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: