Making an Academic Poster

A guide by Jake Cohen, compiled Spring 2019

Although academic posters have traditionally been used in the hard sciences to present work, increasingly many in the humanities and social sciences are also utilizing poster presentations for their unique ability to convey information in a visual and interactive manner. Making a poster is more than just translating a piece of writing or research into visual content. Below are some best practices as well as specific guidelines for poster creation:

A good poster…

  • Is a conversation starter
    • Summarizes conclusions
    • Highlights key points
    • Is skimmable
    • Is concise
    • Draws people in

A poster should not be…

  • Your academic paper printed out and pasted on a board (yes, I’ve seen this at conferences before!)
  • A PowerPoint presentation

Your poster is a short story that provides a narrative through your research and analysis, but does not aim for the comprehensibility of an academic paper. Some posters include an abstract, although this is not required for the Phish Studies conference.

You can use a professional design program to create a poster such as Adobe InDesign, Illustrator, LaTex, or free online software such as Canva. However, you can make a professional-looking poster using everyone’s favorite presentation software, PowerPoint (or Keynote!), which is my recommendation for poster creation unless you’re already a wiz with design programs. Here is an example of a poster (about Phish!) that was made in PowerPoint:

To set up a poster in PowerPoint:

  • Open PowerPoint, select Slide Layouts, then select Blank
    • Click on the X in the sidebar to close it (a poster is a single slide)
    • Click File>Page Setup. Enter dimensions of poster in inches
      • Standard sizes: 36”x48”
      • Click ok and disregard the printer size error

All posters should have:

  • A clear, large title across the top, preferably 72-point font, along with information that identifies the author and institutional affiliation, if applicable. If you work for a university or other organization that has a logo, this can also go on the top (or on bottom)
  • Headers at the top of content areas, preferably 48-point font. A good header actually tells the viewer what’s in that content area, rather than generic terms such as “Introduction,” “Hypothesis,” “Methods,” or “Conclusion” (see example above)
  • Lots of visual material! Be creative in how you plan to represent your work: use images, charts, flow charts, infographics, graphs, etc.
  • No text smaller than 18-point
  • Enough info to stand on its own so that if someone views it while you’re not there, they get the basic gist of your work

Some things to remember:

  • Sketch your poster on paper first before starting to design in the software. This is a crucial step
  • Thoughtfully use negative space
  • Bullet points are your friends
  • Use a sans serif font (like Arial, Helvetica Neue, etc.)
  • Choose a color scheme that enhances, not distracts from, your content. If you have images, consider using a color matcher to create a color scheme. Use a single, simple color scheme
  • Use guidelines (in PowerPoint under “Guides”) to align content areas and boxes. Try to keep spaces and sizes of areas standard
  • If you have areas with lots of text such as an abstract, put key takeaways in bold
  • Visual material should be clearly labeled or captioned, use verbs to show relationships
  • Use images at 300 dpi resolution
  • If you have a background image, consider adding some transparency to make it easier on the eyes (a stark photo background can clash with content)
  • Since this is a conference about a band, you may choose to have sound or video available. This can be done using links with QR codes so that attendees can view/listen on their own devices, or you can set up a tablet/laptop with headphones (no earbuds) for attendees to use
  • Practice a 30-second, 1-minute, and 2-minute version of an “elevator pitch” for your poster. A viewer wants to hear a tiny bit about your work, and then if they are interested in learning more, you can tell them more. Don’t hold someone captive for 5 minutes while you walk them through every detail of the poster
  • If you can, it’s always a good idea to have a link (either URL or even better, a QR code) to an online version of your poster that users can download. This will allow people to return to your poster on their own time, and can also be very beneficial for those who have accessibility needs

Some things to avoid:

  • Don’t use too much text – remember, you’ll be standing in front of your poster and talking to viewers. Allow images, graphs, and short bullet points to do the work for you. More show, less tell. This is the #1 pitfall of bad posters
  • Don’t use ALL CAPS or Small Caps       
  • Don’t use copyrighted material without permission: use Creative Commons for image searching
  • Don’t use more than two fonts, total (best to just use one)
  • Don’t make your poster portrait oriented. Landscape is best
  • Don’t make your poster too busy. Extraneous images or colors can distract the eye from your main content
  • Wanna see some bad posters? Here you go.

Some good resources:

Instructional Technology

In addition to classroom teaching, I have worked as an Instructional Technology Fellow at Macaulay Honors College for the past three years, helping faculty integrate digital pedagogy and assignments into their curricula while assisting students with digital humanities projects. I have been paired with faculty in Macaulay’s interdisciplinary core courses to design, build, and maintain websites throughout the semester on Macaulay’s ePortfolios WordPress learning management system, and to help create innovative assignments that utilize this technology. Additionally, I work with Macaulay students to guide them in technology best practices and assist them with using digital tools to enhance their learning and presentation of knowledge.

I have used this model in designing my own course websites, including this site for a 50-person music appreciation course. As an example of assignments using this platform, students create a blog post responding to questions about Beethoven and deafness that challenge them to question traditional “triumph” narratives surrounding disability.

