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Designing a Scientific Poster
Katniss: So you're here to make me look pretty.
Cinna: I'm here to help you make an impression.
The Hunger Games, Lionsgate
Once you’ve built up some experimental results, your PI may ask you to create a scientific poster to showcase the data in a conference. Undergraduate and graduate students alike can be asked to make a poster. But if you’ve never created one, how do you make an attractive poster that draws people to your work?

Don’t let a poster session scare you!
Muppets Christmas Carol, Walt Disney Pictures.
Before you even begin putting the poster together, think of your audience. Similar to an oral presentation, you have to know who you’re presenting to. Is your audience comprised of experts in your field, or do they belong to a totally different arena? Both your abstract and introduction should sum up your work and provide a brief background in a succinct manner. Once that’s established, you’ll want to consider your layout, which will actually be very similar to a scientific paper. The goal here is not to be overly wordy. If people see too much text, they’re likely to be turned off and pass your poster over.
Before we delve into layouts, remember to list contact information on your poster (e-mail usually works best) in case you’re not around. You can also choose to have miniature printed copies of your poster for your audience to take home. If you’re using any logos, double-check with the respective institutions to make sure they’re OK with this. Concerning layouts, you can find many types on the internet, but here’s a good starting point. You can, of course, add your own style and flair, but let’s take a look at how posters are generally organized. Most conferences provide measurement requirements for posters. You can scale your file accordingly before you start (in PowerPoint for instance). If you change the size of the poster after you’ve placed everything where you want it, it may skew or alter your layout.
First off, consider the title. It needs to be both catchy and representative of the breadth of your work. If you’ve never created a poster before, it’s likely that either your PI and/or your labmates will help edit and shape it. Next, add on all the authors associated with this poster. If anyone is left off this list, it could create unnecessary tension down the road. While our layout example didn’t include one, you should consider adding an aim for your project after the introduction section. This would be one concise line that defines your research objective.

Materials and methods are fairly easy to organize and will usually be adapted from your manuals or the paper you may be writing. The critical part of your poster is the results section, which you’ll notice is front and center in our example. More often than not, this is what people will fixate on. And as simple as it may sound, pretty pictures draw people in. Having nice, colorful images, a crisp flow chart, or a vibrant summary cartoon can both clarify your point and turn heads. Figure legends should caption each piece of data, so that your results are clear. If necessary, you can create a header over several related pieces of data.

This is the kind of reaction you want your poster to have.
A Bug’s Life, Walt Disney Pictures.
For your conclusions, you may consider short bullet points rather than long paragraphs. That way, people can easily get the gist of your work. Be sure to include any references and acknowledgements as well. When all of this is compiled together, have several people review it for errors! I’ll never forget when I made my first poster for the lab. I was so proud…until someone pointed out that my title was studying “Cell Repsones”…which is apparently a new type of response. It’s natural that you won’t catch mistakes on your poster since you’ve looked it over so many times. Having a fresh set of eyes will greatly help you.

A fresh perspective is always helpful.
You’ll also need to practice the explanation of your poster. Oftentimes, people just want to know what your work is about without reading your whole poster. Master an elevator-style pitch, where you can deliver your whole message in just 2-3 minutes. You can also have labmates quiz you and ask general questions about your work.
Finally, you need a place from which to print the poster. Many institutions have an on-site printing facility that charges cheap rates for posters. If you have to go off-site to a place like FedEx or Kinko’s, see if the charges can be put on the lab tab…and not your own. If you’re travelling to a conference, you may consider buying one of these poster tubes, so it prevents your shiny new poster from getting wrinkled or crushed during transit. Some posters are now printed on cloth material to avoid ripping and allow for easy transport.
Pocket protector sold separately.

Just when I thought I got the hang of science…
The Return of the Jedi, Lucasfilm.
To see how BioLegend has designed their posters, visit our Scientific Poster Library.
Have any comments on poster creation? Let us know here.

Contributed by Ken Lau, PhD.
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