Scientific posters are a common type of genre1 created by researchers in science and engineering-related fields to communicate information about a study usually to other experts.
As a student, you may be assigned a scientific poster in a technical communication or science writing course or in a class that focuses on writing in your discipline.
Scientific posters give readers a ‘visual overview’ of a particular project. In contrast to primarily text-based documents like research or lab reports, posters are visual-dominant. That is, they rely primarily on visuals—illustrations and drawings, graphics such as charts and bar graphs, photographs, and design features like use of color and typography—to convey information.
Posters may differ in terms of content, design, and organizational structure depending upon the discipline. Before creating your poster, look at examples from researchers in your area of study to ensure that you follow the appropriate conventions for your field. This article gives an overview of this genre, offers guidelines for creating effective scientific posters, and includes two example posters.
Display Venues for Scientific Posters
Scientific posters are usually displayed during professional conferences, formal events in which researchers in a particular discipline gather to share and discuss their work with each other as well as network and socialize. Posters are often shown in a prominent area such as an exhibition hall. ‘Poster sessions’ held during the conference allow poster creators to interact with their readers and engage in one-on-one and/or small group discussions about the poster’s content and answer questions. In addition to the more formal events routinely held during a conference, these sessions offer another venue for attendees to learn about the work of their peers, meet colleagues with similar interests, and forge new collaborations.
While many posters are created for professional conferences, researchers on college campuses might also create a poster to showcase a particular project. For instance, a biology professor may want to publicize the work she and her graduate students are conducting in her lab. In this case, the professor and her students might display the poster in the hallway outside of the lab or in another public forum in the department or on campus. Unlike at a professional conference, in this scenario the professor and her students will want to assume that many of their readers will not be as knowledgeable as readers attending a conference about the subject matter. Some readers may be the professor’s colleagues who specialize in another area, others may be faculty in other disciplines, still others may be students. The professor and her students will want to carefully consider their audience in adapting their information so that readers who are not subject matter experts will understand the project and find it interesting (see Audience).
Keep in mind that if you display your poster at a professional conference, you will have the opportunity to interact with many of your readers—but you will not be able to interact with all of them. Consequently, your poster needs to be able to ‘stand-alone.’ That is, the information in your poster must be immediately understandable to your intended readers without any additional information.
Organizing Your Poster
This section provides guidelines for organizing the main sections of a scientific poster. Much like research reports, scientific posters often follow what is known as the IMRaD format (Introduction, Materials and Methods, Results, and Discussion) as explained below.
Title: describe the research project briefly and concisely using a short phrase that forecasts what the research study is about. In some disciplines, the title might highlight one or two major research findings of the study. The title should be no more than two lines.
Author Name(s) and Affiliation(s): Include the name of each author on the line underneath the title. Include each author’s institutional or organizational affiliation on the next line. If more than one author has the same affiliation, you only need to list the institution or organization once. Use superscript numbers at the end of each author’s name to indicate the same affiliation (see University Apiary).
Introduction: introduce the specific research question, explain why the question is important,2 conduct a very short literature review, and state the purpose of the study.
Note: Include your list of references in a separate section (see References). In some disciplines it is conventional to include in-text citations in the Introduction (and the Discussion), while in other disciplines only the list of references is included. It may also be conventional in some disciplines to include a separate section before or after the Introduction entitled ‘Study Objective’ or ‘Study Design,’ a one to two line phrase or sentence that states the overall purpose of the project. You might also use a bulleted list to include multiple study objectives.
The literature review is a fundamental component of most scientific research reports. The purpose is two-fold:
- Explain how the current research project fits in with what is currently known in the field by summarizing and citing the most relevant research conducted to date, and
- Outline the gap in scientific knowledge that the current project addresses.
In the literature review of a research report you should discuss the published, peer-reviewed studies that other researchers have already conducted related to your research question or topic. Then explain how your project addresses what is still not known about the research question or topic.
As you’ve probably guessed, posters have a very limited amount of space. Thus, you will not be able to include a full literature review. This means you will need to carefully select and discuss the most relevant sources to frame your project. Look at a few sample posters in your field to determine how the literature review is conducted as well as how many sources tend to be included.
