Student Resources


Posters are 4 ft. x 3 ft. 

Look at the existing posters for ideas. The following information is designed to help you to be successful.

A few tips for successful posters:

• Make sure everything is there – name, institution, abstract, references cited and acknowledgments.

• Pay careful attention to the size of the lettering. Title and main heading should be visible from two meters text from one meter. This means at least 18 pt. type for the main text.

• Give the reader clear clues as to the order of the text – three columns left to right is most conventional, but other arrangements will work with some thought.

• Use graphs, outlines, graphics, and lists wherever possible to make a point. Avoid too much lengthy text.

• Make sure that all the various pieces of paper are firmly glued (rubber cement is good for this) and square with each other. Best to use a T-square for this.

• Color for backing and “framing” text is useful, but avoid anything too distracting or arty. Backing white paper with contrasting poster board is highly effective.

• Construction paper, marker, crayon, and hand-lettering are to be avoided if at all possible. Remember, the impression to be sought is scientific professionalism, not science fair.


Combating Poster Fatigue:

Better Visual Communications by Employing Visual “Grammar” and Analysis


John D. Woolsey, College of Art and Design,

University of the Art, Philadelphia


Bette Woolsey, J/B Woolsey Association, Bala Cynwyd, PA

(Sponsored by NIMB-DBS)

An educational display for the 17th Annual Meetings of the Society for Neuroscience November 16-21, 1987, New Orleans, LA


It is clear that the poster session has become a permanent fixture at scientific meetings.  Lack of enough meeting rooms and time slots for slide presentations has made them a necessity.  Although the poster session early on gained a bad reputation (largely because of the labor involved in producing it) we have seen this format increasingly employed even at smaller meetings and in house symposia because it affords certain strong advantages in communicating with one’s colleagues.


Posters are on display for several hours, allowing time for lengthy discussions with one’s colleagues  It is this opportunity for dialogue which has made them popular at smaller meetings where lack of lecture facilities is not a problem.  Data and graphics on the poster are available as long as individual viewers wish to see them.  The viewer may focus on that which is of most interest.  For instance, description of technique may be of prime interest to one viewer, whereas data analysis may be of interest to another.

Though posters are almost always arranged sequentially, they allow the viewer to go back and review a figure or some text earlier in the sequence at will.

Posters have graphic flexibility.  The ease of creating color graphics, combinations of photographic and graphic techniques, computer graphics, and outputs from recording devices, as well as the removal of the limitation of the 2-unit-by-3-unit slide format increases the range of graphic flexibility available to the creator.  Even three-dimensional elements may be used.

The poster may be studied in detail for taking notes.  Some viewers photograph sections or whole posters that interest them.  One photographic method of producing posters enables the printing of inexpensive facsimiles as handouts.

Posters enhance collegial dialogue.  A slide presentation usually includes five minutes for questions and answers, whereas the length of a poster presentation assures virtually unlimited time for dialogue with one’s colleagues.  For younger researchers this dialogue may provide important contacts with colleagues who might miss a slide lecture.  A poster frequently elicits valuable responses from scientists outside the immediate field who may have specific ideas regarding technique, analytical methods or the like, but who would not attend a lecture on the topic being presented.


Posters are labor intensive primarily because of their size and the requirement for large text.  This guide contains suggestions for keeping this labor to a minimum.

Poster production requires materials which are generally more expensive than slides such as large prints, title banners, mat boards and the like.  These expenses can be minimized with careful planning.

A poster is bulkier than 10-15 slides.  While we have heard many complaints about carrying posters to meetings, we have never heard one complaint about lugging skis to winter conferences!

Though posters are generally used for one meeting only, there are methods of attaching graphic materials to the poster so they may be reused in other poster publications.


The audience for a poster may be divided into three major groups:

Group 1 are those colleagues, collaborators and students who follow your work very closely.  These are the people who read your publications in detail and who correspond with you.  They may number a handful or a few dozen.  A crudely constructed poster would not daunt them because of their high level of interest in your area of specialization.

