences (“Larvae emerged from a wide variety of host plants”) instead of the standard headings that appear in a journal article (“Results”), because I want people to get a rough impression of what my poster is about just by skimming the headings.

This layout was secretly bad, though; the arrangement looked logical, but the reading direction was actually awkward (shown with a red overdrawn line from here onwards; dotted sections indicate that the reader has to break their up-to-down and left-to-right reading direction). The problem isn’t the dotted section — one or two visual breaks add activity to the poster — the problem is that the reader is somehow supposed to know that only the left figure should be read at this time, and that the middle figure is to be ignored until they’ve read the text above it.

Iteration 7. An alternative layout with the same elements, but arrayed to try to match up the graphs by their common Y axes. The reading order was not great, and the poster felt very unbalanced.

Iteration 8. This layout consolidates the columns and brings the captions back to their proper place beneath each figure. The reading order is good in this layout, and it was received well by other people.

Iteration 9. People also tended to like this layout, but it felt so boring and static to me. I particularly hated how the reader would encounter the map before they found the text explaining it. This would be fine if it was just an illustration or a photograph, but maps need to be presented in context.

Iteration 10. A “fixed” version of Iteration 9 mashed together with Iteration 8. This version was the best received when I asked people for feedback, but it’s so plain and formulaic.

Iteration 11. The near-final version that I put together after being asked about the diversity of host plants and insects, which is the new figure in the right column (its colours are taken from the Color Pick palette). This layout has a logical reading order in the left column, a break to add visual interest, and then the reading order is made different (but still logical) in the right column. I think the straight-reading of the last column makes the poster feel like it’s wrapping up its business.

5. Final refinement.

I spent a lot of time refining the body text for Iteration 11. I cut down the text a lot. I also put some effort into changing some of the long words into shorter ones so that they would break more evenly across lines — even though I chose not to justify the paragraphs, I didn’t want the linebreaks to be more ragged than necessary. I also re-ran my analyses with more stringent settings so that I could exclude the effects of rare insects, which I didn’t feel I had adequately filtered out before. I also nearly forgot to add my email address!

The final word count for the poster was:

Title matter   35

Body          363
    Headings   37
    Copy      326

Captions      120
Total words   518

Conclusion and further reading

I certainly hope that you have found this article helpful. Here’s some further reading on the subjects of design in general, and posters in particular.

  • Better Posters — If you’ve googled ‘How to make a conference poster’, you’ve found this site. Aside from helpful step-by-step poster critiques, there is a steady stream of design-related reblogging.
  • A List Apart — it’s about web design, but so many lessons from web design can be brought over to print design with few or no changes. Pay particular attention to the Graphic Design and Layout & Grids article categories.
  • Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information — How to present information.
  • Data is Ugly subreddit — How not to present information.
That's all there is, there isn't any more.
© Desi Quintans, 2002 – 2022.