Stroll through a decent-sized scientific conference and you'll probably face a bewildering number of posters — many more than you could ever hope to read in one day. So you have to pick and choose. Perhaps one reminds you of the worst PowerPoint presentation you ever endured; another is crammed with thousands of words in microscopic font. But you encounter one featuring a bold illustration, splashes of colour, readable text and clean lines. You pause for a closer look, chat with the presenter and discover common research interests. You've made a connection, and at least one poster has accomplished what its creator meant it to do.

A good conference poster can get you noticed and spur discussions that can expand your network. Credit: Randsc/Alamy Stock Photo

The scientific poster remains a crucial currency for communication and connection, says biophysicist Anthony Salvagno, director of education for #SciFund Challenge, a non-profit organization in Santa Barbara, California, that specializes in science-communication training. Through SciFund, he co-teaches a five-week online course on poster design along with biologist Zen Faulkes of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in Edinburg.

Researchers now have access to an array of high-end graphics software — and the 'how to make a poster' conversation has been going on for years (see Nature 483, 113–115; 2012). But that hasn't stemmed the flow of visual clunkers. As Salvagno explains, researchers often slap posters together at the last minute instead of thinking about the best ways to deliver their message and engage their audience.

But those who have the vision — and computer skills — to avoid distracting design blunders will draw the right kind of attention to themselves, their findings and their ideas. They might even win an award (see 'Tips for making your poster stand out'), although the main goals are to publicize their science and scientific identity while forging new associations. “A good poster will help you make better connections,” Salvagno says. “Just one conversation can turn into a huge success.”

boxed-textTrishna Dutta, a wildlife researcher at Columbia University in New York City who studies tigers in India, says that lessons from the poster course helped to spark productive conversations at the 2015 International Congress for Conservation Biology (ICCB) in Montpellier, France. She had signed up for the course specifically to make an impression at the conference. She also wanted to make up for past failures. “My first posters were bad,” she says. “I didn't have the aesthetic sense of what goes with what.” Worse, comments from attendees suggested that her key points were often lost, especially for those outside her speciality. “That was a case where I needed to know my audience,” she says. “People there studied everything from bacteria to elephants. I'm not sure they got my message.”

Her ICCB poster was far clearer. A subheading spelled out the take-away message of tiger migration, the text was orderly and easy to read, maps added colour as well as context, and a photo of a wild tiger near the centre captured the eye. “I still don't make excellent posters, but I'm getting the hang of it,” she says.

Anxiety about these visual presentations is widespread. When Vasco Elbrecht uploaded a set of scientific-poster tutorials on YouTube, he realized that he had underestimated the demand for such help. “I would have been happy if just a few of my friends watched them,” says the PhD student at the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany. So far, his poster tutorials have racked up more than 31,900 views.

In his most-viewed video, Elbrecht shows examples of good and bad posters from his own repertoire. His first — about the genetics of Microbotryum fungus — was bogged down with huge swathes of text, a common pitfall. “I tried to fit everything I could on it,” he says. “But at a conference, nobody is going to stand there and read it for ten minutes.” In a later, more successful poster about the genetic diversity of the stonefly Dinocras cephalotes, he limited the text to a few hundred words — roughly the same count as an abstract (see 'A winning view'). That's generally enough to deliver a key message and entice passers-by without overwhelming them, he says. The design also helped him to win a €1,500 (US$1,660) research prize for his poster and abstract from the Institute for the Advancement of Water Quality and Water Resources Management in Essen, Germany, in 2014.

Less is more

Salvagno and Faulke's poster class stresses the same point: when it comes to text, less is more. Poster-makers often already know that too much text can be off-putting, but many are still unable to resist the temptation to include practically everything they know about their subject. “When I ask people what they dislike about posters, too much text is the number-one complaint,” Salvagno says. “People hate seeing it on other people's posters, but they do it on their own.”

Of course, there's more to it than getting the right word count. Text and graphics have to flow together in a way that's as visually appealing as it is informative. That takes a designer's eye — or a willingness to copy from people who know what they are doing. Elbrecht encourages researchers to borrow elements from posters that they like. “All design is redesign,” he says. “There's no need to be original.”

A winning view

Effective posters take many shapes, but they tend to have some basic elements in common, says Sam Hertig, a freelance scientific illustrator in Berne, Switzerland. Hertig, who has just completed a postdoc in computational biology, gave a talk on creating a visually striking scientific poster at Stanford University in California earlier this year and uploaded the presentation to YouTube. As he explains, a “stunning” poster generally starts with a gripping centrepiece image, whether of a molecule, organism or galaxy. One of his own recent posters featured a multicoloured image of HIV. “Be daring,” he says in the presentation. “There may be hundreds or thousands of posters at a conference. You want something that will stand out.”

Hertig says that the text of a poster should have its own visual appeal. In most cases, the text will be neatly arranged in 2 to 4 columns on a poster that's about 91 cm by 122 cm. The font, which should be consistent throughout, must be clear and easy to read (not something like Comic Sans), and should be at least 24 points.

The poster should be printed to the maximum size allowed by the conference, and the title should be large and legible from a distance. The subheadings — which should also be clear and visible — should say something more dynamic than 'Results'. If, for instance, research uncovered a 5% decline in the reproductive success of heat-stressed frogs, the heading for the results section should hint at that finding.

Hertig says that the placement of white space is an important but often overlooked aspect of poster design. Visually attractive posters tend to have substantial borders and significant gaps between text blocks. The white space should flow together in a cohesive way that draws in the eye while giving it a chance to rest. In a room full of posters screaming for attention, he says, some well-placed emptiness can offer tranquility.

The right tool for the job

Yet these design aesthetics won't amount to much without the right software. Many researchers resort to PowerPoint, usually because they already have PowerPoint figures at hand. It can work: Hedwig van der Meer, a physiotherapy PhD student at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands, used PowerPoint to make her first-place poster at the 2016 conference of the American Academy of Orofacial Pain in Orlando, Florida. But Salvagno advises against the program: it isn't designed for printing, the colours may be off and the alignment tools are cumbersome. If PowerPoint is the only option, he recommends disabling the 'snap to grid' function for maximum control of the layout.

Hertig recommends vector-based graphics programs such as Inkscape or Adobe Illustrator. Unlike PowerPoint and other programs that create illustrations with pixels, both of these use equations to determine each point; images and text can thus be scaled up without loss of clarity. These programs can also smoothly align text and captions. Choose one vector-based program and stick with it for every poster and presentation, Hertig adds. “It's important to invest the time early in your PhD. You won't have to learn it again. It will just be natural.”

A quality poster is just one part of a successful presentation. At most conferences, the presenter will have at least a couple of hours to stand by their posters and interact with attendees. This is where some of the most important work at a conference takes place, which is why researchers should spend as much time polishing their pitches as they spend creating their poster, Salvagno says. He recommends preparing several different versions of one's talking points: a 20-second elevator pitch for the mildly curious and a longer version for anyone who wants a deeper dive.

For her part, van der Meer thinks that her presentation of her prizewinning poster was as important as the actual product. “You have to involve the audience by being open and enthusiastic,” she says. “The combination of a clear poster and passionate presentation works best, because people will understand your work and get excited.”