Group 2, a much larger group, is made up of those scientists who work in the same general area as you, but on different subspecialties.  This audience may which to review large numbers of communications in their area, but with less attention to detail.  Nevertheless, because of their general knowledge of the field, they may provide valuable suggestions and insight about your research.

Group 3, perhaps the largest group, are those researchers whose work bears little or no relationship to yours.  Successful communication on a more general level can take place with this group if they can be enticed to view your poster briefly.

It is indeed possible to design a poster which effectively communicates with all three audiences without slighting the other.  It can be economical and relatively easy to construct, made as permanent or temporary as is required.

The following is a detailed consideration for the graphic elements that make up a poster; how to organize the text, illustrations and other graphic elements into a cohesive whole for easy comprehension, and how to communicate your research findings with immediacy and clarity.


A scale-model layout acts as an outline and is the best way to plan your poster.  It significantly saves times and expense while affording the opportunity to revise and refine ideas.  A layout should determine the size of art and photography, length of text, headings, and flow of information before the final production of any tone element.  Visualizing a poster in its entirety at the planning stage is a must.  Information will become apparent and editing can take place.  In the end, the actual time spent putting the poster together will decrease significantly with better results.

There are two basic stages to preparing a layout; the “thumbnail”, and the tight layout.

The thumbnail layout is a rough, quick, small sketch which is meant to work the basic flow of information in the poster and map out its visual logic.  Thumbnails may be done without much regard to the actual amounts of text, but on should have a relatively clear idea of the number and relative sizes of the illustrations, photographs and diagrams to be included.  (The Neuroscience posters are 2 units by 3 wide, so thumbnails could be 4”x6”).  Several thumbnail alternatives can be worked out in a few minutes each.  They are your loose visual outlines.

After preparing the thumbnail layouts, one arrangement will seem the best to pursue further.  At this point, it is necessary to determine approximately how much text copy there is.  We’ll assume that the text will be printed from a word processing file and enlarged on an office copier.  Since, to be legible at the optimum of 3’-4’, the text must be enlarged 2 diameters, one needs to bear in mind the largest paper that the copier can handle.  A line to be enlarged 8” on the poster should be 4’ on the draft copy (40 characters of 10 pitch type or 48 characters of 12 pitch type).  By reformatting your files to these widths you will have an accurate picture of the amount of space to be allotted for type.  If you are typing the copy manually, multiply the average draft line length in characters by the number of lines and divide by the proposed new line length in characters to calculate the number of new lines.  This will give the vertical measure of the copy.

You may be surprise to find that your text occupies much more space than you anticipated.  Remember, that the poster is essentially a visual presentation, that there is a lots of competition for the reader’s attention, and that generally where text is concerned, less is more, so edit text at this stage.

The section ton text will suggest an approach to maximize communication to all three audience groups.

A convenient method of preparing the tight layout is as follows:

1.      A scale of ¼” = 1” is a convenient working size for a layout.  On a sheet of ¼” graph paper measure the outside dimensions of your poster.  Outline it heavily.

2.      Divide the rectangle vertically in thirds or fourths.  These divisions suggest possible columns to follow in the layout and , later, logical divisions for cutting and folding the finished poster.  They may be suggested by your thumbnail sketch.

3.      Draw a horizontal line 1.5”-2” from the top for the title area.

4.      Use paper cut to scale to represent graphics and photos as well as text.  For instance a number of pieces of paper representing 5x7 prints or 8x10 graphs can be cut out.  These paper elements can easily be moved around and various alternatives can be compared by taping down the results temporarily and Xeroxing them.  Use scraps of photographic prints or pictures and text from magazines to help give a more realistic visual sensation of the finished product.

The tight layout is the working blueprint for your poster.  From here on, there should be few significant changes and the poster can be produced easily by simply transferring the measurements multiplied by 4.


Composition is the visual structure of a poster: it should aid, not interfere with comprehension.

