Conference Tips: The Poster Edition

Aug 24 2009 Published by under Academia

Sci did a post last year on posters at SFN, the difference between a good poster, a better poster, and the best posters (I'm talking with regards to styling, not content, if you've got crappy content, Sci simply cannot help you). And this year, fresh back from a really awesome conference, she wants to do it again. And this time, we're trying examples.
So here we go: how to make a decent scientific poster (or at least one that isn't completely terrible). Starring SciC and her cute though minimal skillz with powerpoint.

There were 10s of thousands of posters at SFN this year. Of those, I saw perhaps 100 over a period of 4 days. The question becomes, how did I pick those 100?
Well, obviously, I'm going to see those that are relevant to my field. Time was, I could browse a little, see something cool on vision or memory processing or hormonal control. But now, in the words of one of my fellow grad lemmings "I have my dissertation blinders on". I'm positively fixated. I cannot say that that is a good thing. I will love the day when I'm no longer obsessed and can look around, get some ideas on stuff that might be peripheral, but could spark some truly good ideas. Still, there must have been at least 1,000 posters there directly or peripherally related to stuff that my lab is doing.
So once you have your topics narrowed down, what is the difference between a poster I will look at, yawn, and drag myself away from in search of a latte and one that will have me introducing myself to the presenter and peppering them with feedback and questions?
1) The Title
I know it sounds like a sell-out, but a good title can really make for some traffic. A good title needs to be informative, catchy, and not too terribly long. Let's be honest, how many people are going to go through the THOUSANDS of posters that could potentially be on their itinerary and read each abstract? I think I tried to do this my first SFN, and it was a horribly time consuming and soul-sucking idea. So the meat of your information needs to be in your title. You can't try and save the little nugget of gold for the end of your 500 word abstract, you need to make sure that gold is liquified and sprayed all OVER your title.
I'll tell you, by then end of my itinerary formation, I'm looking at the author (usually the last author to see if it's a Big Fish), and about the first five words of the title. If I don't see something in there to make me look again, I'm moving on.
Some examples:
Ok...: "Effects of oral ethanol self-administration on socialization and collaboration formation in humans: potential for low-dose positive effects"
Better: "Low dose oral EtOH enhances socialization and collaborative projects among scientists during a scientific conference"
What is the difference between these titles?
The issues: the first title is too long. It is also in the passive voice. And the meat of it, the cool changes they saw, is entirely stuck away in the last half. The key phrases for this study were "low doses" and "positive effects on socialization and collaboration". But the low dose effects are in the last half.
A word on the colon: Sci used to be (and sometimes still is) a fan of using the colon in presentations, especially when you're trying to be very specific. But it often shows your title to be too long. If you can get away without it, you often end up with something a little more catchy.
The second title is better. Short, simple, to the point.
A note on school logos: Use a logo if your school provides one, and a department logo either below or on the other side if you have one of those. However, the logo should NOT dominate your poster title. Also, use the official logo. I do not want to see a super huge cartoon hornet, an enormous warthog, or whatever else you are unfortunate enough to have as your mascot. Keep it simple and non-tacky, please.
2) Color:
Sci has a knack for poster color. I actually had my university ask me if they could use one of the formats I developed as an official format for the uni! Many universities have official color schemes and designs that you have the option of using so you don't have to play the Russian Roulette of matching and hoping it comes back ok from the printer. Some labs even have their own color scheme, so if you're all showing next to each other, you look big and impressive. Me, I'm an individualist.
First off, though this is a matter of taste, Sci thinks there is NOTHING more boring than black and white. Most papers are in black and white (unless you are lucky enough to do things that produce pretty pictures as data, I am not), so we see plenty of that. Posters are the time when you can let your data pop. Seriously, if I had to pass another poster in just black and white...eww. It was just unfortunate. Now this is a matter of taste, and some labs only train in black and white. Sci likes some color, but keep it simple, no need to hurt people.
