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How to prepare a scientific poster

Poster presentations at scientific conferences can provide early-career researchers with valuable opportunities to practice their communication skills, receive feedback on their research, and expand their network. “By discussing my work one-on-one with other researchers, [I’ve found] I can identify what worked well and what needs improvement,” says Aura Alonso-Rodríguez, a Ph.D. candidate in natural resources at the University of Vermont. “These conversations can also inspire new research ideas and can often lead to new collaborations.”

Yet, there are times when poster sessions don’t go as hoped. “I remember this one time that I worked for months on a poster—and only two people came to talk to me,” Alonso-Rodríguez recalls. “It was a bit disheartening.” She chalked up the lackluster turnout to the poster session’s placement at the end of the conference schedule, and she tried to focus on how valuable it was to prepare the poster in the first place. “Presenting that poster created the pressure that I needed to analyze my data and advance in my project. Through that experience, I learned that the work that goes into preparing a poster is just as valuable as the presentation itself.”

Crafting an effective poster presentation isn’t always straightforward. The best approach may depend on whether the conference is being held in person or virtually. Strategies and preferences also vary widely among scientists. So, Science Careers asked researchers in a range of disciplines and career stages to share their tips for making the most of presenting a poster at a conference, including any adjustments they’ve made for conferences held online. The responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.

How much time and planning do you usually dedicate to preparing a poster?

Poster design typically requires 1 or 2 weeks for me. I first decide what findings I want people to focus on and what figures would help me convey that information. Then, with paper and pencil, I make three to four rough sketches of possible layouts. Once the backbone is set, I go digital and compose my poster, keeping everything black and white at first. My last step is adding the text and deciding the color palette for my poster.

—Martina Maritan, staff scientist in computational structural biology at the Scripps Research Institute and visual science communicator at 3D Protein Imaging

In total, I spend approximately 4 days to a maximum of 1.5 weeks full time to prepare a poster. I start by outlining the content and then making a quick template on paper of how the poster could look, keeping freedom for visual creativity. I then ask for advice from a colleague with visual design skills. I reserve at least a week for printing, to be sure everything is checked and can be reprinted if necessary.

Mendy van der Vliet, remote sensing scientist at VanderSat

I work backwards from the latest I need to have my poster ready by, taking into account how much time I need to print it. Many departments have their own printer, which can allow more flexibility. I can usually put together a poster within a day if it’s something I’ve presented before, by tweaking or adding new data. If you’re preparing your first poster, though, you will probably want to start at least a week or more in advance to ensure that you have enough time to get multiple rounds of feedback.

—Maxwell Shafer, postdoctoral fellow in evolutionary genetics and neurobiology at the University of Basel

I will always try to prepare at least a few weeks in advance. Conferences may have slightly different formatting guidelines, so it is important to check them and consider how much time you may need to reformat a poster if you’re repurposing a previous poster you created. With the move to digital conferences, make sure that you also give yourself enough time to properly navigate uploading portals.

—Jack Chan, Ph.D. candidate in cancer immunology at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and the University of Melbourne

Since I have to coordinate with collaborators and mentors, I usually start preparing the poster about 20 days before the conference starts so I have time for feedback.

—Luis Queme, research instructor in anesthesia at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital

How do you select and structure your poster’s content?

The main sections I try to include in a poster are background, methods, results, and key takeaways. In these sections, I pick the aspects of my work that are directly linked with the research narrative I want to convey. If possible, I focus on answering one research question and include up to three main results. In a recent poster, I also decided to include the main goal and main findings in a separate section above the rest, to highlight these key messages as much as possible.


At the beginning of my science career, I thought I had to include as much data as possible and completely fill up all the available space on my poster. But then I learned that less is more! Now, I prioritize the findings I want to talk about, trying to include a maximum of three major topics and to keep the text as concise as possible. My posters are generally structured around a short intro, the results, and a brief conclusion, using titles that are self-explanatory and deliver a message.


I try to tailor my presentation to who will be attending the conference. If I expect the audience to be very interested in the scientific details, I will put more emphasis on explaining the background and showing my research steps. If the audience will be more interested in the applied side, then the visualization of the applications will become the main part of the poster. I will add the background and specifics about the methods at the end for those who want to know the nitty-gritty.

—van der Vliet

I don’t think a poster needs to follow the traditional paper structure—in fact, I think that can hinder poster design. I try to keep the text as brief as possible and use uncluttered figures to communicate one main finding and why is it interesting. I avoid tables of data at all costs, as it is difficult for visitors to quickly extract information from them.

—Joanna Ramasawmy, AtLAST scientist at the U.K. Astronomy Technology Centre at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh

I start by asking myself: 1. What narrowed-down topic am I presenting? 2. What are two to three important background knowledge items to contextualize the research? 3. What are my key findings? 4. What data back up these findings? Each of these questions will then be tackled in a separate section of the poster. I also add a small conclusion section, references (no more than six), and acknowledgements.