The purpose of composition is to make visual ideas blow smoothly and logically from one to the other, to visually subordinate those things which are less important and to draw attention to those things which are of greater importance.

A poster cannot be “figured out” at the leisurely pace that a paper can.  It is presented for several hours, often amid crowded conditions, and with many other competing presentations.  It is essential that it contain no nonessential visual elements.  Edit ruthlessly!

A good composition has a substantial amount of blank space, often close to 50%.  This space can be used to highlight section break.  A “full” poster does not always make its point.  It is often too chaotic to follow easily.

Some good suggestions for composing materially visually:

1.      Groups of related information function best if tightly composed with a clear surround.

2.      Long visual lines help organize groups of information:

-  align X or Y axes in groups of graphs;

-  align edges in groups of photographs;

-  align headings and text material.

3.      Close positioning of an illustration and its text make it a visual unit.  Jagged compositions make the eye dance around in a restless fashion and draw attention away from content.  The eye looks for edges.  A poster which is composed of squares of white paper, neatly mounted on colored boards which are then mounted on a colored board’s surface has many useless and distracting edges with which to contend.  If these boards, in turn, are of varying sizes or are not mounted perfectly straight, the added jags in the composition take more attention away from the content.  Compositions which are aligned on imaginary center lines often have this jaggy appearance.


 A single background color (or closely related set of colors) serves to unify a poster and clearly distinguish it from neighboring posters.

Colors which are somewhat muted or grayed provide a more restful background than do bright colors.  In a brightly lit hall crowded with other posters and people, such color is more likely to bring attention to your work.

Color can be used to unify groups of data.  Three colors of similar value and saturation (e.g., a green-gray, blue-gray and violet-gray) might serve as backgrounds to help tie together the methods, data and interpretations of three related experiments.  Such use enhances graphic meaning.

Color can enhance the hues or contrast of photographs: dark photos will look darker on a light background, lighter on a dark background (law of simultaneous contrasts); color photos will look more colorful when displayed on a neutral background (like medium gray), less colorful on white.

Art supply and frame shops carry a variety of mat boards.  Mat board is superior to thin poster board (railroad board) not only because the color selection is better but because it doesn’t fade, the surface is less fragile allowing erasures and repositioning of mounted items) and its larger size is less wasteful.


 The title announces you and your work at 15-20’: it should be assertive, clear and eye-catching.

Titles which actively state findings of the research are prefer passive titles (“Studies of…”).  It need not use more than 6”-8” at the top of the poster since if it is lower, it may be obscured by heads.  Contrast is essential for clarity.  This does not preclude using color, however.

Title type need be no larger than 1 ¼” – 1 ¾” high; authors and affiliations should be about 1” high.  Caps and lower case is preferred to all caps.  Affiliations may be very abbreviated as they are available in the published abstracts.   Abstract numbers should be 2”-3” tall.

Including an abstract copy (often suggested in instructions to authors) is rarely necessary because its content is usually repeated in the text of the poster and is redundant.

A border around the title copy provides “breathing room” for the copy and helps readability.

Consideration should be given to altering the title so that it contributes to understanding the research.  Thus, the title:

“Studies of the Effect of Compound XYZ on Caudal Motor Neurons in the Dog”

might be changed to a more declarative style which actually communicates some portion of the conclusion:

“Compound XYZ Causes Tail – Wagging in Dogs”

Similarly, names and affiliations may be shortened when they are too wordy or where details are self-evident.  Middle initials may be dropped from names; cities may be dropped from well known affiliations (for instance, New Haven would be dropped from Yale University); state names may be eliminated.  (Philadelphia is sufficient, but Miami should include OH if it is not the one in FL!); departments may often be eliminated.  Multiple affiliations should be handled in the most direct fashion, each affiliation following the appropriate author rather than employing elaborate footnote schemes which are more appropriate to publication.

Where space is available, an author’s first name rather than initials would be useful, helping the direct dialogue with the presenter. 

