Designing an academic poster

This is a very basic guide to the process of constructing academic posters. The tips here won't apply to some of the larger conferences, where the posters tend to be built on templates, are text heavy and the decision on winners is based on the novelty of the science (think AGU and EGU conferences). It's why at those larger conferences the winning posters look surprisingly similar year-to-year. But if you want a design that strikes up conversation, this guide is for you. I've included examples from two great design books in this video - Tim Harrower's Newspaper Designer's Handbook ( a goldmine of great layout practice) and the Non-Designers Design Book by Robin Williams (the perfect first book if you are a design novice - highly recommended).


It may seem obvious but everything starts with a blank slate. Do NOT go straight to the software and start moving things around. Plan your poster first, it actually makes the job faster and easier. 
Over the next few steps we will take you through the planning process.




Right at the top, you need to know your goal.

This will then make it possible to work out who your audience is. Once you have established the audience, think about no more than three key points that would attract that audience to your poster. 

Now look at the instructions to get the size and then choose portrait or landscape. Just as a hint, landscape gives you more design flexibility. 




Bring your key components together before you start to design. 

  • Key figure: The key figure will be your dominant graphic. It must in some way make an instant visual point about your research. This doesn't have to be a direct copy of your research figures. It may be a simplified version or even an infographic, but it must sum up your key point or prompt curiosity. Check out Information is Beautiful Awards for some infographic ideas.
  • Attractive headline: Come up with a short, sharp headline rather than using the title from your paper. Try to make it active and colourful. Get verbs into a headline when you can
  • First line: Spend time on the first line of your poster. If someone reads and is intrigued by your first line, they will read further. Newspaper research shows that if you can pull readers into the first line and then the second, the likelihood they will read everything increases significantly.
  • Posters are not journal articles: Posters are a way to get your peers to engage with you and form partnerships. So, no more than 400 words of text. This is the shop window to your research, not everything in the shop.   




Themes clarify design: There are a lot of issues with this poster, mostly related to clarity, but it is one of the few examples of a theme I found in academic posters. A theme can be incredibly powerful at the creative and thinking part of the design process. Essentially it is a way of thinking about the subject of your poster in terms of design elements like the shapes and colours that correspond with your research. For instance, in this poster the colours reflect the colours of farmland, the design elements (circled in yellow) can be come really useful repetitive features in a design.

We talk more about colour later, but coming up with a theme opens a creative approach and helps reveal design ideas, structures and colours. 




Plan your poster on a grid: Too often there is an urge to jump straight to the software. Life will be much easier if you draw your poster up on a grid first. The Canva crew show some nice grid examples and tips here. The Interaction Design Foundation's piece on grids is worth a read too. So, get out a pencil and gridded piece of paper and start playing with design ideas.

Newspaper folks call these dummies. You will find you can dummy up multiple designs quickly and then when it comes to working in whatever software you choose, it will instantly make the layout job quicker and easier. I've created some very basic column grids you can print out here to get you started. 

Getting column spacing right: A nice rule of thumb on custom grids is that the space between columns (gutters) should be the width of two capital Ms (MM) based on body copy. It's not perfect, but it will help the spacing look right. If you want to get very specific and follow the golden ratio route, try 1.618 x point size. 



If the only reason you want to build a poster is to go to a conference, just fill up templates like these and walk away. They are simple and do the job but you won't be getting much in the way of conversation.
My major issues with these templates is in the structure (why introduction and methods first, this isn't a journal article?) and the poor use of the best real estate. You can see some of my reasoning below. 




The strongest work goes in the most prominent positions: The magic and sparkle, the zones where the eye stops first (circled) live at the top and the centre of a poster. This is the place for our best stuff, the show stoppers, the shop window.
It's actually why big institutions hand out templates with their logo at the top. The marketers in academic institutions know these are the best spaces.

If you are not stuck on a template, put the institutional logos along the bottom. Put your photo at the top right, so if you are not there when someone walks past, they can still track you down later. Your best image, strongest point, superb result should live high on your poster. People will talk to you more about your result or challenge than your method (unless that is truly cool) or your introduction. Your peers want to know what you did, not what you planned to do.