—Marissa Clapson, postdoc in organometallic chemistry at the University of Windsor and CEO of ChemEscape Consulting Inc.

I’ll pick the aspects of my data that are most relevant to my audience. Generally, I limit myself to around three figures, as it lends itself to a basic storytelling structure with a beginning, a middle, and an end. In my most recent posters, my results section did not contain any explanatory text beyond the figure legends, as I believe that the data should speak for itself. I also try to limit the number of variables that are presented in the figures so they are easier to interpret.


In the last couple of years, I’ve switched to the #betterposter format, which includes less content and has a more conversational tone. It has a single-sentence description of the conclusion that takes up almost half the total area of the poster. It’s significantly more readable and approachable than the typically dry poster titles. Then, I strive to use only three or four figures, with text explanations and captions to enhance and deepen the story.

Seth Just, principal software engineer at Proteome Software Inc.

How do you go about constructing your poster? What tools and software do you use?

I usually use the open-source software Scribus to make my poster. I start with a three-column grid, but I’m pretty flexible about this. Margins and white space are important, and so is the content hierarchy. The title should be clear, succinct, and by far the largest text on the poster. I make my research question and conclusion stand out, and I lay out the rest of the content in a way that is visually intuitive to follow in the correct order. I also spend a lot of time on typography. The right typesetting can turn a dense-looking wall of text into something much easier to read. And while my work doesn’t lend itself to nice pictures, a key plot or an infographic can be effective. There are lots of useful resources online with premade illustrations that you can also use with attribution, including the Noun Project and Bear in mind accessibility as much as possible by ensuring that plots use colorblind-friendly color schemes and that the text is legible.


I use vector graphics editors such as Adobe Illustrator or Affinity Designer to make my posters. PowerPoint or Google slides also work well in a pinch. Overall, you want the poster to be visually balanced while giving your data sufficient space. Instead of including an abstract, use the space you save to make your results big and clear. Make sure that the text and labels are legible for someone standing several feet away. Also make the entire poster easy to read by putting big numbers next to your sections to indicate the order in which your audience should read, and by using bullet-point introduction and conclusions.


I love to be creative and experiment with funky layouts. I decide on the layout based on my data—for example, I will design my poster around a cool visual or try to arrange the figures in an unconventional way to grab visitors’ attention. I make the important findings stand out by using a font that is big enough and easily readable. Over the years, I have used various 2D graphic software including Affinity Designer, Adobe Illustrator, Pixelmator, and Inkscape, depending on the licenses available at my institution. I like to use the website to choose my color palettes.


I use LaTeX for poster layout and Inkscape for drawings and graphics. I like to use bold text to emphasize key terms and drive the reader’s focus. And I spend a lot of time on the colors and shapes of my figures to ensure readability and consistency.


Do you have recommendations on how to find advice for preparing posters?

If you need layout ideas, do a simple search online for scientific posters. Also check with your supervisor to see if your institution has any templates you can or need to use, which may include logos and particular color schemes.

—Mangala Srinivas, professor in cell biology and immunology at Wageningen University & Research and chief scientific officer of Cenya Imaging

I’ve drawn heavily on my mentor and collaborators and would also recommend reading as much as you can about data visualization and the tools you’re using. For example, the Matplotlib library has some in-depth and well-written documentation about how to build effective graphics and use coloring. I also spend a lot of time looking for inspiration anywhere I can find it. Twitter’s #betterposter hashtag is a nice place to look. I also dig into conference proceedings, relevant papers, and even textbooks to see how you can design your poster to be attractive and emphasize the right things.


I find Zen Faulkes’s blog Better Posters so useful, with lots of advice, resources, and ideas about good academic poster design. Ellen Lupton’s book and website Thinking With Type are also great introductions to typography.


I usually take notes if I see a great poster out there and try to implement the idea myself.


Workshops addressing how to make a presentation often have helpful tips that also apply to making posters. Your best resource though is your peers. Check what are the standards in your research group and discuss with others what they see as good poster design.


How do you advise maximizing interactions during the actual poster session?

I always like to open a conversation with “Would you like me to walk through the poster with you?” While this will allow you to highlight important data or findings, your excitement is what will really draw people in. Most often, viewers will simply ask you to expand on your data rather than trying to grill you on content. But make sure that you have an answer prepared in case you get questions about gaps in your research.


There are so many things that can make or break your poster. Some involve luck, like the location, day, and time, and who is around you. If you are close to a poster from a famous research group you will get more traffic, but the crowd may also overflow your “real estate” and make your poster more difficult to spot. Put all the chances on your side by optimizing the factors that you can control—making your design visually appealing, standing next to your poster, and including a QR code to either a preprint or your contact information if someone wants to know more.


Practice a 1- to 2-minute pitch until you feel comfortable. The poster and your pitch must be aimed at the audience that will be present. The clearer and more rational your poster layout, the easier it will then be for you to make a strong pitch.