Deciding whether to center the lines of the title text or to align them left or right is best done in the layout.  Lettering techniques may determine the best method: professional typesetting can produce centered text with ease as can most computer generated systems.  Vinyl letters and hand lettering are more difficult to center.  If the job is not done perfectly, errors are glaring. 

Color for a title banner is limited by contrast between the type and the background.  High contrast is necessary for reading from a distance and the ability to use color on the title banner may be determined by the technique used to produce it.  Because of the bright, flat light in convention halls and the prevalence of other black and white presentations, using some color in the title is recommended. 

The use of logos on posters with corporate affiliations may be required by their companies, but should be kept to a scale consistent with the text size.  School letters and mascots have little meaning to anyone outside that institution and their use is questionable.


             The text, hierarchically organized, must integrate with illustrations, photographs and tables; it usually can be drawn from the abstract.

            Main heads carry essential content, and should provide a complete “take-home” message.  The main methods, results and conclusions should be clear to casual viewers.  To be read from 6’-8’ away, type must be about 10mm high.  Numbers for each section of the poster should be approximately 2” high and will guide the eye to proper sequence.

            Supporting text follows main heads.  It should be visible at 3’-4’, with type about 5mm high, and heads should describe each figure in sufficient detail to support its significance and relationship to the main heads.  Details, also to be read at 3’-4’ should be subordinated to sub-heads in placement (e.g., lower right vs. upper left), be a lighter weight or have a less prominent background color. 

            Reliance on verbal descriptions, with references to figure numbers, while appropriate for publications, defeats the purpose of a poster, which is to display ideas.

            Your poster is not a publication of record.  It is not necessary to describe methods exhaustively or to provide massive tables of data or elaborate statistical analyses.  Text which concentrates on these things makes a poster more inaccessible.  An observer who is concerned enough will generally ask about this information, and more detailed material can be discussed or provided in a handout.

            Text should be purged of redundancy and should be written to eliminate copy which is meaningless in itself (“see Fig. #…..”).

            Text should be rendered compactly in easy to read type.

1.            Caps and lower case is easier to read than all caps.  Avoid using.

2.             Serif styles scan more easily than sanserif styles especially in longer passages.

3.            Line length should not exceed 65 characters.  Lines should be single spaced.  Type in uneven length lines (Flush-left, ragged right) scans better than justified type.

4.             Professional typesetting or laser printer fonts are most legible, and, depending on the font chosen, are generally more compact than typing.  When type is to be read at a distance, this quality is all the more important.  Recommended are Times Roman or Garamond type, or Courier and Prestige typewriter or printer fonts.

5.            Open, round letters are preferred to condensed, small bodied letters.

6.            All text copy should be at least 5mm high (about 2X typewriter size).

7.            Good, clear hand-printing is preferred to type which is too small, too light (as basic dot-matrix renditions), or inappropriate fonts, such as Old English.

8.           Computer generated text may be easily reformatted to accommodate the layout, and many typographers can set type inexpensively directly from your diskettes or via modem.


Illustrations and tables usually hold the main content of a successful poster, showing rather than telling a story.

Graphics must dominate.  Text should be used to augment, not overwhelm, illustrations.

For clarity, all nonessential information should be removed from figures, such as data lines not considered in the text, elaboration of statistical analysis, etc.  Keys should be replaced with direct labeling.

The same version of an illustration does not always serve all purposes well.  A graph prepared for publication may have symbols and a key for significant values, standard error bars or data lines included for reasons apparent in the publication, but not so obvious in a poster.  A graphic does not gain scientific veracity simply because it has been drawn professionally or preferable to an overloaded figure, even if professionally drawn.

Color may easily be added to illustrations with overlay films, colored tapes and markers (use water-base markers or Xerox materials), and black and white figures may be copied into colored papers on most office copiers.

