Create effective posters for medical presentations

By Sarah Boslaugh, Ph.D.

Posters are an important method of communicating medical and scientific research. A medical or scientific poster is basically a journal article translated into graphic form by shortening the text sections and presenting key findings as bullet points. Some posters also incorporate graphical elements to help illustrate key points of the research. Many scientific posters follow this model, which is designed to succinctly convey the results of a research project.

Creating an effective poster can be challenging because you may have to squeeze results from a year's worth of research onto a 3-by-5-foot sheet of paper. Your goal should be to create a good poster because it represents you and your research to your peers. This is particularly important if you are a new researcher, because employers often recruit at poster sessions. Also, prizes are frequently awarded for the best posters at medical conferences — another incentive to have an outstanding poster.

This article discusses the general characteristics of effective medical and scientific posters and presents guidelines and simple techniques for using Microsoft Office PowerPoint 2003 to create posters. In most cases, a poster is a single PowerPoint slide that contains numerous headings, text boxes, and graphic objects.

Poster sessions

A good poster effectively communicates its content in the context in which it will be viewed, which is usually a poster session at a scientific meeting or medical conference. Most scientific meetings and medical conferences feature far more posters than they do oral presentations, because poster sessions provide an efficient way for numerous people to present their data. In addition, a conference or meeting is often the first place that physicians and other scientific researchers present their research. Poster sessions provide a good venue for presenting your ideas and soliciting feedback before publishing your research in a journal article.

It's important to consider the poster session when planning your poster. At a typical poster session, you will be allotted a fixed amount of space, typically 4 feet by 6 feet on a bulletin board, to display your poster. You will stand by the poster during the session to discuss your research with anyone who is interested. The poster session will probably occur in a large exhibition hall in which hundreds of posters are presented in a single session and multiple sessions are presented each day. During a poster session, conference attendees will be walking around, glancing at the posters, and socializing.

Goals for effective posters

At a poster session, your poster has two goals. The first goal is to sufficiently attract the casual onlooker's attention so that he or she will stop and take a second look. After your poster has captured a viewer's attention, the second goal is for it to concisely communicate the results of your research. People who want more details and information can refer to a section on the poster that provides author contact information and can follow up with you after the conference.

Principles of effective posters

You can present information in a poster in a number of ways. The following principles generally apply to good posters:

  • A poster should present an overview of your work. It's not a journal article, so don't try to cram all the details onto the poster. A casual viewer should be able to glean your message in 3 to 5 minutes and read all the text in 10 minutes.
  • A poster is a visual means of communication. Even if your poster consists entirely of text, a clean and uncluttered presentation will attract readers and help them comprehend your research. So much the better if you can include graphical elements (such as figures, charts, and photographs), which can help reinforce your conclusions.
  • Determine how you will print your poster before you design it. Because not every printing option offers the same paper dimensions and because larger poster sizes generally cost more to print, first choose the paper size for printing and then design your poster accordingly. Then check with your printing vendor to find out whether you should be aware of any specific limitations or guidelines.
  • A poster should be organized in sections in a way that's similar to how a scientific article or oral presentation is structured. In your poster, lay out the sections in three or four columns. If the conference does not specify the sections that you must include, consider including the standard sections of a journal article: introduction, methods, results, and conclusions. You may also want to include an abstract, acknowledgments, and references.
  • A poster should have a main title that's readable from 25 feet away. People will be wandering through the poster session, so you need to catch their eye from a distance. A general rule is to use a 72-point type and a common font such as Times New Roman or Arial for your poster title and to use a smaller size of the same font for the section titles.
  • A poster should have body text that's readable from 4 to 6 feet away. Your poster may draw a crowd, and viewers will be more interested in your results if they can read about them without straining their eyes. Use 20-point or 24-point type and a common serif font such as Times New Roman for the body text.
  • A poster should have one or two fonts and a simple color scheme. You should attempt to grab people's attention through the clarity of your presentation and impress them with the quality of your research. Don't distract viewers or dilute your message by using too many different colors, fonts, and font sizes.
  • A poster should have serif fonts with proportional spacing. These fonts (such as Times New Roman or Century Schoolbook) are the easiest to read, which makes them a good choice for most text. Some people like to use a contrasting sans serif font (such as Arial) for titles, whereas others prefer to use only serif fonts.

Key points to remember about designing effective posters

The principles listed in the preceding section may seem like a lot to remember, but designing a good poster really comes down to the following three key points:

  • Make it easy for your readers. Viewers' attention will be in demand, so no matter how interesting your results may be, if they are badly presented, no one will take the time to read them.
  • The purpose of your poster is to present scientific information. Don't get carried away with using a lot of colors and fonts, which might distract from the presentation of your research.
  • Your poster is a visual means of information. If you have graphics that will help communicate your research results, you should include them. Additionally, keep the body text short and present only the key points; save the lengthy explanations for the journal article.

Using a PowerPoint template for your poster

If a poster template is not provided by the conference at which you will be presenting your information, you can use one of the PowerPoint templates included in this practice. Each element in the template (such as the title, the list of authors, and the results of the research) is a text box. When using the template, type or paste in the appropriate text. You can also insert graphical elements, such as graphs or charts created in Microsoft Office Excel 2003, photographs, and drawings. Your poster may require different section headings, and you may want some text sections to be larger or smaller. You can create new sections and headings by adding text boxes, resizing the text boxes as necessary, and moving the elements.

Printing your poster

When it's time to print your poster, you'll find a number of printing options. To print the poster yourself, you need to use a color printer that can handle large paper sizes. (My department uses a printer that can print onto 42-inch heavy glossy photo paper roll. This means that the smaller dimension of any poster that my department prints can't be greater than 42 inches.) If you don't have access to a poster printer, you have several other options:

  • The conference at which you will be presenting your information may offer printing services.
  • A local printing shop may have a suitable printer — to print your poster there, you will need to copy the poster file to a disk or USB flash drive.
  • An online printing service such as,, or can be used. For this option, you need to either upload the poster file to the service's site or send an e-mail message with the file attached. The printing service will print the poster and then ship the hard copy back to you.

Printing guidelines

After you determine how you will print your poster, you need to get any relevant instructions or guidelines. Whichever method you use, here are a few guidelines that apply in most cases:

  • To avoid font translation problems, select the Print TrueType fonts as graphics check box (Tools menu, Options menu, Print tab) in PowerPoint.
  • Confirm that the page size, which you specify in the Page Setup dialog box (File menu, Page Setup menu), is the same as, slightly smaller than, or proportional to the size of paper on which you will be printing your poster.
  • If at all possible, preview the poster on the computer from which it will be printed before the poster is actually printed. Because unexpected graphic problems can occur, you will save yourself a lot of money by discovering and fixing problems before the poster is printed.

More information

About the author     Sarah Boslaugh, Ph.D., is a senior statistical data analyst in the Department of Pediatrics at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri. She has more than twenty years of experience in statistical analysis and computer programming and is an expert at using PowerPoint in the medical field.

Applies to:
PowerPoint 2003