In-person poster sessions can be intimidating—you do not know who is going to come and if they are going to ask difficult questions. So, in addition to practicing my speech, I go in with a mental preparation, reminding myself that I am not here to be judged, but to learn and to share my research. Then, to maximize my outreach, I sometimes print my poster on letter-sized sheets of paper to give visitors. I also include my email in case someone wants to get in touch later.


Don’t be afraid to pull in passers-by and initiate conversations! This is especially the case if you see someone whose feedback you know you want. Have a 2-minute, 5-minute, and 10-minute version of your presentation ready in case your audience doesn’t have much time, but still wants to know what you found.


Because my overall approach is to distill down the information in the poster to an absolute minimum, I always have data, findings, or ideas in my pocket for discussion. I also include a QR code on the poster that links to a web page with a more fleshed-out description and discussion of the project, with additional figures.


I find it helpful to ask my visitors how much background knowledge they have on my area of study so I can tailor my presentation. I try to maintain a conversational dialogue and stimulate questions related to where my project may go next or how they could contribute to my work. Above all, it is important to remember to be kind to your audience. Ensure it comes across that you truly value their knowledge, time, and attention.


Have you ever given an online poster presentation? If so, how did you adapt what you would have done for an in-person conference?

Actually, all my poster presentations have been virtual at this point! Mostly, I have used Gather, which allows users to upload posters as PDFs or high-quality images. The platform provides you with an avatar so you can walk around a virtual conference hall. It really takes some time to get used to; individual webcam streams of other delegates will spontaneously pop in and out of your screen as their avatars move in your direction. As Gather and other virtual platforms are used more over time, I believe that the virtual etiquette in these scenarios will become better defined, making interactions a little easier.


On Gather, I have found it helpful to “wander” virtually near my poster to initiate a video call with people when there wasn’t much activity. When interacting with viewers, it can also be a good idea to provide links to other work or organize a meeting time later to catch up on questions. Another online poster format that I have experience with is on Twitter. I uploaded my poster as a high-quality jpeg with a tweet to draw the audience in, and then in the comment section I added smaller images with a quick overview of the content. Twitter is fast paced during the online sessions so you want to be able to answer questions quickly to keep interest high. Finally, I have taken part in sessions that ask you to prepare a high-quality PDF poster and a 5-minute video explaining the contents that will be uploaded for viewing before the conference begins. You will then have a live question and answer session. Here, my advice is to highly promote your poster on Twitter to encourage people to come to your session and view the poster beforehand.


When I gave a virtual poster presentation over Zoom, I reduced text to the bare minimum, as it is more difficult to read everything through a screen. My research was about software developed in my lab, so I found it very effective to give live demos during my poster session, sharing my screen while I was using the software and walking my audience through what I was doing.


A virtual poster is challenging because space is more limited—everything on the poster must be visible and readable on tiny laptop screens. I ended up significantly reducing the amount of information I initially wanted to include to make the figures and diagrams bigger. I simplified the flow of the narrative and highlighted the research question and main findings at the top of the poster to ensure they were easily identified. I also used colors that would not be too bright or blinding on a computer screen.


Whenever I have done a virtual presentation, I made my posters very short and visual, and put lots of clickable links to relevant papers and extra information.


I recommend trying to be as flexible as the medium allows. Upload animated gifs or prerecorded presentations so that audience members can engage with your work when you’re not available to chat online. Then, during your presentation, engage as much as you can with your audience by checking in with them and asking questions. Don’t be afraid to pull up a complementary figure from your computer or share a browser window to talk about a preprint. Just make sure you clean up your desktop first.


I have done a few virtual presentations where I had to provide prerecorded talks. These are usually limited to 5 minutes, so it forces you to carefully select what you can say. I have also done some live presentations, and in these situations having technical difficulties can be a nightmare and very frustrating. Focus on what you can control. Make sure you have a good internet connection and that all your equipment is in order an hour before your presentation time so you can troubleshoot if needed.


As a visitor to a poster session, do you have any frustrations you have experienced that you’d like to warn others against? Any further advice?

Posters with too much text in small font sizes and obvious spelling errors are a put-off. Print your work on a normal printer before moving to a larger printer to double-check for typos. Also consider having a backup plan for printing in case the airline loses your poster tube. You might even want to print it at the destination site if time allows or on fabric so you can put it in your luggage.


The lack of a proper introduction on posters that have a very specific topic and a lot of specific jargon has frustrated me in the past. Make sure your poster is easy to understand.

van der Vliet

Do not try to cram a paper into your poster. Too much information is, well, too much. Let your most impactful findings shine. You can fill in details while talking.


The most important thing for a successful poster presentation is being truly enthusiastic about what you present, and being approachable. If people can see your excitement, they get excited and curious, too.


One of my pet peeves as a poster visitor is that no one is present at the poster. You can have an amazing poster, but if you are not there to answer questions, it is not helpful. Or you’re present at your poster, but your friends are spending the whole time hanging out with you. Make sure you interact with viewers before your friends so that you can show your professionalism and interest in networking within the community.


Don’t be afraid to fail or to struggle with your presentation—this will only help you learn what works and what doesn’t!


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