Examples of some Macaulay assignments I have helped design and facilitate using the ePortfolios platform include:


Essays in an edited volume:

Encyclopedia and dictionary entries:

  • “Allman Brothers Band”; “Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin”; “Grateful Dead.” In The 100 Greatest Bands of All Time, edited by David V. Moskowitz. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC–CLIO/Greenwood Press, 2015.
  • “Jam Band”; “Love”; “Phish”; “Psychedelic Rock.” In The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd edition, edited by Charles Hiroshi Garrett. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Book reviews:

University Teaching

Courses Taught:

(all courses taught as the instructor of record)

General education

  • Music Appreciation, including both American popular and Western classical music (Rutgers-Newark)
  • Music Appreciation, exclusively Western classical music (Baruch College, University of Washington)

Undergraduate music majors

  • Core music history survey, antiquity through 1750 (Baruch College)
  • Core music history survey, twentieth/twenty-first century (Queens College)
  • American popular music survey (Baruch College)
  • Writing About Music (University of Washington)

Graduate level

  • Special Topics in Music History seminar: American Classical Music 1850–1950 (Lehman College)

Conference Papers and Presentations

Invited Talks

  • The MacDowell Colony and the Myth of Rural Solitude – Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ; University of Texas, Austin, TX, November 2018
  • Roundtable: Teaching History, Teaching Crisis – Pedagogy in the Environmental Humanities Symposium, Columbia University, New York, NY, April 2016
  • Performing Race, Place, and Hybridity in the Music of the Talking Heads – Hitchcock Institute for Studies in American Music, Brooklyn, NY, April 2015

Select Conference Presentations

  • Poster: Affective Music Theory and Musical Exploration: Michael Hamad’s @phishmaps – Society for American Music (SAM), Montreal, Canada, March 2017
  • Dancing in the Barn with Charles Ives – American Musicological Society (AMS), Vancouver, BC, November 2016
  • Assessing a Writing Across the Curriculum Collaboration – CUNY Coordinated Undergraduate Education Conference, Bronx, NY, May 2016
  • “Real Vermonters”: Dorothy Canfield Fisher and the New England Identity of Carl Ruggles – SAM, Boston, MA, March 2016
  • “All the Years Combine”: Issues of Historiography in the Periodization of the Grateful Dead – Southwest Popular/American Culture Association (SWPCA), Albuquerque, NM, February 2016
  • Performing Race, Place, and Hybridity in the Music of the Talking Heads – SAM, Sacramento, CA, March 2015; International Association for the Study of Popular Music (IASPM), Gijón, Spain, June 2013
  • “The Formerly Quiet Corner is Full of Bustle and Business”: Symphony Hall and the Changing Cultural Geography of Fin-de-siècle Boston – Nineteenth Century Studies Association, Boston, MA, March 2015
  • Embodied Environmentalism in John Luther Adams’s Become Ocean – Ecomusics and Ecomusicologies 2014: Dialogues, Asheville, NC, October 2014
  • “Symphonic Dignity,” Geography, and the Reception of George Chadwick’s Symphony No. 2 – SAM, Little Rock, AR, March 2013
  • Carl Ruggles, Walt Whitman, and the Gendered Place of Men and Mountains – Ecomusicologies 2012 conference, New Orleans, LA, October 2012; Graduate Students in Music conference, CUNY Graduate Center, New York, NY, April 2012
  • Harmonic and Geographic Ambiguity in the Grateful Dead’s “Terrapin Station” – IASPM-Canada, Montreal, QC, June 2011
  • IT and the X Factor: Improvisational Strategies and Tendencies of Phish and the Grateful Dead – Popular Culture/American Culture Association national conference, San Antonio, TX, April 2011
  • Phish and the Grateful Dead: What a Long, Uncomfortable Relationship It’s Been – SWPCA, Albuquerque, NM, February 2010
  • Between Two Worlds: Aaron Copland and the Musical Place of Vitebsk – UCLA ECHO conference: “Space, Time and Music,” Los Angeles, CA, May 2008; AMS Pacific Northwest Chapter, Vancouver, BC, April 2008
  • Nomadic Musical Audiences: A Historical Precedent for the Grateful Dead – SWPCA, Albuquerque, NM, February 2007

Writing Across the Curriculum

I served as a Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) fellow for three years at the New York City College of Technology (NYCCT), serving as Senior WAC Fellow for the final two years of my appointment. Working with faculty in both one-on-one partnerships and in workshop settings, I helped strategize and implement best practices and assignment design to integrate writing into curricula. At NYCCT, I worked mainly with professors from outside the humanities, including professors in mathematics and chemical engineering departments, to revise student assignments to incorporate writing. Strategies included scaffolding, designing rubrics, informal/exploratory writing, and notetaking.

I also helped design and then led faculty workshops on topics. Below are a sampling of topics, with links to PowerPoints:

As part of the WAC Fellowship program, I received annual training in WAC best practices and participated in regular professional development workshops with other WAC fellows and program directors.