I tend to like a background for the title that really POPS, with the rest of the poster in a lighter color, and the graphs and text boxes in white. But I've done black backgrounds, too, and the effect is very striking. However, be careful to make sure your text sticks out of your background or textbox! Red on blue is NEVER a good idea. Yellow on blue similar. And NO NEON. I do not appreciate having to fight seizures while look at your poster. Subtle color can be attractive and make your data pop without hurting the delicate aging eyes of Big Fish profs.
A example (though not her best, Sci saves that for her actual conferences, and keep in mind that this varies a LOT by taste, for example if you happen to hate UNC...):
3) Introduction:
Brief. To the point. As an example observe below:
Good: It has been observed that the optimal environment in which scientists can socialize and form collaborations is found at many academic conferences. It is also a common feature of conferences that significant levels of ethanol (often at reduced price or free), are available during periods of socialization. Thus, levels of ethanol present often correlate with successful socialization attempts and collaborations. As yet, however, there have been no specific studies which address whether or not the presence of ethanol promotes socialization and collaboration specifically, or whether this is merely a correlation based on the presence of both at conferences. This study aims to observe the effects of free ethanol on socialization and collaborative at a given conference, using scientific observation of behavior and manipulations in the availability of ethanol.
Bad: It has been observed that socialization and collaborations attempts among scientists often occur at conferences. These conferences often provide ethanol self-administration opportunities at reduced cost to participants. Dr. Big Wig et al (2007) were the first to scientifically observe a correlation between ethanol presence and socialization, and the laboratory of Dr. Scary (2005) noted the high dose ethanol appears to inhibit useful collaboration. Additional studies outside of the scientific community have shown anxiolytic effects of ethanol which may contribute to possible social interaction (Boring et al, 1999, Redundant et al, 2006). As yet, however, a full study of dose-response curve ethanol as a function of ethanol price has yet to be undertaken. And blah de blah and stuff I don't feel like making up right now because this poster blog post is taking a lot longer than I anticipated and dang it better go in a carnival or something to make it worthwhile (Sci, 2009). Thus, we have embarked on a study of the effects of ethanol of scientific gatherings, using dose and unit price as variables. We utilized observational studies and behavioral rankings of drunkeness and successful social interaction to construct models of unit price and dose of ethanol and effects on scientific socialization. We analyzed the heck out of it and used lots of stats, it's really impressive, honest.
The second one is FAR too long. Use citations if you need them, but never go below 28 font. Also, this is a poster. Not a paper. There is no need to review the literature or put it in the context of the Grand Scheme of Life, the Universe, and Everything. That is YOUR job when you're up there talking about your poster. And that will come out when you publish the data. This is more of a data snippet, your freshest stuff and the stuff you want feedback on. No need to harp on what everyone else is saying about it.
3) Font and Size:
NEVER, EVER put any text smaller than 18 pt on your poster. I'm including figure legends in that. NEVER. If you have to make things 12 pt, you have too much text, and that's all I can say about that. I can't say this enough: NOTHING BELOW 18pt FONT!!!
4) Dimensions:
They give you board sizes for a REASON. Do NOT overflow your board. It's the epitome of tacky, and shows that you were using the poster from another conference and were too lazy or cheap or didn't have enough new data to make another one (If you ARE lazy and/or cheap and/or don't have enough new data, make a good poster that is an average size, like 3'x5', and stick with it. Making a custom poster and using it over when it obviously doesn't fit on the board looks awful. Smaller than your board is just fine, as long as it's big enough to get your point across and not leave people squinting. Also, if you need THAT MUCH space to put that much stuff on a poster, just submit the dang thing to a journal, already!
If you cannot get yours printed out all expensive, make sure you're posting on contrasting colored paper as your background (please make it match, we don't need rainbows up there), and that everything is neat and well-spaced. It goes a long way. Try your best to make sure your papers are NOT wrinkled.
5) Figure titles and Legends:
I asked my friend and fellow grad lemming (to whom I owe a lot on this post) to come up with the WORST possible figure title. She gave me this:

