Scientific posters can be the greatest strength or the greatest hindrance based on how a scientist chooses to present their data. Here, we hope to answer questions like: what is a scientific poster, how do I make one, what information do I include or leave out, and how do I logistically make it happen with printing and designing?
The basic idea behind a scientific poster is that it should be a visual representation of all that the study consisted of. The goal is to create an effective tool to get across your study in a quick and easily comprehensible manner. Imagine how an abstract gives a very brief description of the conclusions and intentions of the entire study. Posters are like a visual abstract in that sense. But before we get into the details, we’ll go over the basics of what a scientific poster even is. The poster you make will not resemble ones from your elementary school days of pasting separate parts onto a poster board. These posters are designed as one project and special printed with lamination. Scientific posters are used for symposiums or other conference settings, where researchers gather and share their research. In some settings researchers stand by their poster and answer any questions right there, or in some settings the posters are just there for general viewing and it’s not required the researcher stand by (this would be institution specific). Generally, the persons viewing these are also researchers in a similar area, so there can be more area-specific jargon on the poster, than if it was in for mass production for the general population.
The poster itself ought to include the different sections that a full publication would include, but in much less detail. By splitting your poster into the different sections, readers can quickly navigate along the poster and refer to pertinent sections faster and more easily. Mainly the sections should include an intro, method, results, discussion and of course any pertinent citations. Each of these individual sections will be a short abstract of sorts. Just like a full publication, these sections should tell the viewer what inspired the question, what the question is, how you tested it, what the experiment found and what it means. Which sounds intimidating, but is easily tackled when split into parts. Pictures and graphs also can convey many of these ideas more effectively and with fewer words. Keeping your poster visual usually helps keep the viewer engaged and not bogged down with too much information. However, be careful not to put too many graphs, as that will dilute the impact of each and eat up your valuable and limited space. Choose the graphs that best show the measureable effects of the variables.
But now that you know what to put on your poster, there’s still the question of compiling it. Let’s be honest, we’re all aesthetic creatures and there’s no harm in making real science look pretty. With this in mind, be sure to pick a program that will fit your needs and skill set. For example, power point is a presentation tool, and it can be converted into format which could be a poster, but the user-ease doesn’t make up for the lower quality of the poster produced. Some better programs are LaTeX, Corel Draw or Adobe Illustrator. Be sure to leave enough time to become familiar with the program to navigate making a poster with them. LaTeX for example, requires quite a bit of experience to be truly proficient with it. There are many online resources for free to help users navigate using these programs, as well as forums where users post issues and other community members provide solutions. These are very helpful if you’re stuck and in a crunch for time. Another thing programs like LaTeX are useful for is when using many symbols, it keeps the symbol in line as another string of text, rather than in other programs what use it as an image and then causes issues with formatting.
Some things to be careful for while using any program are the problems with printing. Remember to be conscious of the differences between what appears on the screen and how it will look in print. For example, if using dark colored backgrounds, choose lighter colored font colors to improve readability. Also, be aware of your dimensions. There’s no greater frustration than having to go to the printers multiple times because part of the poster didn’t fit on the original sizing. Remember the sizing differences that may appear on screen versus the real-size poster. Some images could appear pixelated if resized past their resolution’s ability. One trick for resizing things like graphs is to save as a png rather than a jpg. This helps resizing without stretching the pixels past their readability. Finally, be sure your graph scales and legends are (1) readable and (2) not obscuring data points. Sometimes if you’ve automatically generated a graph, the legend automatically and inadvertently covers some of the data, and that can be frustrating for viewers.
Besides these specifics, there are a few general rules of thumb to keep in mind while making a scientific poster. (1) First and foremost – keep the font large! People shouldn’t have to huddle close and obscure the poster from other viewers to read the words. The smallest font on the poster (besides citations) should be captions, which shouldn’t go smaller than 18pt font. (2) limit your word count to around 250-600 words, varied by the size of the poster. (3) Double, no TRIPLE check the program requirements for sizing of the poster, citations and other potential problem areas. (3) Always orient graph axis to the reader’s point of view, so they’re easy to read. (4) Never put up an image or a graph without a caption or a label. (5) Make the poster followable. Do this by making the text read up and down and left to right in columns, like a pamphlet or other tri-fold publication. Generally put major conclusions or findings early and expand on them throughout, so that the reader is engaged and keeps reading. And (6) always remember your contact information, because after a successful poster creation, many will be asking for your number!