How to Make an Award-Winning Scientific Poster

  1. Decide with one month to spare that you will attend an overseas conference and frantically make travel arrangements.
  2. Email the incredibly responsive conference organizers because you’re not sure if you can give a talk or if you need to present a poster instead.
  3. Make a poster so great that you win the poster competition and get to give a last-minute talk the next morning as a result.

So that happened. You can watch my talk here.

The Cool Stars 19 conference was outstanding for many reasons, and winning the postdoc(!) poster competition was just one of them. Of course, the ability to make a good poster did not appear in my head out of nowhere! One set of great guidelines is here, and AstroBetter has compiled many handy resources about conference presentations (including posters) too.


Rather than rehash everything that has already been said about making effective posters (you did click on the links above, right?), here is an overview of how I approach poster design together with some tips to make your poster visually compelling.

  • Re-read the abstract you submitted to the conference weeks ago. Is it overly ambitious? Totally off-base? No matter. Your poster is an opportunity to communicate what you’ve done as of TODAY. Hundreds of people will glance at your poster, but only a few will skim your abstract.
  • With the above in mind, copy just the title and author list from your abstract submission (or craft a condensed version if necessary) and forget about the rest of it. Do not copy and paste your abstract anywhere. You will be staring at a giant blank canvas; it will be tempting. Just say no.
  • Use whatever software you are most comfortable with to make your poster. This could be Illustrator, Keynote, Powerpoint, Word, whatever. Does your software let you make a large page size, insert text boxes, images, and shapes, adjust fonts and colors, and precisely drag stuff around? Yes? Good.
  • Follow the conference’s rules for poster size. Sometimes you have a choice between portrait and landscape, and sometimes you don’t. You can make a good poster in virtually any aspect ratio, so pick something within the limit and stick with it. (US-based pro tip: 36 x 48″ is a standard size at FedEx Office and very similar to A0; having one dimension be 36″ also makes printing on fabric easier.)
  • Boil your message down to two main points, and be able to say each point in one tweetable sentence or less. Then divide your poster into three chunks: the first portion is reserved for big-picture motivation and context, and each of your main points gets another third. Use distilled versions of these points as headers for each chunk instead of meaningless words like “Introduction” and “Conclusions.”
  • The focus of each chunk must be figures. Let the figures speak for themselves. For example, you do not need to write “y generally increases with x over the full range of the dataset.” Instead, use clear axis labels that communicate why the correlation is important.
  • Write bullets and single-sentence captions, not paragraphs. Write only the most essential words to explain each figure, and no more. Notice there are no end-of-sentence periods on my poster, because each thought stands alone.
  • Avoid acronyms and jargon. Yes, knowing your audience is critical, but mostly, your audience is tired. Write what you mean, not what your sub-discipline’s jargon-and-acronym-machine expects you to say. If you must use acronyms, define them near the very start of your poster’s first chunk.
  • There is no ultimate poster font size law… but yours is too small because you’re trying to cram in too many words! My default was 52 pt (with some figure labels necessarily a bit smaller). Sans-serif fonts are easier to read than serif fonts.
  • Pick a simple, colorblind-friendly color scheme and stick with it. This means your plots, your text, and anything that goes on your poster should ideally coordinate. If you’re not sure what to choose, consider the colors in the figures you plan to include, and/or consider the color palette for the conference itself. Dark text on a light background is easier to read than the opposite.
  • Don’t be afraid to overhaul your figures. Crop out extraneous axes and tiny labels. Make custom legends. Annotate plots to drive home key messages. Present one illustrative example instead of seventeen nearly-identical panels.
  • Advertise your papers, and give credit where credit is due. Essentially everything on my poster is from my own work or my credited coauthors’ work, so there are very few formal citations. If you borrow any plots or images, be sure to cite the original source. However, a poster is not a literature review; if people are truly interested in your full set of citations, they can read your papers.
  • Take your time and be picky. Ensure elements line up within and between chunks, use the exact same colors and fonts throughout, and get several sets of eyes to proofread.

Remember: the whole reason you travel to conferences is to talk to people about your research. Sometimes you will be standing near your poster and sometimes not. Do you know what I did with all the words I wanted to put on my poster but didn’t? I used them in conversations, and they appear or will appear in papers. So yes, your poster must stand alone, but it shouldn’t have to tell the full story.

Finally, consider how you usually feel during a conference. Mentally sharp? Plenty of free time? Excited to carefully read each poster twice? Of course not. Everyone is exhausted and overwhelmed. That’s really what these tips are dancing around. Could your sleep-deprived officemate distill the essence of your poster after staring at it for 20 seconds? And do those 20 seconds make them care about your results? If not, you still have some work to do.


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