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Let Your Poster Do the Talking: Designing an Effective Poster Presentation

May 2003

Poster presentations are the workhorses of many scientific conferences, including the American Thoracic Society. They enable a large and varied amount of data and ideas to be presented simultaneously. A well-designed poster can be an extremely powerful way to transmit your ideas to a large group of people. It should stimulate interesting discussions that may provide unexpected insights that benefit not only the reader but the presenter as well.

Plan carefully. Have a clear and simple message. Decide what you want the reader to remember and organize your ideas/results so that the reader either understands or agrees with your conclusions. The best posters motivate the reader to take action on an idea. All too often, the poster degenerates into a board crammed full of difficult-to-read text and figures that discourage audience participation. Remember, the burden is on the attendee to seek out and study those posters that are of particular interest. Therefore, s/he is likely to be stressed and in a hurry. It is your responsibility and in your best interest to create an eye-catching presentation that encourages the attendee to stop, look, read and ask questions. Some of my best tips have come out of "spontaneous" discussions in front of a poster.

Do not wait until the last minute to put your poster together. Something always goes wrong, even with the best plans. If you have little experience making posters, give yourself at least 1 week. This allows for a few days to assemble all the bits and pieces of data, including making photos or laser copies, if needed. If you are physically assembling the poster or having it made up commercially, leave yourself at least 1-2 days to put it all together. Last minute express charges can be very expensive.

Some general comments on poster design:

Aim for simplicity and avoid clutter at all costs! Good posters

  • Grab your attention
  • Are easy to read from a distance
  • Encourage interaction
  • Use visual information to convey essential information concisely


Brevity is best. Posters are not manuscripts pasted on a board. Include only those narrative details that are absolutely essential. If needed, bring handouts to the session. The text should be LARGE enough to be read easily from at least 6 feet away. Use boldface type judiciously to highlight section headings such as Introduction and Methods. They should be at least 36 point. Varying text size helps to visually differentiate and highlight poster sections. For example, use a larger size (36 pt) for the Conclusion text and a smaller size (20 pt) for the Methods text. Supporting text (Introduction, figure captions, etc.) should be no smaller than 18 point in size, and printed in plain text.

Avoid italics. Use simple typefonts. San serif fonts (characters without short lines stemming from the upper and lower ends of letters) and fonts without embellishments are easiest to read. Personally, I like Helvetica. Other options include Arial, Geneva, Times Roman, Palatino, Century Schoolbook, Courier and Prestige. Note that these fonts represent a range of letter spacing and letter heights. Whatever you choose, be consistent and use that font throughout the entire poster!

Avoid jargon and acronyms.

Double-space all text, using left-justification
Text with even left sides and jagged right sides is easiest to read. When editing, try to fit blocks of text onto a single page: This simplifies cutting and pasting when you assemble the poster. 11 x 14 inch paper in the landscape mode can be used when printing text blocks on laser printers.


Use color judiciously to add much-needed "punch" to a sea of black and white. A colored background can be a pleasing and effective asset. However, too many colors confuse the reader. Use no more than two to three colors as a rule. The Department of Energy has a good website that has a color chart that facilitates the selection of appropriate colors that will enhance your message. http://www.osti.gov/em52/workshop/tips-exhibits.html

0503 Use (big) arrows to direct the reader's eye


Know the size of the poster. For ATS, it is 4' X 8'. Poster layout follows a logical sequence based on how people approach new information. The most important message occupies the center top position followed by the top left, top right, bottom left, and the bottom right corner.

The title and perhaps the abstract (left of the title) should go across the very top (Figure 1). It is the first thing that people will see. In the next line, the Introduction takes up the top-left hand corner, while the Conclusion is placed at the bottom right. Methods and Results fill in the rest of the space. Leave empty space to highlight figures and differentiate among the elements of the poster. Space is the visual equivalent of "pausing" and gives the reader time to think and rest.

Figure 1 lays out one variation. Other variations include "newspaper" format, i.e., two vertical columns. This is an easy-to-read format that is familiar to most readers. Another, less common approach is to have two (left to right) horizontal rows.


In deciding what to put in (and leave out!) of a poster, ask yourself:

What do you hope to achieve through the poster? To sell an idea? To tell people what you have done? Announce a new discovery? Convince people that one product or technique is better than another? In other words, have a clear take-home message.

