How to use type effectively in your poster design
Posters are a visual medium, and you need to be just as thoughtful about typography as you are about the layout and other visual elements in the design and composition of your poster. Good typography practices will go a long way to enhance the appearance and effectiveness of your research poster.
Typography is simply the style and appearance of your printed content. But typographical principles aren’t just about aesthetics–they’re techniques that are important for hierarchy, readability, and visual storytelling. Choosing a font is just one step in a series of deliberate choices you should be making about your type.
As you work on your poster, keep returning to these questions.
- Is my text readable?
- Is my styling consistent?
- Does my text styling create hierarchy?
Why it matters
Visuals may initially engage your audience, but your text carries the narrative you’re telling about your research from introduction through discussion. If your text is difficult to read or confusing to follow throughout the poster, you just lost your audience.
Ways you use type
- Paragraph text
Clear visual typographic hierarchy provides structure, organization, and an order of importance and/or sequence to navigate through your poster content. Your audience will be able to locate and identify information easily. You’re giving them visual cues about where to start, the flow of information, and where to locate specific content. If all the text on your poster appears similar, nothing will jump out! There are several ways you can create hierarchy.
Size: Use font size to help organize information. Title, section headers, and figure titles should visually stand out from your paragraph text. Secondary text, like captions and labels should be a smaller font size than your paragraph text (see guidelines in Fonts below).
Font: Choose one font for your paragraph text, but use a second font for your titles and headers to help them visually stand apart.
Emphasis: Font weight is one way to add emphasis to a header or title and make them stand out visually. A bold header paired with regular weight paragraph text will create hierarchy.
Color: Color can also add emphasis and increased weight to type. Use black or dark gray for your paragraph text to give yourself opportunities to use color to create hierarchy (for example, make section headers a warm color that helps them stand out visually).
Spacing: White space can help type appear bigger and more readable. For example, give space above and below a header and let the poster title have some space without cramming logos next to it. A lack of white space can make titles and headers feel tighter and smaller, less important, and harder to pick out visually.
Sans Serif fonts
It’s best to use a maximum of two or three fonts in your poster to keep it simple, consistent, elegant, and uncluttered. There are three basic kinds of font categories: serif, sans-serif, and decorative.
- Serif fonts have little tails or embellishments at the end of lines. Serif fonts are often used in lengthy text forms, like books, newspapers and magazines. They can still be a good choice for titles and headers. For example, and can provide distinctive styles. For example, try a slab serif header paired with a sans serif paragraph font.
- Sans serif (without serifs) fonts have a clean, modern feel with simple, crisp lines. They’re a good choice for poster text because they’re easy to read, and scale well from large titles to smaller captions. Typically read better from a distance than serif fonts.
- Decorative or display fonts very widely. Display fonts are often elaborate, creative, unique fonts. They can be appropriate for titles, but not paragraph text.
Other considerations: Pay attention to how a font displays italics and bold, as well as numerals when making your font choices.
Readability is how clear and easy it is to read a block of text. There are several elements that you should consider to improve the readability of your text blocks on your poster.
Font size: (see previous above)
Line length is the width of a text block. Long line lengths are more difficult to follow and read compared to shorter line lengths. A good guideline is to make text blocks have a line length between 50 and 75 characters.
Line spacing (also called leading) is the vertical distance between lines of text in a paragraph. Increasing line spacing helps text breath and helps paragraph from looking too dense and blocky.
Unnatural breaks disrupt both headers and paragraph text. Make an effort to make title and headings a single line of text (and experiment with subheaders when it really does need to be long). Watch out for orphans and widows in your paragraphs. An orphan is a short first line of a new column stranded at the top of a page, and a widow is a short line or word to end a paragraph or column (leaves awkward space).
Color can be used for emphasis, making connections and groupings in figures and infographics, and creating hierarchy. However, you need to design with accessibility in mind, and follow these guidelines.
Avoid using color to communicate information. This is especially problematic in charts and graphs where relationships, categories, etc rely on color to explain results. Incorporate other styles and elements in combination with color to communicate information (arrows, lines, symbols, placement, etc).
Use color as a secondary style. If used for emphasis, used a combination of emphasis styles (color + bold, or color + italics). If you’re using color to highlight a hyperlight, also underline it.
