Creating a poster

The UW–Madison Writing Center offers some excellent ideas on how to make an interesting poster for your project. When designing your poster please include the official UW crest beside the title or in the acknowledgements. Logos may be downloaded from the UW Communications web site. Here are some questions and suggestions for preparing your poster.

What exactly is a poster presentation?

A poster presentation advertises your project. It combines text and graphics to present your project in a way that is visually interesting and accessible. It allows you to display your work to a large group of other scholars and to talk to and receive feedback from interested viewers.

Poster sessions have been very common in the hard sciences for some time, and they have recently become more popular as forums for the presentation of research in other disciplines like the social sciences, service learning, and the humanities.

Poster presentation formats differ from discipline to discipline, but in every case, a poster should clearly articulate what you did, how you did it, why you did it, and what it contributes to your field and the larger field of human knowledge.

What goals should I keep in mind as I construct my poster?

  1. Clarity of content. You will need to decide on a small number of key points that you want your viewers to take away from your presentation, and you will need to articulate those ideas clearly and concisely.
  2. Visual interest and accessibility. You want viewers to notice and take interest in your poster so that they will pause to learn more about your project, and you will need the poster’s design to present your research in a way that is easy for those viewers to make sense of it.
What will the people viewing my poster be expecting from it?

The Undergraduate Symposium draws a varied audience from across the university and the surrounding community. In general, your audience members will fall into one of two groups:

  1. Scholars and students from your general area

    These people will be familiar with the basic concepts you’re working with, field-specific terminology, and the main debates facing your field and informing your research. However, don’t assume that they are familiar with all of the technical details you address in your project; remember that even within a specific field of study, there are lots of sub-fields. This audience will probably be most interested in clear, specific accounts of the what and the how of your project.

  2. Scholars, students, and community members who are not familiar with your area of study

    These people may have a very basic understanding of your field, but they probably won’t be familiar with terms or with the specific debates that are current in your field. They’ll especially need you to avoid over-technical terms and jargon. This audience will be less interested in specific details and more interested in the what and why of your project—that is, your broader motivations for the project and its impact on their own lives. This audience gives you an opportunity to teach them about the interesting information you’ve been learning and to convince them that the kind of work you are doing can—eventually, perhaps—change the world!

As you can see, different audience members will be looking for different kinds of information. It’s your job to provide enough specific information to satisfy people from your general area, yet also provide enough general information to interest those outside of it. Talk with your mentor about how to balance the needs of these two audiences.

How much information can I include on my poster?

Probably less than you would like! One of the biggest pitfalls of poster presentations is filling your poster with so much text that it overwhelms your viewers and makes it difficult for them to tell which points are the most important. Viewers should be able to skim the poster from several feet away and easily make out the most significant points.

The point of a poster is not to list every detail of your project. Rather, it should explain the value of your research project. To do this effectively, you will need to determine your take-home message. What is the single most important thing you want your audience to understand, believe, accept, or do after they see your poster?

Once you have an idea about what that take-home message is, support it by adding some details about what you did as part of your research, how you did it, why you did it, and what it contributes to your field and the larger field of human knowledge.

What kind of information should I include about what I did?

This is the raw material of your research: a succinct statement of your project’s main argument (what you are trying to prove), and the evidence that supports that argument. In the hard sciences, the what of a project is often divided into its hypothesis and its data or results. In other disciplines, the what is made up of a claim or thesis statement and the evidence used to back it up.

Remember that your viewers won’t be able to process too much detailed evidence; it’s your job to narrow down this evidence so that you’re providing the big picture. Choose a few key pieces of evidence that most clearly illustrate your take-home message. Often a chart, graph, table, photo, or other figure can help you distill this information and communicate it quickly and easily.

What kind of information should I include about how I did it?

Include information about the process you followed as you conducted your project. Viewers will not have time to wade through too many technical details, so only your general approach is needed. Interested viewers can ask you for details.

What kind of information should I include about why I did it?

Give your audience an idea about your motivation for this project. What real-world problems or questions prompted you to undertake this project? What field-specific issues or debates influenced your thinking? What information is essential for your audience to be able to understand your project and its significance? In some disciplines, this information appears in the background or rationale section of a paper.

What kind of information should I include about its contribution?

Help your audience to see what your project means for you and for them. How do your findings impact scholars in your field and members of the broader intellectual community? In the hard sciences and sometimes in the social sciences, this information appears in the discussion section of a paper.

How will the wording of my ideas on my poster be different from my research paper?

In general, you will need to simplify your wording. Long, complex sentences are difficult for viewers to absorb and may cause them to move on to the next poster. Poster verbiage must be concise, precise, and straightforward. And it must avoid jargon. Here is an example:

Wording in a paper: This project sought to establish the ideal specifications for clinically useful wheelchair pressure mapping systems, and to use these specifications to influence the design of an innovative wheelchair pressure mapping system.

Wording on a poster:

Aims of study

  • Define the ideal wheelchair pressure mapping system
  • Design a new system to meet these specifications
Once I have decided what to include, how do I actually design my poster?

The effectiveness of your poster depends on how quickly and easily your audience can read and interpret it, so it's best to make your poster visually striking. You only have a few seconds to grab attention as people wander past your poster; make the most of those seconds!

How should I lay out my poster?

