Scientific posters needn’t look like scientific posters

To allude to a StackExchange thread, The problem with scientific posters is that they look like scientific posters. Defining characteristics include a lack of whitespace, unattractive borders, poor colour use, and poor fonts use. Using a recent scientific poster of my own as a example, I explain how to create a clean, elegant poster with minimal artistic talent.

Link to original PDF

Stick to a single colour

Often termed a monochromatic colour scheme, a design with a single colour (beyond black and white) has many benefits:

  • Minimal and elegant – colours do not interfere with the content
  • Facilitates emphasis – if needed, a single element in an accent colour immediately stands out
  • Easy – Pick your favourite colour and go

It’s hard to understate the last point. Unless you know what split complementary, tetradic, or analogous colour schemes are, it’s best to keep it simple. As soon as you add additional colours, you run the risk of introducing troublesome colour combinations.

Using a single colour for text elements is easy. Matching the figures to the design is more difficult. In my poster, some of the original figures were designed with a hot colourmap, which would be at odds with the rest of the design. I considered it well worth the effort to regenerate these figures with a blue colourmap. (It was a fortunate coincidence that the logo and my photo in the bottom right corner fit with the blue theme.)

Use a single font, but maintain a typographic hierarchy

Like colours, combining fonts is something best left to graphic designers who can recognise whether fonts have compatible x-heights, axes, or even moods. Instead, choose a single font with multiple font weights: at least light, normal, semi-bold, and bold. (I use Source Sans Pro, which is free despite the Pro in the name.)

Varying the font size, weight, and capitalisation makes clear what information is most important. But most posters need more levels in their typographic hierarchy. That is, some posters visually distinguish only title, headings, and body text. The example above distinguishes title, subtitle, abstract, heading, body text, and figure captions, with the captions separated into title and supporting details where necessary.    

Include at least a little whitespace

A cursory image search suggests most scientists are scared of leaving out details. A natural instinct for us of course, but bad for design as it inhibits easy scanning that helps identify the important pieces. How much whitespace to include is certainly a subjective decision; I suggest at least a little to recognise that the default seems to be next to none. In my example, I keep the bullet-pointed text rather loose and include obvious whitespace either side of the abstract, which accentuates the title bar.

Ample whitespace can’t be achieved if there is too much text. Write out your content, cut out tangential details, cut out unnecessary grammatical constructs, and repeat.

Borders aren’t necessary

Executed well, borders may look nice, but too often they are simply a symptom of too little whitespace: a means to divide content spaced too closely. Scan a range of scientific posters and I bet you’ll find that the most appealing designs forgo boxes and use whitespace instead.

As with properly typeset tables, horizontal lines (together with whitespace) are often sufficient to demark columns or content. In the example below, the blue heading bars negate the need for borders.

Borders are unnecessary when a poster is well designed as evident in this example inspired by a similar one found on Pinterest



Author: Ken Hughes

Post-doctoral research scientist in physical oceanography

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