The Poster

The poster format has become an increasingly popular form of communication. Good science, uncluttered and colorful design, legibility, brevity of text, and straightforward organization equal a good poster.

New and exciting ideas based on sound research can draw deserved recognition through a well-written abstract and an eye-catching poster design. Scientists must recognize that participants at a scientific meeting may not have had the opportunity to read the abstract of a poster presentation before they walk into the display area. Attention will invariably be drawn to posters with a crisp, clean design and a snappy title. The title must have the audience in mind. It helps to think of a title as a newspaper headline vying for attention. Once the viewer has come to take a closer look at an interesting-looking display, all aspects of the design and the science work together to keep, or lose, the viewer's attention.


Obviously, the story to be told should be interesting and the research should be sound. Studies emphasizing interdisciplinary science, and those that have broad application and/or implications, are the type most likely to be accepted for inclusion in a poster session and receive considerable feedback.

A common criticism of a poor poster is that the author attempts to present too much information. Present only enough data to support your conclusions. You should make the significance and originality of the work very clear because viewers from other specialties may not be aware of its importance.


Here are some suggestions that will make a poster more accessible, attractive, and interesting.

1. At first glance from 3-4 m away the viewer should see an easy-to-read title and an uncluttered, neat arrangement of photos and/or illustrations and text. It should be obvious where to start inspecting the poster and where to go from there (generally left to right, top to bottom). As this progression is vital, the component parts should either be numbered to facilitate this or have arrows that graphically lead the viewer through the display:


2. Leave some open space in the design. Tightly packed space tires the eye and the mind.

3. Use elements of different sizes and proportions. Same-size and same-proportioned components result in a boring design. For particular emphasis, try using different shapes:

4. A large and/or bright center of interest can draw the eye to the most important aspect of the poster- a simplified, bold cross section illustrating a structural feature, a colorful paleogeographic map, a blowup of a photo of a new species, or a large outcrop photo illustrating depositional environments. Color poster prints, 30 x 46 cm or 50 x 76 cm, from photographic slides or negatives can be ordered for a modest price at most photo shops. Smaller images (e.g., 20 x 30 cm) can be printed on a color inkjet or laser printer.

5. Enlarge all photos enough for pertinent details to be clearly evident.

6. Make all illustrations simple and bold. Leave out any unnecessary detail in the story being presented.

7. Convert tabular data to a graphic display, if possible. Try scatter plots, polar plots, bar graphs, or triangular diagrams.

8. Consider the inclusion of (small) rock or fossil specimens on the poster. They can be fastened to poster board with silicone glue.

9. Make a scale drawing of your layout. Have a few colleagues comment on the overall design before final drafting. If you have access to professional drafting personnel, ask for their suggestions.

10. The main tenet of good poster design is simplicity.

Lettering, Line Weights, and Color; Computer Printouts

All lettering should be legible from 2 m away; older viewers should not have to put on reading glasses. The minimum type size should be no less than 18 points, and the style should be bold or semi-bold in simple, clean-looking type:

This is 18 point type, the smallest size you should use.You should be able to read it from 2 meters away.

This is 24 point type. Better?

The title lettering should be the largest, about 5-8 cm (144-288 points), with subheadings 1-3 cm (36-72 points) high. If you don't use a computer, office and art supply stores have a wide variety of stick-on and rub-on individual letters in various colors and sizes which are ideal for titles and subheadings. For material other than titles and subheadings, capitals and lower-case letters in combination are much easier to read than all capitals :


Most print in newspapers, magazines, and books is in lower-case letters (except for the capitalization of proper names and the initial word in a sentence). Lower-case letters generally are regarded as much easier to recognize than words printed only in capitalized letters.

Again, if you do not use a computer, text material can be typed at about 12 points, then enlarged on a copying machine to as large as 24 points without significant loss of clarity:

of the Quaternary (12 points)

of the Quaternary (24 points)

The typed material may also be enlarged photographically. A professional appearance can be obtained by use of a lettering machine that produces strips of stick-on text. These lines of text, in the final size, are applied to plain white paper and then photographed so that the tape does not show.

Both typed lettering and stick-on lettering can be combined with black and white line drawings before the final copy (copy machine enlargement or photographic enlargement) is made. Line drawings (e.g., maps, diagrams, fossils, cross-sections) should use a line weight that will be no thinner than 0.7 mm (#2 pen) in the final product. Bolder lines are preferable. Keep the drawing simple and leave out all extraneous details.

