Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Meta Posters, or Using Posters to Communicate your Science (Part 1)

Posters are a cornerstone of the scientific conference.

If you’ve ever been to one, you’ve probably seen/heard of/stumbled into the poster hall. Row upon row of presentation boards with posters thumb-tacked up. Nervous and awkward looking students stand in front of them, waiting to be approached by someone and scared that they won’t be able to answer questions (I’m speaking from personal experience here).
Poster hall at AGU's Fall Meeting
The poster hall at AGU's Fall Meeting 2015. Credit: Rex Sanders, USGS
Now tell me if this situation sounds familiar: You are walking through the poster hall in your primary area of interest. You see a poster whose title sounds really interesting, but when you get closer it looks like someone just copy-pasted the text of their research paper onto the poster. You know if you stand there reading it you won’t have time to get to the other 50 posters you wanted to see, so you walk away.

Or how about this one: You go up to a poster that you’re really interested in. You do research in a related subfield, and it looks like this project might be ripe for collaboration. But the material on the poster is way too niche for you, written at an expert level, and you can’t actually figure out if it meshes with your work. The presenter isn’t there to explain it to you, so you walk away.

One more, before I get to the point: let’s say *you* are the student. It’s your first time attending a conference, and your advisor wants you to present your research. Because it’s your first conference, they say, a poster presentation will be much easier. You can include more information, you are not bound by a time limit, and you get potentially endless tries to practice your spiel.

The problem? You’ve also never made a research poster before and have no idea where to start. How do you design a poster that has all the information you want, draws in the right people, and effectively conveys the scientific story you want to tell?

I was fortunate that, when it came time for me to present my first research poster, I had good examples of grad students that came before me to draw upon. You can read about some of them on thisexcellent blog post by my former PhD advisor, Jason Wright.

Other students need a bit more help. In 2015, I was encouraged to create a poster that would explain how to make effective research posters. I took it one step further and decided that the poster should also *demonstrate* those best practices.

Thus the “Good Poster Poster” or the “Meta Poster” was born.

I presented it at the inaugural Emerging Researchers in Exoplanet Science Symposium (ERES) and again at AAS227. I have freely shared the poster and have been gratified to see some of the concepts spread around. It is by far the single most frequently in-demand project that I have worked on, and so I share it here now hoping that it will continue to be of use.

Download: Best Practices for Effective Poster Design 

Please feel free to copy, share, distribute, and re-print this poster for your educational purposes with proper credit. View and download Version 2:

The original poster has also been archived for posterity here:

Some Additional Tips Based on FAQ

1. Put a picture of the lead author or presenter on the poster. This will help people find you at the conference to talk about your poster if you’re not standing at your poster when they visit. Make sure that the picture is professional (so, probably not your social media profile picture) and that you’re the only one in it.

Note: this was the most controversial part of my poster, based on my experiences. This was the question I was asked the most. If you are uncomfortable having your face on your poster, then don’t do it. If you are uncomfortable about your poster, it will be noticeable in your oral pitch. However, if this is something you are comfortable doing, having a picture on there can only help with the networking process.

2. Make sure that there is a contact email address on the poster somewhere. That way, people can contact you after the presentation with questions, comments, or suggestions.

3. A nitpicky detail that will make your poster look really clean is to make sure that everything within one section is aligned along the tops and along the sides. For example, in the top section of the meta-poster, there are two clearly defined “columns” in the section. The left column has the top text box and the table. The text box and table are aligned on the left to form a straight line. The top text box in the right “column” is aligned along the same horizontal line as the text in the left “column.” Small things like this make your poster look very clean.

4. Everyone knows to cite text or results that are found in publications. Many people forget to also put citations on figures that are found in publications. Whether or not you are the author of that paper, if the figure is published in a refereed journal it is technically copyrighted, and needs to be cited.

5. Regarding citations: having citations of the format [Author, et al. (year)] all over your poster is distracting and takes up a lot of space. Use superscripted numbered citations like "cited text[1]" with a numbered reference list at the end to save space. 

6. Some people find that having a reference list on the poster itself to be a waste of space and not completely necessary. I say that it depends greatly on the type of poster you are presenting and where you are presenting. If it’s a research poster that presents a lot of content from published sources, it’s good to have a list of where it all comes from, especially if you’re presenting at a scientific conference where you might run in to someone who wrote the content you are citing. In that case, I recommend the citation format described in #5 to conserve space. If there is mostly original content on the poster, you can more easily justify having your sources elsewhere, like on a website, or even on a separate piece of paper that you tack on next to your poster. Be sure that if you do this that the location of your references is easily found (like having a big honking QR code on your poster). Whatever you choose, always, always cite all of your sources. A plagiarized poster is most definitely not a good poster!

7. The Layar App ( is one of the newest ways to augment your poster with additional content. It is, as the name suggests, a way to virtually layer your poster with additional information that can be read by the Layar app on your smartphone or tablet (they call it “Augmented Reality”). This is a great way to show things like the simulation movies that your simulation snapshots come from, alternate plots, links and references, or even just additional content that is in that section. I have not yet used it myself, but have seen it used at AAS a few times and it is really cool.

8. Before you take your poster to a printer (or even before you start designing your poster) be sure to double check the poster guidelines for your conference. Then, make sure you set the page size for your poster designing program to the right size — and it may be different for each poster!

9. Tip about printing: printing your poster can be expensive, so shop around. Keep in mind your options for printing are flexible. There is always the classic flat print poster on regular poster paper, but those can be flimsy and may not hold up well to travel or to multiple uses. Glossy photo paper looks really nice, but it much more expensive. Fabric printing is gaining popularity: the quality is nice, the price is reasonable, and the fabric travels really well (you can fold it in your suitcase instead of using a poster tube!). A good compromise if you don’t want to do fabric is to print on regular poster paper and then have it laminated for glossiness and durability. Laminating a poster is often cheaper than printing on glossy photo paper.

Sources, References, and Additional Resources

The ideas and content contained in the “Good Poster Poster” were compiled from many sources. A lot of the ideas were contributed by the first and second sources in this list. The other sources listed here are also good places to look for examples of good and bad poster designs.

1. AstroWright’s “Make Award Winning Posters” ( Much of the text was contributed by Ming Zhao (with contributions from Jason Wright), and contains examples of award winning posters by Ming and by Sharon Wang as well.

2. Kathryn Tonsey’s “How to create a poster that graphically communicates your message”: This page by the Chair of Biology and the University of Miami is a good source for how to communicate to different types of audiences and how to layout your poster effectively. Bonus: there are both good and bad examples for each of the themes she talks about.

3. AstroBetter’s on Presentation Skills ( A compilation of a number of other sources for good presentation skills for both oral presentations and poster design and presentation.

4. Credit for the headshot on the poster goes to 2015 Meadow Lane Photography.

5. Bonus: ( can create beautiful and functional plots using the most up-to-date exoplanet catalogs. If you want to make plots that use current exoplanet information (like the ones on the poster!) but don’t want to have to download and compile all of the data yourself, this is the place to go.

Meta Posters, or Using Posters to Communicate your Science (Part 1)

Posters are a cornerstone of the scientific conference. If you’ve ever been to one, you’ve probably seen/heard of/stumbled into the po...