Updated March 16, 2011
How to create a poster
that graphically communicates your message

Posters: How to emphasize your message.

More and more, your presentations at meetings are not talks--they are posters.

Are your posters effective, attracting large and enthusiastic audiences? Or, are your posters examined only by your most avid competitors? Do other presumptive colleagues--and poster judges-- merely glance at your poster, then cross their eyes and hurry past? Is the space in front of your poster perennially devoid of people? Do those that do come look at your poster in obvious puzzlement? Does your poster fail to evoke thoughtful questions or interest? If you are not attracting the wide and enthusiastic audience you deserve, examine this pair of positive and negative examples to learn how to increase your presentation’s clarity and impact.

A poster is not just a standard research paper stuck to a board. An effective poster uses a different, visual grammar. It shows, not tells. It expresses your points in graphical terms. It avoids visual chaos, with many jagged edges or various-sized boards that distract the viewer. Instead, it guides the viewer by using a visual logic, with an hierarchical structure that emphasizes the main points. It displays the essential content--the messages--in the title, main headings and graphics. It indicates the relative importance of elements graphically: each main point is stated in large type-face headings; details are subordinated visually, using smaller type-face. The main headings explain the points, rather than merely stating "results" and letting the viewer hunt for--or even worse, invent--the message. All elements, even the figure legends, are visible from 4 feet away.

These and additional hints are accessed by the links below, which graphically illustrate consequences of different display styles to show you how different presentations can clarify--or scuttle--your message.

    Links to positive examples:

Posters: How to obscure your message.

These negative examples use graphic illustrations to visually demonstrate modes of poster presentation that obscure your message. If you follow these directions, you will maximize the probability that no one will understand your data, its presentation, or its possible significance.

Topics covered in the links below include directions on how to 1) assure that only your most rapid competitors view your work, 2) develop the most impenetrable layout, 3) obscure the logical sequence of your presentation, 4) increase wordiness without increasing meaning, 5) de-emphasize the most important points, 6) visually distract your audience, 7) make text difficult to read, 8) avoid drawing conclusions, 9) focus on methods rather than concepts, and 10) effectively turn your back on your audience. You may also find hints here that clarify why you find it impossible to understand the presentations of some of your colleagues.

Of course, if your motivation is not to obscure your work, but instead to emphasize it, you will want to view these examples as pitfalls that you can avoid. Viewing these examples as BAD examples will help you create a poster that graphically communicates your message.

Links to negative examples:


Many ideas for this presentation were inspired by an excellent paper:
John. D. Woolsey (1989). Combating poster fatigue: how to use visual grammar and analysis to effect better visual communications. Trends in Neuroscience 12: 325-332.

Send comments, queries and suggestions to: ktosney@umich.edu


A recent publication on creating effective poster presentations: Hess, George R., Kathryn Tosney, and Leon Leigel. 2009. Creating effective poster presentations. Medical Teacher 31(4): 356-358.

An outstanding site by George R. Hess and Leon H. Liegel offers additional, step-by-step advice on creating an effective poster presention: http://www.ncsu.edu/project/posters/

Of particular interest on this site, note the following pages:

How to keep your graphics clean, simple and accessible: http://www.ncsu.edu/project/posters/GoodGraphs/

An illustration of the power of graphics to communicate quickly:

Poster examples, with critiques http://www.ncsu.edu/project/posters/examples/