Who is your audience?Are they people familiar with your area? What is the level of their knowledge of your subject area?

Subject Matter

The whole story in a nutshell. Don't go over one page. Re-read the abstract that you originally submitted. Is all the information correct? It should be informative. It can be speculative. Try locating the abstract to the side of the title to save space.

Big and short. Use at least 90 pt. font. People will be breezing about and in a hurry. To catch t their eye, it needs to be easily read from at least 10 feet. Try posing a question. Question marks are always attention-grabbing. Included the authors and their affiliations (in much smaller print).

Spell out the significance, i.e., why did you bother to do the study or why should anyone care enough about your work to stop and read it? Has someone else done the work before?

Bullets are good. Long lines of text are wearisome to read.

Materials and Methods
Briefly explains experimental techniques used. State and justify any assumptions you may have made before proceeding with the study.

Enlarged color prints (graphs, for instance) can be very attractive. But avoid too many colors. Figures/graphs should be largely self-explanatory. Try labeling data lines directly and avoid putting in legends or keys. Use text judiciously to supplement the figures as needed. Lines must be thicker than usual in order to be easily visualized. Figures and text should be easily read from a distance of 5 feet. In order to avoid clutter, plan on no more than four to six figures on a standard 4' X 8' board. Contrasting letters should be used to help the reader easily and quickly identify the figures.

Again, bullets are easy to read and focus the reader's thoughts. No more than three "take-home" messages.

directions Include this section only if you have room.

Putting it all together

The hard copy way
Design your panels in Word and/or PowerPoint. Print them out. Cut out colored background (construction paper or lightweight poster board) with at least 1/2" margin. Use some kind of adhesive (I like spray adhesive best) to paste the figure or text panel onto the background. I usually print out the title as a single long banner.
Advantages: Easy to carry around, can fit everything into a single manila envelope.
Disadvantages: Lots of cutting and pasting.

The PowerPoint way (Note: these instructions are for a MAC
Use PowerPoint to create the various panels of your poster. Go to page set up. On the upper- left hand corner click on "slides sized for": Choose "Banner." In PowerPoint 98, the maximum width is 56 inches. Height of 48 inches is OK. Now you can arrange your panels on a single background and print out as a single sheet. Color is a lot more expensive than black and white, obviously.
Advantages: Just one sheet to carry around.
Disadvantages: Length of poster is limited by software. Also, the final poster is somewhat bulky. Having a poster tube is essential to avoid squashing and creasing your poster!

Online services
This year, the ATS has arranged to offer online poster design services through Marathon Multimedia. There are a few ways to approach this. Either create the entire poster online (something I haven't tried yet) or import a PowerPoint file to the site. The site is www.call4posters.com/ats

Have a plan B

Those who procrastinate should know:
Although many larger meetings or hotels will have computers available for modifying posters, that sell poster materials. If needed, ask the concierge. Be sure to tip this person! Many hotels these facilities are usually crowded. Know where the nearest photo or art supply stores are will have photocopy and Fax machines for guest use, and telecommunication ports in the hotel rooms.

If you have a laptop or access to the Internet:
Leave your poster on a server; you can access it from a remote site. Have a backup copy on a disk. Personally, I find the new USB disk-on-keys to be very handy. Have a back-up of your backup. Leave the disk in an obvious place. That way, you can have someone who has stayed behind either email the necessary information or print portions of the poster and fax or express mail the material to you.

If you are carrying hard copy of your poster, have a spare gluestick on hand to help tack down those stray corners.


Be sure to walk around the meeting looking at posters with a critical eye towards design. Make note of what works and what doesn't.

Online references:

  1. http://www.osti.gov/em52/workshop/tips-exhibits.html
    Department. of Energy site that has a color chart to help you choose colors for graphs and backgrounds that enhance your message.
  2. http://www.kumc.edu/SAH/OTEd/jradel/Poster_Presentations/PstrStart.html
    Part of the Kansas University Medical Center online series focusing on effective scientific communication. Their tutorial on poster presentations is easy to navigate.
  3. http://ublib.buffalo.edu/libraries/units/sel/bio/posters.html
    Compilation of print and online references for designing effective presentations. I'm not sure how up-to-date the site is, as I was not able to access all of their links.
  4. http://www.aspb.org/education/poster.cfm
    Nice site by the American Society of Plant Biologists, with good tips.