A poster can be a highly effective way to showcase your research to peers, future collaborators and employers. A well-designed conference poster can attract attention, spark debate and help create career-advancing connections.
Poorly thought out or excessively complex visual design will turn off your audience and engagement levels will suffer as result.
For example, presenting information in long blocks of densely typeset text is unlikely garner much attention. Equally, too many graphic elements, clashing colour palettes and an array of font styles and sizes, will result in a chaotic, poster that is not fit for purpose.
Design may not be your strong point but take the time to understand good page layout. Balance and clarity in visual design will communicate professionalism and attention to detail – both valued attributes when attempting to raise your profile.
Apply these simple design principles to your conference poster to ensure a clear, engaging visual design that effectively communicates the key information:
A short, arresting title in a large, legible point size will help to draw readers in. It should be readable from a reasonable distance. Consider capitalising heading or subheadings to increase clarity.
Use white space
By including enough ‘breathing’ space in your layout, you can avoid reader fatigue – the ideal sentence length is around 25-30 characters. Breaking up text into bullet points or number lists is even better.
‘Macro’ white space is the empty space between the dominant text and graphic elements. Even if you are using colour in your design, incorporating white space will improve readability and flow in the overall layout. Don’t be tempted to cram text or images into every available space. In terms of style, think of your poster less as newspaper column and more akin to a magazine spread.
‘Micro’ white space is the space between lines of text or in charts and tables. You can increase the kerning, tracking and leading values to insert more micro white space across your poster. Click here to learn more.
- kerning – the spacing between characters
- tracking – the width of an individual word
- leading – the spacing between lines of text
In the example above, the font size is the same, but the leading and tracking have been increased to create more white space in the right-hand column.
Tip: For full paragraphs of text, increase the ‘leading’ (the space between the lines) and use a legible font in a comfortable point size.
Edit text down to the key points
Condensing your research to a few key bullet points is challenging, however approach this as you would when writing a proposal, abstract or cover letter to an academic journal. Briefly summarise each section and omit extraneous information. It is good practice to keep conference posters to a word count of 800 words or less. What were your objectives? What were your key findings? Sections that are commonly included can be lifted from:
- Materials and Methods
Using colour is an effective way of drawing the eye to key information or differentiating sections. However, limit your palette to 3-5 colours. If you are using design software, such as Adobe InDesign to typeset your poster, use the Colour Themes panel to find complementary tones that work well together.
In visual design, there are certain ‘rules’ to bear in mind. Click here to learn more about using colours that don’t clash.
If you want to keep it simple, use an off-white tone to soften the effect of all the neutral white space you have incorporated into the layout.
Dark backgrounds should generally be avoided, and text should always contrast with the background to improve readability:
Left column: poor contrast Right column: good contrast
Limit yourself to three font variations at the most. This includes point sizes of the same typeface, so think carefully about the hierarchy of the text and signpost with headings and sub-headings accordingly. Sans-serif fonts, such as Helvetica, Calibri or Avenir are examples of reliable, commonly used fonts. ‘Script’ fonts should be avoided, and under no circumstances should Comic Sans feature anywhere on your conference poster.
Consider using borders or blocks of colour to show where one section ends and another one starts. If you’re using a professional printing service, include ‘bleed’ and ‘crop’ marks in your layout, so the printer can allow for colour bleeds around the edge of the page and knows where to cut the poster to size. Click here to learn more about bleed and crop marks.
Charts should be presented simply and clearly. Omit extraneous information and make sure labels are readable from a distance. The font point size should be big enough so that readers don’t have to squint. Be consistent with your use of colour to create synergy throughout design.
Including graphic elements is a good idea. Choose relevant illustrations or images which support your message. Comedic images, cartoons or private visual jokes should be avoided. A conference poster is an opportunity to present valuable research and shouldn’t be squandered in an attempt to be humorous.
Don’t forget to include your institution’s logo. Source a high-resolution image (70ppi) and be careful not to stretch or squash it during resizing.
Tip: Select your image and hold down ‘Shift’, then drag from the corner of the image box to resize to scale.
Armed with these tips, ask yourself the following questions as you being to plan your next conference poster:
- What is the most compelling part of your message?
- What do you want your audience to take away?
- What are the guidelines set by your institution or the conference organisers?
By implementing these simple design principles you will impress colleagues and potential collaborators, giving you a good starting point from which to discuss your research.
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