Designing a Poster

DECEMBER 8TH, 2022 AT 6:15 PM

Hi! I’m Meg Schwellnus, currently a graduate student pursuing a Master of Applied Science in Biomedical Engineering. Sounds fancy, but really, I just have a background in both design and biology and have had both feet fully in each world at one time or another, and sort of have one foot in each world right now. I also love baking and reading, especially fantasy.

Designing a poster – how hard can it be?

STUPID HARD, at least sometimes. A poster is a great way to quickly communicate your work to a diverse audience, without needing you to be there to explain the main concepts. It contains some visuals to help quickly communicate key ideas, and text to provide finer details that the images can’t easily capture. There are almost always poster sessions at conferences and meetings for knowledge transfer, and it is expected for most graduate students that they will do poster design at some point, and likely more than once. However, even with this expectation that you must design your own poster for communicating your research, very few institutions provide training on some guidelines for poster design (unless you are in a design program – very different thing). And designing a poster can be really hard to get right.

As a designer and scientific researcher myself (official university training in both), I wanted to provide some tips that I learned as a designer that can be applied to any poster design and any aesthetic. I will firstly say that I am not the most talented graphic designer and that I have struggled in the past to have a well-designed poster or graphic. But these tips are more about information communication design and strategizing your poster design process. Use these tips or trash them as you will, these are all things I simply have learned from school and from experience, and I wanted to share them.


Tip #1: Start by thinking about the visual flow of your information

By saying the ‘visual flow of information', can be split up into two components: the layout of the poster, and the order in which you want your audience to read your content. Thinking about these two components, the visual flow of information is using the layout to control how your audience will follow the poster and read the content, and then matching the order of content to the direction of the eye over the poster.

This ‘visual flow of information’ could be considered one of the most important design elements of your poster. You can have a very visually pleasing layout, but if the direction of reading is not apparent, the audience will likely read the blocks of content out of order and get confused. So, you need to think about the order of content, and the layout you will use to control the direction of the eye over the poster, to control how the audience will actually read your information.

Some key things to consider when choosing your layout and how you want your audience to read the poster: in the English language, we read left to right, and top to bottom. So, unless there is a specific point on the poster that stands out, as a rule, the audience will automatically read left to right, top to bottom. You want to ensure your layout and order of content will match this rule. Drawing the eye to a certain point on the poster can result in the audience starting to read there, but they then revert to L to R, top to bottom.

When thinking about the order of content, think about answers to questions such as:

  • What are essential pieces of information the audience should know about my project to understand it?
  • Context?
  • Purpose?
  • Problem to solve?
  • What do I want my audience to remember the most?
  • What are some final thoughts I want my audience to have?

A trick to this is to do a lot of thumbnail layouts, without worry about details, to get a rough idea of information flow and get a lot of ideas out quickly. Starting out with a big-picture layout can help you segment your content into blocks, and quickly show you the direction of the eye across your poster on a small scale. It’s also a really easy way to bang out ideas without becoming attached. No words, just blocks, and rectangles as placeholders for content. And don’t be afraid to move away from the traditional design! Think of what works best for your content, every project is different.


Tip #2: Using layout elements to your advantage

There are so many little elements to consider with layouts, I will NOT be going through them all. Most likely, most of you have heard of using negative space, using alignments, and maybe the rule of thirds. I won’t go over these, but I do recommend you play with alignments and negative space – they are really important, and they are finicky. Play especially with negative space between sections, it can really help segment the poster without overwhelming the audience.

What I want to mention is to also play with how you draw the eye across the page – using lines, either literal or abstract, to lead the eye across a page, using focal points to draw attention to a specific point on the page (either larger fonts, a pop of color, a large image, etc.). Be careful to not have too many focal points – it will draw the eye to each one, and unless there is a hierarchy/order of them, the audience will follow them randomly and it alters the order of reading the poster. But play around with how you follow your poster by adding in or removing focal points and lines on the poster, which will give you an idea of how the audience might follow your poster.


Tip #3: Fonts, and all the fun things you can do with them

The font you use for your poster is incredibly important – it has a strong influence on how easy or hard it is to read your poster. Starting with font size, a good minimum size of the font to stick to in order for your poster to be readable from at least 2-3 ft away is 16-18 pt. If you take away anything, please take away this minimum font for reading. The font size is variable since certain fonts will be smaller at one font size than others (weird I know, but true).

Now, here are some other things you can do with fonts, other than changing the size:

  • Changing the font, and perhaps using more than one
  • Ex: You can choose two complimentary styles to use, one for headers and such, the other for body text
  • Ex. Cambria paired with Bookman old style
  • Bookman old style with Century Gothic
  • Play around!
  • Changing the weight and style of your font (if there is the option to):
  • Ex. The Bahnschrift font:
  • Bahnschrift
  • Light
  • Semi Light
  • Normal
  • Semi bold
  • Light condensed
  • Semi Bold condensed
  • Bolded normal
  • Bolded light
  • Changing the colour
  • Even just changing from a black to a dark grey can significantly decrease the loading on the eyes due to contrast, but doesn’t change the ease of reading
  • The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog
  • The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog
  • Changing the font colour of your heading compared to the body of text
  • Header
  • Body of text body of text body of text body of text body of text body of text body of text body of text body of text body of text body of text body of text body of text body of text body of text body of text body of text
  • Changing the kerning of your font – the space between letters
  • Word doesn’t allow for this, but most (if not all) graphic design software will have options for this

A couple more things to consider when choosing a font, other than how you like it, are:

  • How the font fits with the content you are communicating, as styles can often connotate a meaning for how serious the content is
  • The Edwardian Script font often denotes a ‘formal’ type of content.
  • The Curlz MT style often indicates the content is playful.
  • The Times New Roman style is associated with news or papers.
  • Using serif vs sans serif fonts for larger paragraphs. Serif fonts are designed to be better for larger paragraphs as they lead the eye through the lettering to make it easier to read large sections of text
  • serif
  • sans serif

There are so many ways to use fonts and styling to advance your communication through your poster. Play around! A really easy way to see the difference between fonts and styles is to make copies and look at the different fonts side by side, especially on the text you want to have on your poster. So, try different fonts, see which ones you like, see how you like styling them, and try new colours!


Putting it all together

When you put the layout and visual flow of information together, the foundation of the poster design can be worked out, and it can be embellished with your content, results figures, fonts and the different styling, and other design elements (visual additions, colours, framing elements, etc.). With this article, I really just wanted to bring to light design elements that might not be obvious things to consider for poster design but can really bring the design to a new level.

Design is about trying things. The more you try, the more likely you are to find a best option for your specific design, and you can show its better than others because you tried them! For your poster, you can try as many designs as you can think of if you wish, and I hope the tips I have listed here will be helpful for you as you go about designing your communication piece. Good luck, and have fun!

If you want to continue your poster tips journey, click here for part 2 of this article series, which is all about printing!



General poster design tips:

Infographic design tips:

Font websites for trying and grabbing new ones:


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