When applying color, some authors prefer soft, muted tones; others like deep or very bright ones. The temptation is to use color everywhere, but don't. The viewer's eye will jump erratically around the poster instead of tracking through it to the crucial points. The less important parts of the poster-the necessary background information, the supporting data-will seem to recede into the background if done in cool or cool-neutral colors (blues, greens, and some grays). The featured parts can be highlighted by using warm colors (reds and yellows), or black if the background colors are soft, or white if the background colors are bright or deep. In choosing colors be aware that lighting in the display area may not be optimal.

Color is easy to apply to illustrations that are drafted on a computer using a standard drawing program (e.g., Illustrator, Freehand, Canvas, Corel Draw). Such programs provide the opportunity of selecting from millions of colors, and adjusting hue, chroma, and value so they are most effective. When drafting illustrations without a computer, color can be applied to black and white drawings after they are photocopied, unless the cost of color printing is no object. Transparent or opaque sheets of stick-on color (use non-glare, matte-finish type) provide the most even shading. Colored stick-on tape comes in widths up to 5 cm. The flexible kind can be used for line work. The standard kind is perfect for bar graphs and histograms, for borders, and as leaders from one element of the poster to another. Colored stick-on dots, squares, and triangles are available in various sizes. Large arrows can be cut from stick-on tape or from stick-on color sheets.


The text material included on a poster should be extremely brief, or most of the audience will walk away. Some authors like to include the full abstract as part of the poster, but they should not rely on its being read. More successful is placement of a succinct statement of major conclusions at the beginning of the poster- perhaps as an expanded subtitle. The supporting text is then presented in brief segments along with appropriate illustrations, and the significance of the findings is made forcefully and concisely at the end. Aim for "Wow!" from the viewer. Handouts of the abstract may be made available for interested viewers.

Mounting, Packaging, Displaying

Those preparing a poster with a computer program should be able to design the entire poster in a single file and print it on a large-output printer that will handle documents with dimensions of a meter or more. In this case, you can simply role up the printed posted and carry it to the meeting in a packing tube.

For those preparing individual poster elements for later assembly, each element should be mounted with an adhesive on poster board or on 1/8" foam-core board so that they will lie flat. A clean look is achieved if the caption is mounted on the same board as the accompanying illustration. A half inch or so of the colored poster board extending beyond the edge of an illustration effectively frames it. Select the mounting color carefully so that it does not overpower the picture. Illustrations mounted on the white foam-core board can be edged with colored stick-on tape.

If you know you will be flying to the meeting, carry the poster with you. Make poster elements small enough that they can be included with your carry-on-baggage (dimensions generally 44 x 56 cm; call the airline to be sure) to avoid the problem of lost checked luggage.

You may have only a short time to set up your display, so prepare for this in advance. Have these items in a poster emergency kit: tape measure, 3 m length of string, box of clear push-pins (get longer than standard ones if mounted illustrations are thicker than 3 mm or a box of dressmakers' round-headed pins, ordinary thumb tacks, roll of double-stick tape, scissors, glue, package of tissue paper. Have a sketch of the poster layout, with positions of a few key components measured off so you know where to place them. Set up a level line, if needed, by tying the string between two push-pins set a measured distance above the bottom of the display board. The poster elements can be fastened to the board without visible attachments, as shown below, or can be attached with the push-pins (or dressmakers' pins), or with lots of double-stick tape.

When you remove the display, if you've used double-stick tape, put a sheet of tissue paper between the components when stacking them to keep them from sticking together.

The Alternative Poster

The professional-looking poster discussed above has an attractive counterpart. The artistically inclined scientist can make a poster by sketching it entirely by hand. This approach should follow the same science and design guidelines as previously described, but the text is produced with colored felt-tip pens on poster board of pleasing complementary or neutral color. Text material (a minimum of 18-point type) is easy to do by hand with felt marking pens if there are lightly penciled lines to follow. This less formal type of poster is fast and inexpensive to make, and if neatly and imaginatively done can have a very special appeal.

Acknowledgment: The material presented here has been adapted from Connor, Carol Waite (1988). U. S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 88-667.