1.             Data lines should be bold or colored with markers or tapes.

2.             Diagrams using shaded areas should rely on differences of value (lightness and darkness) rather than pattern to be clearly contrasted.  Open bars should be avoided

3.             Thin looking figures composed with a computer can be augmented with color, using adhesive color overlays or markers.

4.              Borders on illustrations should be reduced to about ¼” except where a constant shape is less distracting in an array.

5.             Flow charts may frequently be executed in small units tied together by tape or marker arrows.  Shaped elements can be cut out of their backgrounds to contrast with the rectangles that usually dominate a poster.

6.              Photographic detail, especially in EM’s, must be enlarged enough to be seen from 3’-4’, even if this results in “empty” enlargement.  Photos should not be overly contrasted, but should have a “snappy” appearance. 

7.            Color photographs enhance a poster, but need not be used if black and white communicates a point equally well.  Black and white photos may be colored with transparent markers and adhesive overlays to call attention to certain details. 

8.            Color originals of average brightness range usually yield satisfactory prints from photo finishers.  However, problematic originals must be printed by custom houses.  When in doubt, plan your poster pictures early enough to order color prints first from a photo finisher and then from a custom house if necessary.  In smaller cites, prints from color slides often must be sent back to Kodak or some larger facility for processing, taking 7-10 days.  These prints are relatively inexpensive because they are produced on automatic equipment which is calibrated to produce the best results for standard snapshot subject matter.  A very light original will frequently be rendered dark and brownish.  Conversely, a dark original will often have a greenish cast and decreased color saturation.  These problematic originals must be sent to custom labs which print by hand.  Good communication with the lab detailing what is important in the photo will help yield the best results.  Most custom labs work quickly, in 24 to 72 hours, and are expensive.


“Dressing up” a poster helps ease reading and comprehension.

Colored borders, bullets and blocks can call attention to specific text or figures.  Drop shadows of cut paper, chart tapes or marker can make artwork appear to pop out form the surface. 3-D mounting dramatizes photographs and other pictorial materials.


Many good production techniques are easy, familiar and readily available.

Through professional artists use a number of techniques which seem mysterious to the scientist, most laboratories and academic locations have easy access to the following technologies, supplies and services which make poster production easy for the non-artist.  Bear in mind again that the most graphic impact of a poster comes not form the neatness of its execution, but from its graphic planning.

1.             Text can be produced on typewriters or computers and enlarged on copiers.

2.            Title banners can be printed with computer “sign” programs, vinyl or die-cut letters.  The computer output may be enhanced with colored markers, overlay sheets or pencils.

3.            Figures may be plotted by computer and enhanced by hand using the color techniques above.

4.            Photographic prints or Photostats are readily available to most labs.

5.           Using the layout as a guide, mounting boards may be cut to size, and layout measurements easily transferred in soft pencil and erased after the poster elements are affixed.

6.            Rubber cement or glue stick may be used for temporary affixing, and elements of the poster may be “tipped in” by simply gluing the top edge and allowing the bottom to fall free, if desired.  Mounting adhesive tissue such as 3M Positional Mounting Adhesive, should be used where permanence is desired.  Items needing later reuse can be slipped into acetate sheet protectors glued to the mounting boards or with “photo album corners” made of paper or acetate.

7.            Employing a columnar layout of 20”-24” units wide in sections 12”-18” deep and  hinged with tape on the back, a poster can be transported easily, assembled instantly, and avoid damage in transport.  All elements will be in precise position and the author may attend to questions from viewers immediately.

8.            Cardboard packing approximately 2” larger in each dimension than the poster will minimize damage and bent corners.

IN SUMMARY, a poster with visual clarity can be produced successfully by:

1.                  Assembling illustrations and text into a layout

2.                  Editing text for brevity hierarchy and efficiency

3.                  Integrating text and illustrations

4.                  Composing in long lines and groups with adequate blank spaces

5.                  Keeping consistent scale in text and figures

6.                  Making good use of color in backgrounds and figure enhancements

7.                  Producing all elements to actual size before assembling

8.                  Making the poster foldable and portable