In short dump the introduction/method lead and go in with the good stuff at the top. It's journalism's inverted pyramid approach writ large. 




Images matter: Too many images and a poster can look lightweight. Too few images and you end up with a wall of grey. In general, the rule to get good balance is a ratio of 1:2. At least a third of your poster should be images or figures. And as I note in the next slide, not all images are equal.

All we have done in both of these templates is add a single image at around a 1:2 ratio. Even with very little care in the placement of these images, the posters are immediately more eyecatching. 




Not all images are equal. Look at these two pages taken from Tim Harrower's Newspaper Designer's Handbook ( a goldmine of great layout practice).

The left page has all the photos around the same size. In the right, simply by choosing a dominant image and varying the size of the others to create a hierarchy of images, the page looks much stronger. The eye has a place to rest.

You can also see how by placing the text and images on a grid, the layout artist has created alignments and boxes without using boxes. Good alignment on a grid creates its own box and suddenly white space becomes a useful part of the design.

That eye to the left is not in a box, but those two lines have created that illusion. Straight margin lines in text and borders of images can all be used to make white space active in the same way, turning white areas into strong elements and creating distinct sections without the need for boxes and screens.

Grids are the key to making white space your friend because they align each element. Varying images and scattering them along alignments dictated by grids creates points of focus and gives life and balance to every part of the page. You can be dramatic with contrast but keep every element in alignment to make it work.

A thought to take away with you. Elegant design with white space looks classy - it is used when selling to high income markets (think fashion magazines). Crowded brightly coloured designs look cheap, it's why that format is used in sales coupon books.




This wonderful development of a menu is taken from the Non-Designers Design Book by Robin Williams (the perfect first book if you are a design novice - highly recommended). This is a genuine menu that she uses as an example. I've highlighted it because it shows two very important elements that help hold a design together – proximity and hierarchy.

Proximity essentially means keeping things close together that are part of the same thing - in this case using headlines, body text. You can see in the first development of the menu how the change in case (all caps, seriously?) but more importantly the change in spacing has separated items into discrete and associated chunks. It's simple but effective.

But then Robin goes one step further and she creates a hierarchy using different fonts and sizes in a regular pattern (and throws in an indent as well). All of a sudden each discrete item becomes "clearly" part of a large block. The text size and font type create distinct headings and clarify which content is attached to that heading. Hierarchy creates consistency right through a poster (or even a book).

Both ideas are dead simple but they are seldom used well in academic posters. 




We read left to right and up to down. So our eyes automatically move in this direction when there is just text on a page. This can be changed as you get better at designing by drawing the eye and stopping it in the locations you wish in a variety of ways. Headlines, images, breaking across grids and a host of other nice little tricks help here but let's keep it simple at first. Try to get that flow across the page and it will help the logical progression through your poster. 

The other key point of this slide is text on photos. Text on photos should not be done often and when it is done it needs to be on a simple image and the text has to be bolded and in a colour that is either dark or approaching white. Too many times I see text disappear over complex photo backgrounds because the text is a bright colour. Ditto with screens (usually in the form of coloured boxes). Red and green may be opposite on the colour wheel but they hurt the eyes and are hard to read when one is on top of the other (let alone the colour blindness issues). 

If you really must use screens or text on photos, choose a san serif font (like Arial, Helvetica, Calibri) and bold the text. Because of dot gain we don't use serif fonts on screens, as the serifs and thin strokes can disappear or become very thin during the print process. This is particularly true when the text is white on a dark screen.




In general, the x-height (which is the distance from the baseline to the top of a lower case x) reflects how well text can be read from a distance. The taller the x-height, the easier text is to read. The font examples here are both 24 points but Times has a taller x-height than Garamond.

Just as an aside, there are some fonts that have very small ascenders (letters like a lower case L that touch the top line) and small descenders (the tail of lowercase letters like g, p and y). In cases where these are very short, a larger x-height can still be difficult to read.

The best way to check readability is to print off a few words on an A4 sheet at the point size you selected. If you can read them clearly from 2m (6.5ft) then that is a reasonable height. 