"In Vitro Analysis of Activation and Repression Activity by Mutant Proteins as viewed by Electrophoretical Mobility Shift Assays at Two Sites"

Ouchie. Hurts just looking at it, huh? Your figure titles are important things. Don't just state a method. No one ever wants to see "effects of ethanol on scientist social interactions" as a title. They DO want to see "Low-dose ethanol enhances the probability of successful scientific social interaction". You have very little space for conclusions, and you want your main effects to boil down to bullet points. Your figure titles should be concise and reflect the graph's finding. They should be a brief statement of your RESULTS, not a statement of your methods. You have a special section for your methods. Use it.
And I beg you, do not title your results sections "Experiment 1", "Experiment 2", and "Experiment 3". I think my eyes just about rolled out of my head by the third experiment. That has to be the worst possible idea for a figure title Sci has ever seen (and yes, I've seen it. A lot.).
A note on capitalization: It is not Necessary to Capitalize all Words of Import. Either Capitalize Them All, or capitalize none. Otherwise, it looks like you have problems controlling your shift key.
Figure legends: These should be as short as you possibly can. Smaller font is ok, but DO NOT go below 18 please. Just state what the stars mean, and the n's. Short and sweet. And PLEASE, please run the preliminary stats on your stuff! Avoiding it just out of laziness shows you don't care. If it's not significant yet, it's not, and that's ok, give us a p value so we know how close you are. And tell us what you ran, and put stars up there if you've got something. It focuses the attention. Figure legends aren't necessary per se, but if you have them, they should be descriptive of what you did, providing the numbers and analysis as needed.
6) Font:
I've heard two schools of thought on font. Some say that sans-serif is the only way to go, and that serif hurts the eyes. Others says that serif is better for paragraphs. One thing I know for certain: use the same font on the whole poster. I do not need to see how much you like century gothic and comic sans and how you like lucidia narrow.
7) Conclusions/Discussion/Wrapping it all up:
If your figure titles are good and strong, you should be able to simply state your findings in some bullet points and launch into the meaning. I highly recommend bullet points for your conclusions, when people are reading poster after poster, it gives them something clear to focus on. A little speculation is good, also maybe something on where you're going next if you have the space. If you don't, include it in your spiel.
Models: Sci likes these. Especially if you are working on something a little difficult, like circuitry or cell firing to different regions, in areas that not all people might be familiar with. It's also a good place to add some color and interest. These are best placed with your conclusions/summary/discussion, especially if they can really elucidate your hypothesis. A picture is worth a thousand words, and we all know you don't want to waste words on a poster. And people will remember your model a lot more than they will remember some random sentance describing the findings. Plus, when you're trying to describe something, it's great to have something to point at.
8) You and your poster:
Yay! Your poster is done! It's printed and pretty.
On showing up: So I didn't know this, but fellow grad lemming tells me that, at ASM, if you don't show up to present your poster, you can't present again for FOUR YEARS. This means, if you forget your poster, you are in big doo-doo. I personally forgot my poster for SFN! Luckily, Mr. SiT is truly a fantastic human being, and drove ALL the way back to get it, and had it to me before 8am the next morning, along with a large bottle of bourbon for my panic attack. But we don't all have Mr. SiT, and sometimes your poster won't remotely be within driving distance. Thus, bring your poster, and keep an eye on it at all times. DO NOT check it. Check your luggage. Don't check your poster. I have heard many tales of woe on this point. But also bring a copy on a jump drive, ready to go. Worst case scenario, find your nearest Kinko's.
Get there early. Set up, and then go wander off if you want. Showing up late is icky. As is taking your poster down and leaving early. You signed up for this time, stay for it.
On what to wear: When your poster is in a color, try to wear something contrasting. Otherwise it kind of looks like you dressed to match your poster, and that's a little weird. I've found that, the further up your are on the ladder, the less you have to care how you dress. A first year grad student is wearing a suit and tie, and a 5th year is maybe wearing dress pants and a nice top. A postdoc is wearing khakis, and a prof is wearing jeans. Really, it's all up to you, but I find that dressing up a little gives me confidence, and makes me feel professional. Some conferences are super casual, some of the bigger ones are not. And ladies, I know it shouldn't matter, but it does. Leave the cleavage at home. You want Dr. Dude to look at your DATA. Ideally, that's what he will be doing regardless of what you wear. But why tempt fate and a potentially really uncomfortable situation?

In other notes:
I love my cute shoes, but honestly, this is not the time. The SFN poster floor was thin carpet laid over concrete, and I was standing on it for FOUR HOURS. If you want to wear your cute shoes, go for it, but I recommend bringing a pair of flats along in case. Your legs and feet will thank you.