Materials and Methods: explain the methodology used to conduct the research as well as the materials used. This section should explain:
- What you did to conduct your research project, and
- How you did
For example, let’s say you interviewed 100 college students about their exercise habits. The previous statement explains what you did—you interviewed 100 college students about their exercise habits. But you also need to explain how you did this:
- What questions did you ask during the interview?
- How did you conduct the interviews? Did you use an online survey or did you talk to the students in person? (Were the interviews one-on-one, or did you conduct small focus groups?)
- How did you recruit the students to participate?
- Did you interview students from all years in school or just freshmen or just sophomores, for instance? How did you decide which groups of students to interview?
In a research report, you would be to be very specific about your materials and methodology. Researchers in your field want to know detailed information about your materials and methods to ensure that your research approach is sound. In a research report, you would need to provide enough detail that your readers could repeat the study. In your poster, however, you won’t have the space to provide this level of detail. Much like in the Introduction, you’ll need to decide what your audience most needs to know about your methods (see Audience), and then streamline that information. Use visuals, if possible, to show key features of your methodology.
Note: In some disciplines this section may be referred to as ‘Methods’ or ‘Study Design.’
Results: report the results/major findings of your research project. Show the results using visuals—charts, graphs, maps, drawings, photographs. Use captions to briefly explain your visuals and to tell your readers what information is important in each of your visuals. The Results is usually the longest section of a scientific poster.
Discussion: explain and interpret the results/major findings. As the title of this section suggests, discuss how the findings support and/or refute similar and/or related studies in the field. Forecast the next steps for research in the field. What should future research on this topic focus on?
Acknowledgements: many science and engineering research projects receive grant funding. List any organizations that provided funding for the project and include the grant number. This section can also be used to acknowledge other project contributors and/or advisors. Students often use this section to acknowledge their faculty advisor here.
References: include full citation information for all of your sources. Cite references in the citation style used in your field. APA (American Psychological Association) is commonly used in the social sciences, and CSE (Council of Science Editors) is commonly used in scientific disciplines. Check with your professor, advisor, or another professional working in your field to determine the correct style.
As previously mentioned, space on a poster is limited—very limited. Thus you will need to make strategic decisions about what information (text and images) to include and how to organize this information in each section.
Posters should aim to show, not tell. Regardless of where your poster is displayed—the exhibit hall of a conference or in the hallway by your lab—your readers will look over your poster very quickly. In fact, they’ll probably just skim over it, looking for information that interests them. Review the guidelines in this section to make strong writing decisions that engage your audience, engender interest in your project, and guide your readers through your main points.
Before creating your poster, carefully analyze your audience by considering the following questions:
- What do your readers already know about the topic or research question?
- (equally important) What do they not know?
- What information do they care about, and what details will you need to provide?
Writing for Expert Readers
As mentioned earlier, scientific posters are often created for expert readers—that is, colleagues and peers in your field. When communicating with other people in your discipline, you can generally assume that they will have a high level of knowledge and interest in the topic. You’ll be able to use technical terms specific to your field in your poster without defining these terms or explaining why they’re important. You also don’t need to provide as much ‘background’ or contextual information about the topic as you would for non-expert readers because expert readers are probably already familiar with this information.
Expert readers have very different informational needs than non-expert readers. Researchers in your field will generally be most interested in the Results and Discussion sections of your poster. They’ll want to know what you found, how these findings contribute to what is already known and accepted in the field, and where future research in the field may be headed.
Writing for Non-expert Readers
On the other hand, when you’re creating a poster for readers who are non-experts in your field or the specific research question, you’ll need to consider 1) why people who are not in your field or familiar with the research question might find your project interesting and 2) what aspects of your project they might want to know about.
