The big mistake almost every scientific poster makes


Way too much text!

A poster is not a paper in large flat form. No one wants to stand there reading. Especially since, if you have a lot of text, it will necessarily be too small to read from a few feet away. And especially since you’re going to be there, so anyone who wants details can just ask you. And even if you’re not going to be there because the poster will be up all day, do you really want to engage the approximately zero people who want lots of technical details at the expense of engaging the much larger number of people who just want the essentials? After all, it’s not as if anyone’s going to cite your poster.

It’s difficult to recognize when a poster has too much text, because most posters do (probably including my own posters, back when I was doing posters). So as a student, if you do the sensible thing and emulate the posters that you’ve seen, you end up repeating the same mistake everyone else makes. This is very much in contrast to talks. Good talks are not rare, and there’s no single problem with talks that crops up much more often than any other.

Your poster doesn’t need an abstract–it is an abstract. Your poster’s introduction can just be a bullet point.* Maybe two or three. “Here’s my question” is one bullet. “Here’s why that question is worth asking” is maybe a couple of bullets. Same for your methods: typically, a few bullets is all you need, especially if you also have a picture of whatever it is you did. Your results should just be big figures, with the figure title or some other clear labeling conveying the big take-home message of each figure. Your discussion/conclusions can just be a few bullets too. Text on a poster is like minimalist flower arranging: put all the flowers in the vase that you think should be there, then take most of them away.


This is what a good poster would look like, if it were a flower arrangement.

On a positive note, browse Better Posters if you want advice and ideas for how to make an, um, better poster.

/end deliberately-provocative rant. What’s the point of having a blog if you don’t occasionally attempt to elevate your own pet peeves to the level of Big Problems The Whole World Should Care About?🙂

*Or the equivalent amount of text, if you’re not into bullet points.

Image sources.

30 thoughts on “The big mistake almost every scientific poster makes

  1. I agree to some extent but not entirely. Many posters go too far the other way and do not include the essential details of the work. I am hard of hearing and find it hard to engage in conversation against the background noise of a poster session, and so am very grateful for a moderate level of detail in a poster.

  2. I agree that almost every poster has too much text. However, I’ve seen overcorrections, too. I like a poster that isn’t dependent on the presence of its author – and even if the author is there, I like to read. I think the fix is a clearly indicated two-level poster: the main outline in very little text; but ancillary text for those interested. The ancillary text should be in smaller font, or grey, or under flaps (!) so it’s clear that those wanting the overview can ignore it!

    • Yes, a friend of mine once did a poster with some technical mathematical details under a flap. But that’s rarely done, and honestly I wouldn’t want to see that become a standard design. It’s an attempt to please everyone, but you can’t please everyone with *anything*.

  3. “And especially since you’re going to be there, so anyone who wants details can just ask you.”

    Does this same advice apply to conferences where presenters are only with their posters for a short time? The thing I struggle with as a student is how to make my poster speak for me when I’m not standing next to it. I can definitely understand bullet points for the traditional text blocks (introduction/background, discussion, conclusions), but would it be acceptable for figures to have a little more description since they are essentially the meat and potatoes of the poster?

    • Yes, I think the same advice applies at conferences like the ESA, where the posters are up all day but the presenters only stand by them for a couple of hours in the afternoon. Someone who really wants details can come back and see you when you’re standing there. Or email you some other time (some people pin business cards up next to their poster to encourage this).

      Re: the figures having a bit more description, I think that depends on what your study involved and how familiar it’s likely to be to the intended audience. For instance, a simple experimental design involving widely used techniques probably needs little text even in the figure captions.

      • I supervised an honours student last year and they put in a very text light poster to a conference. They also spent a quite a bit of time making a second version that had much more text that was on a printout the he either gave out or had next to the poster for when he wasn’t there- it seemed to work very well. Unfortunately the poster session was pretty disappointing as it was treated as something of an after thought and tucked away out of sight meaning less traffic than it should have had. Still, he won the jnr research poster award which was nice to see and suggests that text light posters are in with a chance of an award at least sometimes.

        On a side note, I walk past about 50 biotech posters every day to get to my office. I have never more than glanced at the majority of them as they are just huge blocks of text. I remember one and it has almost not text.

  4. Question: the advice in this post is very familiar, isn’t it? Lots of people give this advice, online and offline. And I have never seen anyone give the opposite advice. So how come most posters still have lots of text?

    Is this advice not actually widely familiar? Is it only familiar to the relatively small and narrow circle of people who are like me in some relevant respect? And if so, what is that respect?

    • This point seems to be missing from the conversation: The awards for best posters are based on judging rubrics that require quite a bit of text. For example, the rubric’s often award points for clear hypotheses (which might require predictions) and clear elaboration of why this work matters. To get full marks on each aspect of the criteria requires sufficient text.

      Every good student knows that to get a good mark, you’ve got to nail the rubric.