On presenting:
If it's your first time, practice practice practice! Make sure you know your take-home message, make sure you can describe your techniques clearly, in under 3 minutes if you possibly can. If you're like me and have an awesome lab, a senior person will be standing with you for most of your first time, watching you like a hawk and making sure you don't drown. Sci is now at the point where my advisor may not even bother to come by, they know I'm gonna be just fine. But for the first time, having a senior lab person around can be a comfort.
Bring a bottle of water! Also coffee if it's in the morning. You'll need it. And if you have nice friends, have one of them stop by halfway through to bring relief supplies. If you poster generates good traffic (the huge traffic generated by posters from Sci's lab is a point of pride), you may not be able to step away. The wonderful research assistant who brought Sci that bottle of water halfway through my last SFN has my ETERNAL gratitude.
Someone will ask you a question you can't answer. That's ok. Good answers for times like this include "I don't actually know, but I'd love to try that experiment", "that's a great idea", and "I'm afraid I don't know, would you be willing to speculate?" Nobody expects you to know everything.
When someone points out something wrong or a lit point that is important, take notes! Get their feedback, and their contact information if you can. It can hurt to get shot down in public, but in the end, your work will be the better for it. And making those contacts is ALWAYS a good thing. Some people leave up a piece of paper for people to write down their contact information.
And because Sci is devoted, she's going to show you want it all looks like:
scientific poster.jpg
That's some fine science right there.
poster intro.jpg
poster results.jpg


poster conclusions.jpg

17 responses so far

  • Lab Rat says:

    That was amazingly helpful, thank you! I'm making a poster in december, and I'll definately bear all these points in mind. And I loved the subject matter of the example XD

  • DrJohn says:

    I know we've gone at this before, but... allow me to offer a dissenting opinion regarding color. There are a number of us out there who hold that a poster should have the minimal content necessary to accurately convey the data. This includes color. If I see a poster with lots of color, I automatically assume that the presenter is trying to hide something in the data. If I see a poster in pure black and white, or with minimal color on more complex figures, then I know that the presenter is confident that the data stands on its own.
    Like you said, it's a matter of preference. Much like our previous debate on poster titles, you're going to bug somebody no matter what you do.

  • After taking all the darn semicolons out of my powerpoint presentation slides, I'm relieved to hear that I can (maybe) keep the colons in my posters. At least, for now.

  • Scicurious says:

    DrJohn, I totally included that bit about how stuff might vary by taste just for you!!! I mean, I would say that if there's CRAZY amounts of color (some backgrond graphic of the brain shooting sparks out of its head or something), they might be hiding something (and certainly have no taste), but a solid color background has never before made me worried. But clearly I've been raised in a much more trusting atmosphere.
    Michelle: YAY! Down with the semicolons in powerpoints! I'm so proud. 🙂

  • Gail says:

    I would add one other caveat. Please, please, PLEASE spell out the first instance of all acronyms. I ran across your post and will be recommending it to organizers of our annual meetings to consider sending out as a link for poster presenters, but I have no idea what meetings you are talking about having attended.

  • Zen Faulkes says:

    I'll second the comment on colours: They're tricky.
    Ask yourself if you know what the lighting will be like. I've been at sessions where the lighting could charitably be called dingy. What looks fine in a brightly lit print shop may look like mud at the conference.
    I've also seen the reverse: sessions held under glaring spotlights that throw minor little wrinkles into sharp relief. The Neuroscience conferences are a bit of an exception; the lighting at those is very predictable and uniform.
    Colours can be very effective, but they can also create readability problems. You can't go wrong with black text on a white background.
    I've written a bit about that on (anabashed plug) the Better Posters blog: (This post will be getting some link love on the Better Posters blog!)

  • Scicurious says:

    An excellent point, Gail! Sorry about that. One should ALWAYS spell out the first instances of acronyms. I think I may have done that with ethanol (EtOH), but I bet I forgot...
    But yes, the meetings:
    SFN: Society for Neuroscience (Neuroscience's biggest conferencet)
    ASM: American Society for Microbiology (Microbio's biggest conference)

  • Nick says:

    Great article, very comprehensive and I love the examples.
    I agree with Dr John about the colors to an extent -- too much is like you are trying to hide something, but it would be a shame not to use any coloring, I prefer just being subtle!
    Good point too about Comic Sans. Terrible font.
    I wrote a list of poster tips at Bitesize Bio a couple of years back:
    ... you covered just about everything I did, and then some!