Generally speaking, non-experts are not interested in technical details. They don’t need to know as much about your methodology because unlike expert readers, they probably won’t be critiquing your research approach to ensure that your approach was scientifically valid. They care less about references and the specific details of studies that other researchers are conducting in your field. They also don’t care or need to know about specific details related to your findings. They do, however and unlike expert readers, need more background and contextual information about the topic. They may not have much knowledge about the topic or know why it’s important—the kind of stuff that expert readers would already know. Non-experts are generally more interested in scientific research projects from a ‘big picture’ perspective—that is, how the topic might affect them either personally or on a broader, societal level.
To illustrate, let’s use our previous example of the biology professor and her students. Before creating their poster, the professor and her students will need to carefully assess the reasons that faculty and students in other disciplines might find their work interesting, and what these readers might want to know about it. Let’s say the group is studying algae blooms, and let’s say certain types of algae blooms are increasing as global temperature levels rise.3 Expert readers, other researchers in the biology professor’s field, are interested in the specific details of her study—details about how the study was conducted, the particular strain of algae used, how the strain reacted to precise temperature fluctuations in differing water conditions in different geographic region, for instance.
Non-expert readers probably don’t need to know the properties of the strain of algae investigated or the detailed measurements that were collected at the study sites or the range in temperature fluctuations that were observed. But, let’s say the geographic regions under study are nearby and increasing algae growth of this particular strain might adversely affect local water quality. Non-experts living in the area might want to know about this. Thus the professor and her students might frame the information in their poster from this perspective. Another option might be to relate the project to the larger societal issue of global warming. Either way, the group will need to broaden their focus as well as make assumptions about what their non-expert readers might be interested in learning about in terms of how it affects them.
The professor and her students will also need to simplify the information they provide including any field-specific terminology. They’ll need to decide if their readers need to know any technical terms or if they can just use everyday words and phrases. Let’s say the professor and her students are studying a strain of algae that is particularly invasive and is posing serious local water quality problems. In this case, the group may decide to use the technical term because the entire poster is about this algae strain and/or readers are likely to encounter more information about the strain in the future. At the same time, they may choose to not give details about other strains that they mention but which are not the main focus of the study.
In deciding whether to use technical terms and concepts when communicating with non-experts, determine if non-experts readers need to know the term or concept in order to achieve your purpose (see Purpose) as you may be able to simplify this information. If you provide too much technical detail, you run the risk of loosing the attention of your non-expert audience. If you decide you must use the technical term, define it using everyday words and phrases. You might also provide an example that compares the term or concept to something that the audience is already familiar with.
A Few Additional Points about Audience…
In addition to carefully analyzing your audience, you’ll also need to determine what you want to achieve in creating your poster. What do you want your readers to know or think or believe about your research project after reading your poster? What information do you need to provide to ensure that you achieve your purpose?
Generally speaking, the purpose of scientific posters is to
- inform your readers about your research study, and
- persuade your readers that your research question and findings are important and interesting (you’ll also want to persuade expert readers that your study fits in with existing research in the field, addresses a gap in scientific knowledge, your methodology is sound, the results are valid and important to the field, and finally, that future research should take a specific direction).
Make strategic decisions based on your assessment of your audience and purpose about what text and images to include in your poster to achieve your purpose and meet the informational needs of your audience.
Layout and Poster Size
Posters often use a three or four-column format. Generally speaking the Introduction and Materials and Methods section will comprise the first column, the Results will comprise the second column, and the Discussion, References and Acknowledgements will comprise the third column (see Sample Poster Template). Posters also commonly use a landscape or horizontal format. Common measurements for landscape layouts (width by height in inches) include:
You can also create your own dimensions depending upon the conventions in your field and/or the conference guidelines (if you are creating your poster for a professional conference).
Choose a serif typeface4 such as Times New Roman, Cambria, or Georgia—or a sans serif typeface such as Arial or Calibri. Both serif and sans serif typefaces are easy to read and look professional.
Avoid decorative and script typefaces. There might be a situation where a decorative or a script typeface is appropriate and visually effective for your purpose (depending upon your audience, purpose, and display context), but generally speaking, professional scientific posters use serif and sans serif typefaces.To create effective contrast between the title, headers, and body copy,5 you may want to use a serif typeface for the larger text on your poster—Title, Author Name(s) and Affiliation(s),and Headers—and a sans serif typeface for the smaller text—Body Copy and Captions—or vice versa. For instance, use Arial for your larger text and Times New Roman for your smaller text. Title, Author(s) and Affiliation, and Headers should use the same typeface and Body Copy and Captions should use the same typeface.