Contrast is important! Choose colors for text that have strong contrast with the background color. If your text is on a white background, choose dark colors that will contrast. If you’re placing text on a color background, choose a color that will provide as strong a contrast as you can. Avoid placing text on photos or textured backgrounds, it will result in poor or variable contrast and make your text less readable.
Type alignment is how text aligns in space. It can create visual structure for other elements on your poster, like photos and figures, and it plays a big role in your poster’s visual layout. There are three type alignments:
- Left-aligned: (flush left) when text is aligned to the left margin
- Right-aligned: (flush right) when text is aligned to the right margin
- Centered: when text is aligned to the center of the area it is set in
Here are some alignment guidelines for poster text:
- Title: The title of your poster is often center aligned above your poster content.
- Paragraphs: Your paragraph text should be left-aligned, and paragraphs in the same visual column should align to the same invisible vertical line. Don’t center-align paragraphs, they’ll be hard to read and create visually distracting ragged edges.
- Headers: Your paragraph headings should use the same alignment as the paragraph text. Be consistent, don’t center headings over left-aligned paragraphs!
- Captions: Both centered and left-aligned work well for captions, just be consistent throughout your poster.
Note: Justified text (left and right sides of the text block have a straight edge) looks good in magazines and newspapers, but on posters with shorter blocks of text it isn’t effective and often causes distracting spacing issues between words.
A little emphasis can go a long way in highlighting key important pieces of your text. Be consistent in your emphasis style, stick with one or two techniques, and avoid overusing it and diluting its importance.
- Italics create a soft emphasis, but aren’t a good choice if you also need to use italics for latin names and publication titles.
- Bold is a more assertive emphasis and visually powerful style to make a word or phrase stand out visually.
- Color is a powerful way to highlight and emphasize, but use it combined with another style because color on its own isn’t accessible.
- Underlining or underscoring should be reserved for indicating a hyperlink and isn’t a good choice for emphasis.
- Avoid using quotations for emphasis, that has other meaning and doesn’t provide visual emphasis.
- Do not use a different font type to emphasize important points in your paragraph text.
Consistency is a principle you need to live by when designing your poster (and other presentations)! It’s such an important habit to develop.
What does consistency in typography look like?
- Fonts: Choose just 1-2 fonts that you use throughout your poster, and then stay consistent with how and when you use them (paragraph font, header font, etc).
- Font sizes: Make your font sizes consistent across ALL text types. Paragraph text size. Section heading text size. Subheader text size. Down to photo caption text size, figure label text size, etc. Anything kind of text format you use in multiple places needs to be consistent.
- Text color: Use color consistently so that all your paragraph text is the same color, all your section headers are the same color, etc.
- Alignment: Your paragraph text should be flush left consistently, but other text elements on your poster might use other alignments (for example your title or secondary text elements like photo captions might be centered). Be sure that you’re consistent in how you align secondary text.
- Paragraphs: Make your paragraph style consistent. Will you indent or use a space break between paragraphs (not both!)? Choose your column width, line spacing, alignment, padding, and margins and stick with it.
A great practice is to create a text style guide. Make it early in your process, and then stick to it and use it to check your finished design.
What should be in your style guide? Below is a brief example.
Give your text space
You do not need to fill up every last bit of space of your poster! In fact, you’ll design a better poster if you allow yourself to be comfortable building in white space. White space is the empty space around and between text and other design elements, and can take the form of margins, padding, and uncluttered areas. When your text has breathing room, it’ll be easier to read, easier to find sections, and help build and maintain your poster hierarchy and flow of information. It improves focus and comprehension, and helps create balance.
Margins are the distance from text to the edges or other poster elements. It’s a common mistake to place text too close to poster edges, or up tight against photos. Try adding a 2 inch margin along the outer edges of your poster. Give a couple inches of margin between text columns.
Padding is the space that “pads” the inside of a container for your text. If you have text in a box with a border, or a background color, give your text plenty of padding to keep it away from the border line or box edge. You can also think of padding between your heading and body text in each section. The padding between your section heading and paragraph should be greater than the line spacing of that paragraph. Help your heading stand out with a little extra space.
Mentioned earlier in the Readability section, line spacing is the distance between lines of text in your paragraph. You can give your text breathing room by increasing line spacing to make a block of text more comfortable to read.