Kirsop Labs

Skills development for science students everywhere

Guide to creating great academic posters

Bad posters can be bad in many ways, but good academic posters have a few things in common.

For instance, using arrows is a great way to help guide the reader’s eye around the poster, linking key points.

So if you’re about to embark on your first poster, read on for some more tips.

Decide what really needs to be there

This is often the hardest step. Make a list of 4 or 5 areas you need to cover. Resist the urge to put everything you’ve learned on the wall; less is definitely more. You should know what the point is of each section. And every section needs to make a clear, concise point.

Pick a layout

Don’t make it hard work for your readers. Make sure your layout flows and is easy to follow with the eye. Good posters will contain a logical sequence for the reader and should include an Introduction, some Results, a short Discussion and Conclusion, and not forgetting References. But if your topic has 4 or 5 key themes, think about how you could arrange these around your central message. Do they work in columns, or rows? Keep in mind that a portrait layout is usually the best choice.

Choose a colour scheme or background image

When you’re designing your first poster, overuse of colour and background images is often a common mistake to make. If your poster appears “noisy”, it immediately makes it hard (if not unpleasant) to read. Keep it simple and limit it to 2 or 3 principal colours . If you have graphics or images, take colours from them to use in the design. If you make graphs or diagrams they should fit with your colour scheme. Remember that PowerPoint is a program designed for making slides, not posters, and the colour on the screen might appear different in print. Background images can sometimes work, but watch that they don’t overwhelm your text.

Start typing

Ideally your poster should be less than 400 words. Keep the font big – at least 35pt. Your gran should be able to read it from a distance. Captions can be smaller. Resist fancy fonts, but don’t stick to Times New Roman. Choose a sans-serif font that’s easy to read. Keep some space around your text, and always left align. Negative space (space with nothing in it) is very important. Make sure images have references if needed. Your references should appear as they would in a written report or publication, and be numbered in the text. You’ll probably only fit 2 or 3 references in, so make sure that they’re good sources – don’t favour Wikipedia at the expense of highly cited literature.

Check your resolution

Blurry images are a complete no-no for poster presentations, so never stretch your image. Photos should be between 150 and 300 DPI. If in doubt, zoom to the actual size and check (try 400% for a realistic view). PNG files reproduce better than JPEG files.

Don’t neglect the small stuff

Often the difference between good and great posters is attention to detail. All ChemDraw structures should be the same size and accepted format such as the ACS standard which is easily found in the ChemDraw program – so there’s no excuse! All titles should be at least 72pt. All text should be a uniform size. You can make your poster look more professional by simply ensuring that all your boxes line up so learn how to use the ‘Align’ function in PowerPoint.

If you pay attention to these basic details, your poster – and you – will instantly look prepared and professional.

Take a step back

Zoom your poster to actual size and step back. Are the pictures clear? Are the axes and graphs big enough? Try to leave enough time so you can take a break before printing. Typos and mislabelled figures are much easier to notice with fresh eyes.

Know what you’re trying to say

You may have to describe the work in your poster to people from different backgrounds. Be prepared to answer questions, and don’t panic if you don’t know the answer. Be sure of the message you’re trying to convey. Practice explaining your poster before the session until you feel comfortable. Remember that the point of your poster is to convey your message to a passerby within seconds. If you’re presenting as part of a group, it’s often helpful if the members of the group are given different parts to discuss on the day. This shows how well you’ve worked as a team and that everyone has contributed fully.


Co-founder of the KirsopLabs project, and Editorial Manager of Neuroendocrinology, a peer-review Medical Sciences journal. Writing for a science blog is a great way for students to get published early in their career and great for a CV. Drop me a line if you'd like to discuss how to get involved with the KLabs project.

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