In general, people expect information to flow left-to-right and top-to-bottom. Viewers are best able to absorb information from a poster with several columns that progress from left to right.

Even within these columns, however, there are certain places where viewers’ eyes naturally fall first and where they expect to find information.

Imagine your poster with an upside-down triangle centered from the top to the bottom. It is in this general area that people tend to look first and is often used for the title, results, and conclusions. Secondary and supporting information tend to fall to the sides, with the lower right having the more minor information such as acknowledgements, references, and personal contact information.

Sample poster layout.  1.  Main Focus Area: Location of research fundamentals (title, abstract, results, conclusion); 2. Secondary Emphasis: Location of important info (intro, results, summary); 3. Supporting Area: Location of supporting info (methods, discussion); 4. Final Info Area: Location of supplemental info (references, acknowledgements, personal information)

  1. Main Focus Area
    Location of research fundamentals: Title, Abstract, Results, Conclusion
  2. Secondary Emphasis
    Location of important info: Intro, Results, Summary
  3. Supporting Area
    Location of supporting info: Methods, Discussion
  4. Final Info Area
    Location of supplemental info: References, Acknowledgments, Personal information
How much space should I devote to each section?

This will depend on the specifics of your project. In general, remember that how much space you devote to each idea suggests how important that section is. Make sure that you allot the most space to your most important points.

How much white space should I leave on my poster?

White space is helpful to your viewers; it delineates different sections, leads the eye from one point to the next, and keeps the poster from being visually overwhelming. In general, leave 10–30% of your poster as white space.

Should I use graphics?

Absolutely! Visual aids are one of the most effective ways to make your poster visually striking, and they are often a great way to communicate complex information straightforwardly and succinctly. If your project deals with lots of empirical data, your best bet will be a chart, graph, or table summarizing that data and illustrating how that data confirms your hypothesis.

If you don’t have empirical data, you may be able to incorporate photographs, illustrations, annotations, or other items that will pique your viewers’ interest, communicate your motivation, demonstrate why your project is particularly interesting or unique.

Don’t incorporate visual aids just for the sake of having a pretty picture on your poster. The visual aids should contribute to your overall message and convey some piece of information that your viewers wouldn’t otherwise get just from reading your poster’s text.

How can I make sure that my poster is easy to read?

There are a number of tricks you can use to aid readability and emphasize crucial ideas. In general:

  • Use a large font. Don’t make the text smaller in order to fit more onto the poster. Make sure that 95% of the text on your poster can be read from 4 feet away. If viewers can’t make out the text from a distance, they’re likely to walk away.
  • Choose a sans-serif font like Helvetica or Verdana, not a serif font, like Times New Roman. Sans-serif fonts are easier to read because they don’t have extraneous hooks on every letter. Here is an example of a sans-serif and a serif font:

    serif fonts have hooks on the ends of letters, while sans-serif fonts do not.
  • Once you have chosen a font, be consistent in its usage. Use just one font.
  • Don’t single-space your text. Use 1.5- or double-spacing to make the text easier to read.

For main points:

  • Use bold, italicized, or colored fonts, or enclose text in boxes. Save this kind of emphasis for only a few key words, phrases, or sentences. Too much emphasized text makes it harder, not easier, to locate important points.
  • AVOID USING ALL CAPITAL LETTERS, WHICH CAN BE HARD TO READ.
  • Make your main points easy to find by setting them off with bullets or numbers.
What exactly is the "presentation" part of a poster presentation?

When you are standing in front of your poster, you—and what you choose to say—are as important as the actual poster. Be ready to talk about your project, answer viewers’ questions, provide additional details about your project, and so on.

How should I prepare for my presentation?

Once your poster is finished, you should re-familiarize yourself with the larger project you’re presenting. Remind yourself about those details you ended up having to leave out of the poster, so that you will be able to bring them up in discussions with viewers. Then, practice, practice, practice!

Show your poster to friends, classmates, and your mentor before the day of the symposium to get a feel for how viewers might respond. Prepare a four- to five-minute overview of the project, where you walk these pre-viewers through the poster, drawing their attention to the most critical points and filling in interesting details as needed. Make note of the kinds of questions these pre-viewers have, and be ready to answer those questions. You might even consider making a supplemental handout that provides additional information or answers predictable questions.

How long should I let audience members look at the poster before engaging them in discussion?

Don’t feel as if you have to start talking to viewers the minute they stop in front of your poster. Give them a few moments to read and process the information. Once viewers have had time to acquaint themselves with your project, offer to guide them through the poster. Say something like "Hello. Thanks for stopping to view my poster. Would you like a guided tour of my project?" This kind of greeting often works better than simply asking "Do you have any questions?" because after only a few moments, viewers might not have had time to come up with questions, even though they are interested in hearing more about your project.

Should I read from my poster?

No! Make sure you are familiar enough with your poster that you can talk about it without looking at it. Use the poster as a visual aid, pointing to it when you need to draw viewers’ attention to a chart, photograph, or particularly interesting point.

The Undergraduate Symposium is sponsored by Brittingham Trust and the Office of the Provost, through the stewardship of the General Library System, Undergraduate Research Scholars Program, Institute for Biology Education, the Morgridge Center for Public Service, the Writing Center and the Wisconsin Union.