    • I think this is the biggest mystery to me. EVERYONE says this to folks making a poster, and then the advice is summarily ignored. Why? I have no idea in general, but here’s been my experience: trainees think that they will somehow come across as naive, or will be missing key information, or that people won’t be able to understand what the poster is about if they’re not there. I think they think their advisor is a bit crazy for this “no text” advice, and they fear taking the leap of faith. Dunno, maybe I’m overanalyzing this, but I definitely feel that for the most part, the advice is given and ignored. It’s frustrating.

      • There was a bit of discussion of this on Twitter and FWIW a few folks think many students are NOT given this advice. That many PIs just leave their students to their own devices. And so those students just make their posters look like the text-heavy ones that they see all the time.

    • Because ecologists get no graphic design training, practically ever. (Actually, I just took one over in our awesome center for teaching and learning!) The too-much-text thing is a pet peeve of mine too. But ecologists — and probably most other scientists — make god-awful presentations as well. The 2-hour graphic design workshop I just took was amazing — it helped me turn a run-of-the-mill presentation into something really pretty. And it already was low on text. Think of it: just two hours! Maybe we should build such workshops in to graduate programs. It really doesn’t take that much to learn the basics. And it would probably save time in the end by eliminating all that fiddly fussing that people do with their posters. (I am *amazed* at how much time people — especially students — put into them.)

  5. I agree with this in theory, but in practice, it seems like the posters that win ‘best poster’ awards are usually pretty text-y and not particularly graphically creative, in my opinion (not that that’s the only goal of a poster, but…). A quick google image search for ‘award winning conference poster’ generally confirms this. I think we all know what a terrible poster looks like (12 pt font, pixelated figures, etc) but all I’ve learned about making a ‘good’ poster is that people have very different ideas of what constitutes a ‘good’ and ‘eye-catching’ poster, and the ones that win awards are usually pretty standard, with maybe some creative use of color. I realize posters are being judged mostly on their science and then on presentation (both in person and graphically), but I also don’t think we’re creating an environment that encourages creativity in poster-making.

    • I think the fact that text-heavy posters often win awards just indicates that award judges mostly are judging (i) the student presenting the poster (for many contests, student conversations with the judges are a big factor), and (ii) the scientific content as opposed to the presentation.

      Plus, if almost all posters are text-heavy, it’s surely going to be mostly text-heavy posters that win awards. That just shows that the best text-heavy posters are the best of a bad bunch.

      I wouldn’t say that changing things requires rewarding presentation over content. Because I don’t think that “desire to win an award” has any effect on how people design their posters.

      • Designing a winning poster to me should be the same as designing a good poster, but I agree with Kyla @bristleweed that the winning posters often seem really text-heavy and visually un-creative… it sends mixed messages to students (who often present with posters). I think there should be more emphasis on the ability to communicate the ideas visually, at least that should be 50-50 with the content. No one would give a presentation award to someone who mumbled their way through a terrible oral presentation, even if it was a really great study.

      • “No one would give a presentation award to someone who mumbled their way through a terrible oral presentation, even if it was a really great study.”

        They would if everyone mumbled their way through their presentations. Again, if every poster is text-heavy and looks the same as every other poster, then award winning posters are going to be text-heavy and look the same as every other poster, no matter how much or how little weight is given to presentation. Awards are given for “relative fitness”, not “absolute fitness”.

        I say this as someone who’s sat on the ESA’s Buell & Braun award committee in the past, and who still judges student talks and posters every year for the ESA Theory section. Awards for good talks tend to go to well-delivered talks not because the judging rubric for talks weights presentation quality more heavily than does the judging rubric for posters (it doesn’t), but because most candidate talks are well-delivered while most candidate posters are text-heavy.

    • Kinda agree here…
      Just came back from a conference and poster awards. Went for a full eye-catching background, very few clear results and conclusions. Kinda in the spirit of this poster here ( ), which I find absolutely gorgeous!!!
      Almost no text paragraph longer than a few words and previously tested in my lab (for logical flow). If you would see my poster from 20m away it still looks very appealing and draws the reader in.
      I presented my poster well (got good feedback), but also lots of critique for not having more introduction, methods, results text,…
      Obviously I designed the poster to promote me and my research, but it feels a bit strange sometimes when very un-inspirational white-background text-box posters are in the top-3 of all voted posters (over a 100). Judges seem to be very conservative at those bigger conferences and prefer posters that are reflect clear standard designs.
      Personally I think for the next conference I will do less experiments (standard-box-figure layout) or try to get a talk instead…

  6. “After all, it’s not as if anyone’s going to cite your poster.”
    This is actually fairly field-dependent. For example, in most branches of computer science conferences are the premiere publication venues, and every poster represents a full paper which will be published in the conference proceedings. This means that you very much do want people citing your poster/paper, and this creates a slightly different dynamic. You of course do not want just a wall of text, but it can be very useful to have sufficient technical detail that your poster can stand on its own.

    • Sure. Although even in computer science, it’s not really the poster people are citing, is it? Rather, they’re citing the conference proceedings. Once you’ve jumped the high hurdle of getting your paper accepted to the conference, so that it will be published in the proceedings, is the quality of your poster likely to have much effect on how often the corresponding paper is cited?

