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Using design principles to inform scientific posters

Amanda Butler, Amy Chan and Helen Lycett share their knowledge of making great posters.

graphicsWhen it comes to communicating science, there’s a lot to think about. Design is an important and often overlooked aspect —many researchers focus most of their efforts on content.

But design deserves at least equal, if not more, attention. Fortunately for scientists, design is a science and can be learned. Get more scientific with your design — it’ll help you get a message across.

Posters are a popular way to showcase new research to the scientific community. The use of intelligent design principals is vital to maximise the impact of your poster.  Here’s some advice for making better posters.

Text and tables

This is where most of what you want to say will be displayed, the right design and layout here is vital.

  • A large block of text is not inviting to anyone
  • Each section of text should be clear and concise, focusing on a single area.
  • Five to six lines of text with 25-30 characters per line is generally best. Use bullet points to break up sections and highlight important points.
  • A large font (minimum 24-point size) is important so that the text can be read from at least one metre away.
  • Poster text should be organised in columns — this helps your eyes move less as you read.
  • There should be a good balance of text, diagrams, tables and graphics. Avoid large blank areas.
  • Tables and figures with colours are more engaging and exciting to look at and are often a clear and easy way to show complex information. (But be careful with what colours you use.)
  • Black text on a white background is often the easiest to read.

Colour is important and should be considered carefully. Opposite colours tend to make a bold — if potentially clashing — statement and are therefore more likely to catch the eye of a passing delegate. But use your best judgement on making something look good first and striking second. Studies of Event Related Potentials (a measure of neural activity related to cognitive and sensory processes) have shown that  higher attention is paid to yellow- and green-based colours.

Light at a conference is important to consider. Although glossy laminate may look better, opting for a matt lamination ensures everyone will be able to see it regardless of how much light you have. Many conferences or universities have set guidelines as to the layout and size of posters. This is always an important thing to consider:  a rectangle in a sea of square posters stands out for the wrong reasons.

What happens when you’ve grabbed someone’s attention? In terms of information content, a study comparing the effectiveness of different methods of health education found that found that more specific topics were preferred over broad coverage, suggesting that it is better to pick a small area of research to focus on rather than attempting to cover an expansive topic.

Surveys have shown one to one discussions are more valuable, with 55.4% of conference delegates preferring individual discussions with authors about the posters rather than moderated presentations. This is the most important chance to discuss your research as it gives you the opportunity to discuss things that have not been included in the main body of the poster and gives you opportunities to answer questions.

Posters may not currently be the most valued way of showcasing results, but with the help of intelligent design, posters can be revolutionised!  Posters are and will remain a vital part of scientific conferences. So next time you have a poster to design, consider the use of science to guide you.

Amanda Butler is an undergraduate student studying psychology at Bournemouth University. She joined the research team at behaviour change consultancy Spoonful of Sugar (SoS) to complete a year’s internship before finishing her degree.

Amy Chan is a senior researcher at SoS, providing behavioural medicine and clinical pharmacy advice to SoS programmes.  Amy is a registered pharmacist with New Zealand’s Pharmacy Council and a member of the Pharmaceutical Society of New Zealand.  She completed her PhD in pharmacy focusing on medicines adherence whilst working full-time as a clinical pharmacist at the largest district health board in New Zealand.

Helen Lycett is head of research at Spoonful of Sugar, responsible for ensuring that SoS programmes are informed by the latest research and thinking in behavioural medicine. She holds a BSc in psychology and a Masters degree in clinical psychology both from Bangor University.




  1. Report this comment

    Jean SmilingCoyote said:

    This looks very good, and thanks! I got “near the ballpark” a bit when I took Cartography courses, because we must design the legends for maps correctly. This also reminded me of the many times I’ve had problems reading the caption on the wall at a museum exhibit, because the font is too small, the public can’t get close enough, and the light level is often low to protect the artifacts exhibited. If I may humbly add one tip: try to minimize ink usage. Someone like me will think about this in terms of conserving the raw materials used; it can also be important if the poster is available digitally in a PDF format for people to print at home if they wish: we prefer to conserve the ink we have to pay for in our printers.