You can also use the same typeface for all of the text on your poster. In this case, use a larger font and bold for Title, Author Name(s) and Affiliation(s),and Headers to create contrast. Then use a small font and non-bolded text for Body Copy and Captions. Both example posters use the same typeface throughout. Create strong contrast by using bold and increasing the size for the Title, Author Name(s) and Affiliation(s),and Headers. The Body Copy and Captions are smaller and are not bold. Generally speaking, use no more than three typefaces in your design.
Use the following guidelines in choosing the size of your text:
- Title: this should be the largest text on your poster—aim for a minimum of 85pts
- Author Name(s) and Affiliation(s): 50-60 pts
- Headers—Introduction, Materials and Methods, Results, etc: 40-55pt
- Body Copy: 30-45pt
- Captions: 30-40 pt
That said, not all typefaces are the same size. For instance, Calibri and Arial are very similar sans serif typefaces. Yet Calibri is slightly ‘smaller’ than Arial, as shown below, because there is less space (kerning) between the letters.
- This is Calibri 14.
- This is Arial 14.
This difference isn’t particularly significant, but it does tell you that if you use Calibri, you may be able have a few more letters on each line.
Do not underline text or use all caps. Underling looks cluttered. All caps is too hard to read, and it’s the visual equivalent of shouting at your reader. Instead, create contrast for your titles and headers by using darker (bold) and larger (increase the size) text.
Never sacrifice readability for design. If your readers can’t actually read your poster because the text is too light or the background is too busy or the font is too small or the text is justified (see below), they simply will not read it. And you will not achieve your purpose.
Carefully consider your color choices. Posters often use the color scheme of the first author’s affiliation. For example, the University Apiary example uses the school’s colors—blue and orange. However, you might also choose a color scheme that seems appropriate for your topic and/or subject matter. Generally speaking, aim for 2-3 colors at the most—you can also use lighter and darker shades of your colors (see the Sample Poster Template).
Avoid white or light colored text and dark backgrounds—light text is hard to read. Instead, opt for dark text on a light background.
Avoid busy backgrounds. If you use a pattern or a photograph as your background image, make sure that your readers can still read your text (fill your text boxes with a color that complements your color scheme so that your text is still readable against the pattern). Ensure that your background does not visually compete for the reader’s attention with the other design elements (text and visuals) on your poster. Your readers should not really notice the background—if they do, they’re probably not looking at the other information on your poster. The Sample Poster Template uses a background with a light green pattern. Readers can still read the text because the text boxes have been filled with a color that complements the background color.
Use ‘warm’ colors such as red, orange, and yellow sparingly and only to accent the other features of your design. Use ‘cool’ colors such as blue, green, and purple as your dominant or main color. (Be careful with purple, though. It, too, can be overwhelming). Warm colors jump out at readers while cool colors recede. This means that warm colors can quickly visually overwhelm your readers and create too much contrast. You need a lot less of a warm color to make an impact than a cool color. The Sample Poster Template uses a red/green color scheme. Red is used as the accent color, and green is used as the dominant color. The University Apiary uses a blue/orange color scheme. Here blue is the dominant color, and orange provides the accent.
‘White space’ is the ‘blank’ area that separates your design elements (text and visuals). White space is crucial for strong document design because it allows readers to visually separate information into manageable chunks as well as understand the relationships between and among your content. Avoid crowding your poster with too much information—either text or visuals. If a poster is crammed full of information, it will be too difficult for readers to understand your main points. Good design is ‘clean’ design.
Resolution essentially refers to the digital quality of an image—“how clean and clear [the image] looks,” as professional graphic designer Robin Williams explains it. Low resolution or ‘low res’ images appear pixelated or blurry when you increase the image size because there’s less digital information. Conversely, you can increase the size of higher resolution or ‘high res’ images without loss of quality because there’s more digital information.