  7. Via @kirstyjean, here’s an example of how little text your poster can have (substantially less than even I suggested in the post):

    I don’t know that this sort of poster would work for every study–you need a single clear-cut, easy-to-interpret result, I think. But if you have a single clean result, this kind of thing really works. Especially for (i) drawing people in with eye-catching and unconventional visuals, so that they’ll come talk to you, and (ii) helping people remember the take-home message, since that’s the only thing on the poster.

    • If you have so little text on a poster, you should really carefully consider the figures at your poster.
      Of course, the figures are always important, but with little text the figure is the only thing to prove that your work and the conclusion is credible. Further, it should be simple and easy to understand, I personally think a figure at a poster should not take more than ~5-10 sec. to fully understand (at least in most cases). To complex figures, in my opinion, are similar to too much text. As you wrote “clear labeling conveying the big take-home message of each figure”.

      @(i) I would add “appealing”. Eye-catching and unconventional may not be enough to make people come and talk to you. E.g. 4 different fonts in the title might be eye-catching, but does not really make the poster more interesting to me (more the opposite as it is hard to read). This is of course a matter of taste and a highly complex topic, but it would be interesting if there are some general guidelines for a general appealing visual presentation in advertisement or graphic design.

  8. I’ve also had people ask me for a copy of the poster though, either via PDF or a print-out, so the text is pretty important for those people. So basically my poster lives two lives: one with me, and one without me.

    • I’ve never seen anyone do it, but I wonder if one solution is a version of what Stephen Heard suggested above: two versions of the poster. The poster itself is text-light. But the 8.5×11 printout is of a different poster, with more text. More work for you to produce, of course.

      I’m perhaps the wrong person to give advice on this, though, since I never want a paper copy of anyone’s poster myself.

  9. I think part of the answer is that posters are pieces of art and maybe some scientists are not good artists. I can hardly make a stick figure look like… well, a stick figure and have very little concept of what makes a good art piece good. I think it can be quite hard as a student (because that is what I am now) going from spending much of your time writing a thesis (left side of brain) to switching on your arty side (right side of brain). Maybe this could be why text is seen so often in posters. It’s more natural for some scientists to just write out their thoughts instead of finding clever ways to visually display it. That being said, I don’t think it is a good excuse for too much text, I think we (I!) just need to be better at corresponding with those gifted with artistic tendencies.

  10. I would think another fairly strong, contributing factor would be who (primarily) made the poster. When I walk around a poster session, I see a lot of wide-eyed students who look, act, and talk as though it’s their first or second meeting. I definitely remember being that student, and when I was making my (first, second, third…) poster, I looked to my fellow graduate students and the internet for design and content advice. It quickly turns into a “blind leading the blind” kind of situation, and googling “ecology poster template” didn’t really reduce the number of words I thought was okay to use. I was told “not too many words” but no one ever specified what that meant, and it often was not part of the poster submission guidelines or judging rubric for the conference (especially smaller conferences). I think, perhaps, the “too many words” phenomena with posters and presentations is often a product of inexperience.

    On a somewhat unrelated note – I also think the “too many words” phenomena is a completely different issue for those who do not speak English as a first language.

  11. I’ve always put a ton of effort into making posters visually appealing, and I can attest that it (literally) pays off — in grad school, I won 2 poster competitions at national meetings, and I know the graphic design aspects had a lot to do with that. My advice is to use as few words as possible (as this post says!), a lot of good-quality pictures, and to stick with 2-3 colors. Use a site like or to find a good color scheme — it’ll give the poster a cohesive feel. (If you’re as neurotic as I am, you can even match the colors of bar or line graphs to the colors of the poster.) Also, don’t look to other posters for inspiration. Instead, look at magazines — find a layout that catches your eye, and incorporate one (or more) of its design elements into your poster.

  12. So one of my favorite posters (and most daring) was one where the presenter just put up a whiteboard with a pen and eraser, and walked people through his work. It worked great! I tried a version of this where I just printed out free-floating graphical elements (like graphs, images) and literally no text at all, then just filled in the blanks on the poster with a marker while leading people through it. I think it went fairly well, probably could be even better with a bit more practice. The shock value alone is enough to make it somewhat memorable!

    • Your poster is just a whiteboard–that’s awesome! I guess I’d say that, if you think something radical like this is a good idea, well, it probably IS a good idea for you. (Anyone who found it a horrifying idea would probably have trouble pulling it off).

      Re: the daringness of this, yes, there’s a sense in which it’s daring–maybe “unconventional” is a better word. But I’m not sure it’s daring in the sense of “doing something with a big downside risk”. I mean, what’s the worst case scenario, really? That nobody comes by your weird blank poster, or that you struggle to walk them through your work, I guess. Which in the grand scheme of things isn’t that bad. It would be no fun for the duration of the poster session, but it’s not as if it would do any lasting damage to your career.

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