  • A note on color schemes. 7-12% of the male population is red-green colorblind so there's a very good chance that just such a person (or several) will be interested in seeing your poster at a large conference. Make sure you use a color format that allows them to *actually see* it. There's an excellent website that gives you guidelines and step-by-step instructions on pseudocoloring fluorescent images, etc.:

  • (1) I like the mascots, but I am a college sports fan.
    (2) Your poster template is absolutely fucking horrible:
    (a) Light text on a dark background is an abomination. It is much more difficult to read than dark text on a light background.
    (b) The separate thin black boxes around the title and each figure, all on on a light blue background are hideous and distracting. If you want to add some color, use a thicker colored box around each figure (with its title inside the same box), all on the white background.
    (3) In relation to typefaces, serif type is definitely proven to be easier to read as paragraphs of text. What looks really great is to use a humanist sans serif typeface for your title, figure titles, and section headings, and then use an old-style or transitional serif for the body text.

  • Scicurious says:

    CPP: when you say a thicker colored box, do you mean the line around the box, or the box being colored in? Because usually when I see the box colored in, someone managed to make a point on their graph hot pink or red on blue or something, and it looks AWFUL.

  • Zen Faulkes says:

    Light text on dark background can work in small doses. Many road signs have light on a dark green background, and legibility is clearly at a premium there. I believe it's done partly because light text on a dark background appears larger; David Jury writes about this in the book About Face.
    Of course, research posters are not highway signs: they're more complicated. Readability is usually more important than legibility on a poster.

  • CPP: when you say a thicker colored box, do you mean the line around the box, or the box being colored in?

    The former.
    In relation to traffic signs, they need to be highly visible when illuminated either by daylight or by vehicle headlamps. This is why they are white reflectorized lettering on a dark background.

  • Thanks for this post, it's very helpful! I'll send my students to read it...
    There are a couple of points I always try to make when teaching how to make posters. First, remember that poster is for _visual_ communication. Outside natural sciences there are still many people who only put text in their posters, because their research doesn't generate pretty graphs. My point: everything can be visualised: if not results then method, the topic, the theory... or if you are desperate, put on the picture of the boring old git who wrote the book/symphony/theory you are trying to analyse. Or a mindmap of your study.
    Also, trying to draw things often helps in making it clear to yourself, what goes where and how things are related. This visuality-point of view also goes to the colour-issue: the gist of the poster has to be readable in 10 seconds from 3 metres away. If it isn't, your visual/colour scheme, title formulation etc. are wrong. Black on white is boring, but very effective. You should choose other colours, but only if they work as well or better than black-white.
    Second, a point that you also make very clear, poster is just something to talk about, producing one doesn't mean your job is done. The interaction on the day counts. You have a good poster and you have an audience. What you do with that audience depends on your preparation and skills. My recommendation is to have different versions of your spiel prepared - from a one minute overview for the busy prof to a 3-5 minute in-depth explanation of your methods section to the keen fellow postgrad who tries to do similar stuff.
    And, if you and your poster are good, you'll end up with a queue to your poster, make sure you don't drive people off by focusing on only one "customer". Greet people who approach your poster even when you are explaining something to someone else, as this means that you've noticed them and will tend to their questions shortly. And have an "exit strategy" if you get someone who tries to steal all your time. Getting their email addresses and promising to get back to them with details and a copy of your poster later usually does the trick.
    In general, at least in my field, posters are still considered consolation prizes for those who aren't important enough to deliver a spoken paper. And yet, the poster sessions are so much better than spoken paper sessions in many ways. As a spectator you see much more in less time, get the chance to ask your question, get contact details and copies of interesting posters etc. As a presenter, you get more and better feedback and a larger, more informed audience. And there are skills involved, skills all researchers should practice, thanks for promoting the format and sharing your tips!

  • Good post & I like very much all graphs & evaluations in " Sci is devoted, she's going to show you want it all looks like"
    If you are looking for more on digital printing can visit my blog

  • Katie says:

    Question: if the abstract is available in the conference booklet, do you still put it on the poster? If not, do you post it on a separate sheet on your board just so it's available in case people don't have their booklet with them?

  • Scicurious says:

    Katie: Sci's gotta say, she HATES seeing abstracts on posters. I've got a booklet, thanks, start out by telling me something I don't know already. And presumably your poster will inform them of what it's about even better than the abstract could, without your abstract being on there. I vote no abstract. Your mileage may vary.

Leave a Reply