Creating a research poster is intimidating. You’re being asked to design a giant visual presentation that effectively tells the story of your research. And it better look good, because you have to stand right next to it and OWN it! That’s a little terrifying, right?
It’s also an exciting opportunity to learn how to engage broader audiences and translate your research in a visual format. It’s an invaluable skill set to develop if you’re going to be an effective science communicator.
This is a short series of posts meant to be used as an introduction and guide to building a well-designed, visually engaging research poster.
A blank canvas is the first hurdle. Where do I even start? How am I going to fill up 48 inches by 36 inches of sprawling white space? Step away from your empty PowerPoint slide and begin by outlining a process.
Give yourself a process
Before you start a layout or begin writing your poster content, you need to ask and answer three important questions:
- What is the story I want to tell? What is the most important/interesting/cool nugget that I want to share about my research? If my audience only walks away learning one thing, what do I want it to be? This is what you’re going to build your poster around.
- Who is my audience? Identify your audience and let that inform the tone, narrative, complexity, and focus of your poster.
- What is my goal? What do I want my poster to achieve?
Science is visual
Good news! Science is full of engaging visuals. You might study fascinating organisms or observe interesting behaviors. Maybe you work in amazing landscapes or operate complex lab equipment. You have a wealth of inspiration to draw on to present your research – you just need to identify the visual pieces that best tell your story.
Choosing your visuals
Using a variety of visuals will make your poster more engaging and dynamic. Aim for a composition that includes a mix of visuals like photos, illustrations, infographics, figures, diagrams, and maps. Your research is new to your audience, and your poster is the perfect medium to make everything visual (your study system, your landscape, your observations, your methods, your results, etc).
- Use high resolution photos for print when you can!
- Crop with purpose. A photo might need to be cropped to provide focus or bring attention to a specific detail.
- Tiny photos on a large poster aren’t very engaging or effective. Go big!
- Add captions to your photos for accessibility, context, and photo credit!
Figures and charts
- Customize your figures, charts and diagrams by rebuilding them in Illustrator or PowerPoint. Make them big and clearly labeled.
- Remove chart junk.
- Add captions for accessibility and context. Your figures should make sense without you explaining them.
- If your research has a geographic component, include a map visual!
- Customize your map by overlaying clear labels and info/photo pullouts to make it more dynamic and useful.
The title is important
Your title is an important element to invite your audience over to find out more. Avoid long, dry overly descriptive titles! Work on crafting a title that is short and compelling.
- If your title needs more than one line, it’s too long!
- If you need to include more information, consider adding a sustile beneath your large main title.
- Choose a sans serif font for your title.
- Use sentence case or title case for your title, don’t present your title in ALL CAPS .
- Title text color should stand out from the background color (high contrast).
- Don’t place your title over a busy background image or texture.
- Allow for white space and resist the temptation to bookend your title with logos.
Acknowledgments and logos
These elements belong as a conclusion to your poster. There are two natural places to include your acknowledgments of support and funding and your institutional and partner logos. Reminder: keep those logos out of your poster header!
- Design a footer section for your poster where you can give logos and acknowledgments their own space. It’s a natural place for your audience to look for this information, and it won’t get in the way of your research narrative above.
- Another placement option is in a container following your Learn more / bio / web and social media / contact me section.
- Logos don’t need to be huge, they’re secondary elements.
- Most institutions and organizations have a “branding” resource on their website where you can download high resolution files appropriate for print (don’t just grab their logo from a web image search). Here is NC State’s branding resources and style guide.
Extend your poster
You’re not trying to share EVERYTHING on your poster, but once you’ve engaged your audience, you should provide options to learn more, network and contact you.
Ways to extend your poster:
- Create a simple website with methods, broader research description, and all the extra details that would have bogged down your poster but are valuable to share with folks who want to know more about your research. Invite them to visit your website to read more in-depth details, like methods etc on your website (if you don’t have a website, it’s time to make this small investment). Add a simple “Learn more about my research + your URL + QR code to get them to your website.
- Use both a QR code and write your website address to make it as accessible and easy as possible.
- Add your academic/professional social media accounts so people have the opportunity to follow you.
- Include your academic email so people have a way to follow up and contact you.
- Include a short bio about yourself (year in school, research program, advisor, research interests etc) accompanied with a portrait photo of you doing research (field, lab, computer, wherever).
- Suggestion: design your poster so all of this content comes at the visual conclusion of your poster, and it’s all presented together. Don’t cram in this information in the nooks and crannies, and random spaces. This section might be titled “Learn more”.