Designing a brilliant scientific poster for your next conference is not as difficult as it may seem. But there are some important principles to follow to ensure your poster is clear and engaging.
An effective conference poster is all about making it easy for your reader, and a clear and logical layout will go a long way to achieving this.
But what does a clear and logical layout look like?
Simple. Forget everything you remember about the scientific posters you’ve seen - we’re going to start fresh and break the status quo of boring wall-of-text posters with confusing layouts.
Here’s everything you need to know about how to achieve a great user experience with your scientific poster layout.
Portrait or landscape?
First things first: orientation.
Before deciding on a landscape (horizontal) or portrait (vertical) orientation, check if there are any specifications set by the conference organisers. Sometimes they’ll rigidly demand a landscape orientation. If that’s the case, it’s better to comply willingly. Remember, we’re going to break the status quo with our design: so let’s concede on the orientation and save the controversy for our awesome anti-wall-of-text design.
If there are no set orientation demands then you’re free to choose. If you have a preference, go with that. If you’re undecided, keep an open mind: you may find that your images or figures simply work better with one particular orientation. If you can’t decide, just get started anyway: it’s usually fairly simple to switch the orientation of your poster later on.
Most conference posters are A0 size (841 mm by 1189 mm). However, check the conference specification to be sure there isn’t another preferred size. In any case, starting with a large A0 size is a good idea because it’s very easy to make something smaller, either within your design software or at the printer, but it’s more complicated to make images larger. This is because some images can turn quite pixilated and blurry at large scale.
Not all conferences consist of name tags, poster halls and those awkward moments when you need to pretend that you’re not listening to a conversation 30 cm away in order to secure the sought-after stand-up lunch table space for your tea-saucer-sized dish of cucumber sandwiches. Many conferences are shifting to an online, virtual format (thanks, COVID) while others have always been online, ever since Skype was relevant. The point is this: ePosters.
If ePosters are your thing, then you have some important layout considerations to make as well.
Firstly, some online conferences are run entirely on Twitter, with researchers participating by using the various hashtags to contribute. If this is your jam, then I recommend a very small poster with a landscape orientation: akin to a graphical abstract. As the name suggests, a graphical abstract is just a snapshot of your study and a glimpse at the main finding. In this situation, it’s small because we want 100 % of it to be visible inside the Twitter image preview. This maximises your chances of people reading it as they’re scrolling through Twitter, because they don't need to click on the image to see all of it. Twitter sometimes changes the ideal size from year to year, so check this page for the optimal size - scroll down to find ‘Tweet sharing a single image’. Graphical abstracts are a fun and powerful way to share your research, and there’s plenty to know about this particular trend in academic publishing. So we’ve written a How-To guide just for them: check it out here.
If your online conference supports ePosters, we highly recommend that you make one in Canva. They look beautiful, and they’re super easy to make (they even have great templates to start with). So, regarding the layout: I recommend a tall and skinny ePoster. This allows the reader to scroll down to look through the whole poster - just like they would on a web page. It should be broken up into screen-sized sections (16:9 ratio) to help the reader focus on one section at a time. Canva also allows you to set up your ePoster with a navigation menu, allowing you to click the menu to navigate the different sections. This is fine, but scrolling is a much smoother user experience, as the reader doesn’t have to take their eyes off your poster to navigate through the different sections.
Make it easy
OK, back to the usual printed poster. Above all, the layout of your poster should make it easy for the reader to navigate. To help with this, here a few simple tricks.
Numbered and labelled panels & sections
Break up your content into bite-sized chunks. This segmented approach helps to you avoid a wall-of-text monstrosity and it helps your reader to navigate the various sections (as much as we pretend that the methods are interesting, we all jump straight to the results).
Give your sections clear headers and number them too: this helps the viewer to go from section to section in the order in which you intend.
When reading books or documents, we read top to bottom, left to right. Generally, the same is true for posters too. So keep it natural, and organise your sections in this manner. For example, avoid positioning your boxes in a clockwise manner - it’s just confusing.
Remembering the golden rule (make it easy), we can even put in some subtle visual cues to help the reader navigate. Arrows are perfect for this, and they need not be overly conspicuous.
While you’re considering all the things to put on your poster, it’s just as important to consider the things you’re not putting on your poster. Space that is not filled with ‘stuff’ is called negative space, and it’s essential for a good user experience.
To explain, consider the following example. Yahoo and Google are both search engines, but take a look below and compare their visual layouts. Yahoo’s page is filled with ‘stuff’ and has almost no negative space. How easy is it to be distracted? It’s difficult to even find where to search for something. Google, on the other hand, makes it easy. Surrounded by serene negative space, it’s easy to find the search function. Which of these two search engines is more successful?
Lastly, to bleed or not to bleed?
No, this isn’t a Shakespearean horror film. In the printing lexicon, ‘bleed’ refers to an area around the perimeter of your poster that may or may not be cut off. Essentially, it gives the printer a small amount of space to account for movement of the paper, and design inconsistencies. So don’t place any meaningful content within about 10 mm of the edge of the poster (from a design perspective, you should avoid this anyway).
Whether your poster has a portrait or landscape orientation, there are plenty of different ways for you to organise your sections. A good rule of thumb is to keep your sections in a grid-like manner, with the edges aligned. Generally, 2-3 columns and rows works well, but they don’t have to be symmetrical: consider larger sections for more content-heavy parts, such as your main finding.
A note on the ‘Methods’ section
Without having crunched the numbers, it’s safe to say the vast majority of research papers follow the same template: Background, Methods, Results, Discussion/Conclusion.
But, when was the last time that you read an entire paper start to finish, in this order? Exactly - we often go to the ‘Results’ section before the methods. Some savvy journals like Nature and Science tweaked their layouts with this fact in mind.
So, I’ll let you in on a little secret: you can do the same with your poster! Don’t worry, the conference organisers won’t drag you from the poster hall kicking and screaming. Let’s get straight to the point, what was the finding of the paper? This is why the viewer decided to put down their sandwich and come over to read your poster. So, put it centre-stage: nice and clear.
Sketch a concept
Before you open your design software, it’s a good idea to make a quick sketch of your layout. Of course, it’ll probably change while you’re making it, but it’s a quick way to trial a few layouts and save some time during the design process.
Some things to consider while sketching:
- How many sections will you have? We recommend something like this:
Background/Question (as 1 or 2 sections)
- How large will each section be? Err towards more space for your main finding and less space for your background and methods - emphasise the main event!
- How many figures and charts will you need? Again, less is more - focus on the main 1 or 2, not 13.
- Keep some space for a large eye-catching image (to attract people from the other side of the room) and your personal details and photo (if you want to include one).
That’s a lot of info just about scientific poster layouts, thanks for hanging in there with me.
But, we’ve only just scratched the surface on what makes a great scientific poster.
To properly cover this topic, we’ve developed a whole online course: How to Design an Award-Winning Scientific Poster. You can learn at your own pace and arm yourself with the tools, templates, skills and knowledge to create your own award-winning scientific posters. We’ve had excellent feedback on the 33 video lessons, 3 hours of learning and 8 templates & downloads included - so we’re confident that you’ll love it too.
1. Make it easy for the viewer
An effective layout consists of clear, labelled sections which are distributed around the poster in a logical order. For extra clarity, add arrows to direct the viewer.
2. Use your layout to emphasise the important stuff
Whether it’s the main finding, or the take-away message, put your key information in a prominent position on the poster. While important, the methods are not crucial on a poster (if they’re interested, the viewer will ask you personally), so don’t waste valuable real-estate on the methodology.
Dr Flynn Slattery