Once again, I return to the Non-Designers Design Book by Robin Williams. Here Robin shows how to use contrasting fonts to define headlines, sections and body text. There's a really strong hierarchy in the example on the right, which is a development from the tame, low impact design on the left. The keys to using fonts well is to use only a few or a font family. If you use different fonts for headings, make sure the contrast is strong. If you go for contrast, it's "all in" to get the best effect.

In regards to body copy, it's generally best to set things to a left margin with a ragged right (left justified). It's usually easier to read, although there are occasionally design reasons to full justify. Be wary of centring titles, as this creates inactive and ragged white space that can really hurt a design. All rules can be broken, but if you do, make sure it is for a good reason. 



Here are some great online tools to nail the subtleties of text.

  • Pearsonified's typography tool is perfect for setting the right font size and leading (the space between sentences) to make a poster readable. Simply enter the details you have and it will calculate the rest.
  • Type Scale helps you find the right sizes to create distinctions between headline and body copy using a variety of scales. The golden ratio is considered to be the most pleasing. Simply enter your font and a size and let Type Scale do the rest. 
  • is for those who really get into design. If you run into websites offering advice but in odd measurements (like ems) this will convert them to points or pixels to help make things easier.  




Let's now move into some simple colour advice. If you can recall the idea of developing a theme we talked about early on, you may already have your colours lined up. If not, we can give you some tools and advice further down to help you select colours that work. To start with, it's important to know that cool colours recede and look smaller than warmer colours - as you can clearly see here. This contrast is useful to know if you want to stop the eye at certain points in your poster. Colour also sets moods. 




Use your colours well: Don't try and spread your colours in blocks around the page or go for every colour in the spectrum. Do that and, unless you are a very talented designer, the best you can hope for is to end up with a Rubik's Cube. In your colour pallete decide which colour will be dominant, which will bring focus to certain areas (has high contrast), and which will be the colour that helps bring it all together. 




Some simple colour rules:

  • Create depth: If you want to create a sense of depth use colours with a common hue (blue, green, purple = blue common hue / yellow, orange, green = yellow as common hue / red, orange, purple = red as common hue).
  • Opposites vibrate: Opposite colours on the colour wheel tend to vibrate and can be hard to read if text is on a screen. However they may be very useful for images and design elements that you want to be active in a design.
  • Split complements: These tend to be very easy to mix in a design and work well together. In the example above (4 block square) blue is the colour opposite orange. Immediately beside blue is green and purple - the split complements. You can do this with any colour and come up with colour matches that are easy on the eye. This example uses the most basic colour wheel, but more complex colour wheels with more gradiations tend to produce very nice results. 



If you have a favourite image, these can often be very useful for selecting colours. Find an image that matches the mood and/or theme you want to project and then take the colours from that. There are some great websites that can help with that, which you can find on the next slide.




These are three exceptionally useful websites and one program for selecting colours. 

  • Canva Color-palette generator: Simply upload an image and Canva will produce five of the key colours from the image with hexadecimal colour codes.
  • Adobe color wheel: You can get lost here for hours. Play with colour combinations until you have what you like. Click on Explore at the top and you can find hundreds of colour schemes produced by other users of the wheel. 
  • The Climate Lab Book: Specifically the article End the Rainbow. Ed presented to us earlier this year about colour in and simplifying of scientific figures.  You can find many of the resources he mentions from this article. 
  • Color Oracle: (Thanks to Mat Lipson). This is a free program for Windows, Mac and Linux, which shows you what colourblind people will see when they look at your design. 




The colour on your computer is not the same as when printed, as the graph shows in this excellent article from Print Ninja. Colours tend to be darker with print and cover a smaller range. To get more accurate colours convert your deign to CMYK before finalising.
In addition, the file you should send to the printer must have come from the "print to pdf" process. Do not "save to pdf". This can cause your fonts and text layout to change. If you send a file that has been saved to pdf to a print shop and it does not have the font you used, they will convert your text using one they have on file. Even if they choose a font that is very close to what you used it will almost inevitably cause shifts in text, creating unexpected line breaks and changes in spacing.





Here in one easy slide, is the basic check list for designing your poster. I look forward to seeing some smart and imaginative posters at our next workshop. 

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