Use images with at least 300 dpi (dots per inch) in your poster. If an image looks pixelated on your computer screen, it will only look worse on a large, printed version of your poster. Always check the resolution of your images.
Additionally, be sure to size images proportionality. Images that have been stretched or shortened to fill a particular space look sloppy and detract from the professionalism of your poster. Lock the aspect ratio when increasing or decreasing image size.
Add a border to your images and your text boxes so that they stand out against your background.
Finally, images are intellectual property. If you did not create an image, you most likely will need to get permission to use it. Many images are also protected by copyright. Always determine who owns the image, what permissions you will need, and how the image should be cited in your poster. The photographs included in the sample posters are ‘royalty free’ and were purchased for a small fee from photos.com. However, photos.com is still acknowledged as the copyright holder, and these photos may only be used for ‘non-commercial’ purposes. You might also explore the following sites:
Software and Technical Issues
You’ll need to print your poster on a large format printer. You’ll probably want to save your file as a PDF, but check with your print shop in advance about sizing as well as appropriate file formats. If you’re using Power Point (see below), you may also want to talk to your print shop about color.
Many posters are created using Power Point. This program is generally easy to use, but it is not a page layout program (like Adobe InDesign). Be sure to adjust the settings so you can modify the spacing of the elements in your design so that your final poster looks professional. Do not rely on the defaults.
Power Point is presentation software, meaning the slides are intended for digital display only—not print (and remember, you’ll be printing your poster). Power Point uses RGB (Red Green Blue) color mode, which is calibrated for computer monitors—again, not printed documents. So the colors you select in Power Point will not look the same in print as they do on your screen. You may be able to work with your print shop in choosing colors that most closely approximate the color scheme that you want.
You can also use a page layout program such as Adobe InDesign, which allows you to work in CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black), the color mode intended for print. You’ll have a more accurate representation of your color choices, and these programs will give you more control over the design of your poster. However, because there are more features, learning these programs can be time consuming.
Two sample posters are included in this article with accompanying short instructional videos that explain many of the writing and design features of each. Both examples were created in Power Point. Click on the links to the videos included earlier in this article to learn more about each example.
Sample Poster Template
This annotated example illustrates the IMRaD format, an organizational structure commonly used when communicating with expert readers. The text boxes include the information from the “Organizing Your Poster” section of this article.
University Apiary Example
This poster was created by a group of undergraduate students enrolled in an upper-division science writing class in response to a fictional scenario: promote their University’s Apiary to the American Honey Producers Association. This poster is included with student permission, and student names and identifying information have been changed to protect privacy. The poster shows an alternative organizational structure to IMRaD, but is still targeted to expert-level readers. The students made writing decisions that reflect this assumption: scientific terminology, minimal background information, and a brief overview of several of the current research projects being conducted at the apiary.
Before creating your poster, be sure to assess your intended audience (expert? non-expert? somewhere in between?), your purpose, and the context of display (professional conference? a particular building on your campus?) so that you can make effective and well-thought out writing and design decisions. Click on the links below for more information on creating scientific posters and for additional sample poster templates.
- http://www.writing.engr.psu.edu/posters.html (see this site for a few templates and other examples).
Williams, Robin. The Non-Designer’s Design and Type Books. Berkeley: Peachpit Press, 2008.
1) A type of document or form of communication. Research reports, resumes, webpages, oral presentations, even text messaging are all different communication genres.
2) In some fields, authors often cite statistics to establish the importance of the research question. For instance, the introduction of a poster presenting the effectiveness of a new malaria drug might include brief information (images with supporting text) about the countries most affected, the number of new cases diagnosed over the past 5-10 years, and the number of deaths.
3) This is a fictional example and does not refer to an actual study in the field of biology.
4) The terms font and typeface are often used interchangeably. Font refers to the typeface category and the size. For instance, Arial 10 point and Times New Roman 12 point are fonts. Typeface refers to the category of type. Arial and Times New Roman are typefaces.
5) Body copy’ is any text that is not a title, header, or a caption.