Designing effective posters

2009/03/30 by Lassi A. Liikkanen

On this page:
o Introduction
o Method
o Results
o Conclusion
o References
o Examples

How to create effective scientific poster presentations

This is an opinion paper on how to design effective scientific posters. I present a view of posters as primary a means of promoting your scientific work (the promotion paradigm), and only secondly as a way to present your results.

Introduction - Before you start

Poster is a communication tool. It is not a research document. You will likely produce a publication separately. In a typical scientific conference, you may be asked to present a poster. In practice, there is a usually dedicated time slot during which a horde of conference participants attacks the poster stands. You will not be alone with your poster as there are at least other people presenting their posters. And this is the challenge. Lot of people, lot of posters, little of time.

Saying that posters are for communication devices implies that they both communicate your particular research work but the whole of you and your research institute as well. In my opinion, the goal of your participation (in addition to be included in the proceedings) is to meet other researchers who might be interested in your work or even beneficial for it. Thus, the main goal of you and your poster should be to communicate, loud and clear, who are you, what do you do, and what is the main outcome of your research. Jane Tougas lists the goals as follows:

  • Stimulate interest and discussion
  • Receive feedback on research
  • Generate contacts

The role of the poster can be quite insignificant. You can dress in a motley, use a loudspeaker, offer exotic candies, or pour free drinks to attract people. So there are two of you doing promotion, the poster and you. You should think about the poster as a (huge) business card that you are presenting to people about your work. Assuming that your paper is printed in the proceedings, anyone can read it. But there are hundreds if not thousands of other papers that have the exactly same format (LNCS; APA, ACM, IEEE, what ever) so why should anyone read yours? Answer: because you have a nice poster that makes people interested in the details of your research.

You should now have some motivation and guidelines for your poster. Final word about the constraints. You have a limited space, think how to make best of it. You have limited time to attract people. Once they pass by your poster, they are likely gone for good. The attention devoted to your posters is not many seconds. If you can't deliver your message very quickly, it may not be delivered at all. If you are lucky and manage to attract people, you will have limited time with each person. You should include hints in the poster about what you would like to talk about. For instance, if you are starting to experiment with a new technology and would like to have people talk you about it, put it on your poster. The poster can be an icebreaker, give a structure to a discussion, and support the 'oral presentation' of your poster. Finally, remember your audience and choose your jargon accordingly. In small conferences or workshops this is not so crucial as you can assume that all potentially valuable people are familiar with the terms you are using.

Consider the following:

  • Who is your audience? What kind of contacts you would like to meet?
  • What kind of expertise expectations do you have for them
  • What is your message? What would you like to people to learn?
  • What is the space like? Not just the flat surface for attaching the poster but the whole space

So, before you do anything, you should have a plan and a goal for your communication.

Method - Doing it

There are plenty of resources discussing how to create a good poster. In my opinion, good posters have a little text, lot of informative figures or tables, and they are easily readable. Some people emphasize attractiveness or a professional graphical look, but for me they are less essential.

To succeed in user-centered poster design, you need to adapt an iterative approach. Create a draft poster and have your colleagues and other people who might match your future poster evaluate it. Don't give them too much time. In thirty seconds they should be able say do they understand anything about. In couple of minutes you will learn how you need to revise it.

Requirements for the content

  • Title - usually same as your paper's
  • Names, author, organization and contact details
  • Short description of your work (or a short abstract)
  • The main message, the most important result, the main assertion of your work

Recommendations for the content

  • Include only an outline
  • Pick only the essential details (goals, background theories, methods, equipment, etc.) that you wish to talk about
  • Write carefully and revise
  • Use communicative figures and tables
  • Even if you have a lot of space, don't fill every squaremillimeter
  • Good guideline for 'information density' might be that if you print your poster to an A4 (or legal) format, is it still fully readable? If not, then something is wrong.

You can find layout design tips from the web, e.g. see the poster guidelines by Hess, Tosney and Liegel.

Printing and handling

I personally do not believe that any added value can be gained with glossy or laminated fine art prints. Choose a format that meets your budget. The more essential thing is to get everything done in time. Get the offers from print companies and find out their delivery times. If you choose a jigsaw (multiple sheet format once so popular) poster, try to see that text or important parts of an image do not appear in the brim area.

Results - Presenting it

Presentation starts from hanging. Choose your spot (if you have any options) according to your goals. Good spot grants you extra visibility.

Presenting your poster first and foremost requires your physical presence. If your poster is very good, it can do wonders without you, but you should not count on that. So be there in the given time. And take stuff with you, people can not resist give aways. You should have

  • Business cards
  • Proceedings handouts (A4/legal)
  • and even poster handouts (A4/legal)
  • Anything else you can afford to give

and this will already take you far. A pen and paper usually also come handy.


I have here described my approach for poster presentations, called promotion paradigm and user-centered poster design method. If you do not want to discuss your work and are content with just having your name in the proceedings, you do not really have to do all this trouble. You can just print your proceedings paper and hang it on the wall .

References - further reading

Jane Tougas (2005) Effective poster presentations. Faculty of Computer Science. Dalhousie University, Canada
Hess, Tosney, & Liegel (2007) Creating Effective Poster PresentationsNorth Carolina State University
Block, S.M. (1996) Do's and don't's of poster presentation. Biophysical journal 71

Appendices - Real example posters

The good

Above: really constrained presentation. You can read the headline from a far

Above: Balanced layout

The problematic

Above: Too graphical, could you guess what is this poster about?

Above: Too much text, maybe they originally submitted a long paper?

The easy - why even bother?

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Information about INMI researchers around the globe, 2015/02/22

Commentary on Theodor Reik's book The Haunting Melody, 2015/02/07

[06] Nikander J. B., Liikkanen L. & Laakso M. (2014) Ownership effects in design concept evaluation. Design Studies 35(4) 473-499. DOI: 10.1016/j.destud.2014.02.006, 2015/01/31

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Keywords: [psychology] , [dtp] Document's status: Ok (Document dates explained)

This document created: 2008/06/18
Modified: 2009/03/30
Published: 2009/03/30

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