How to make a successful (and attractive) research poster? Tips and tricks:

Bouwman  by Tamara Bouwman / Reading Time: 5 Minutes /

As a PhD you probably have made a research poster at some point, or you are going to make one in the future. You fly half way across the globe to present your poster at a large conference. And there you are, along with 300(!) other posters. So how do you make your poster stand out? What are good ways to make your poster attractive enough to make people stop and actually read your poster?

In this blog I will give you some tips and tricks to make your poster more attractive and what you can do to stand out in the crowd.

In March the Graduate Platform hosted a poster workshop, followed by the First VU University Amsterdam, Faculty of Social Sciences PhD Poster Market mid-April. On mid-March about 20 PhD-candidates from within (but also a few from other faculties) gathered in the Graduate Room for a workshop ‘Successful poster design’. The focus of the workshop was to learn how to make a research poster as attractive and interesting as possible. Louise Mennen is a very experienced trainer and provided the PhD’s with a lot of valuable information on poster design. I will sum-up some key point that you might want to take into account.

3-30-300 rule

An overall rule to keep in mind is the 3-30-300 rule. Assume you have:

o   3 seconds to attract attention and grasp the topic of the poster: This means the title of your poster should attract attention (you might want to formulate it as a question?)

o   30 seconds to keep the attention and to get your overall message across: Your key message, or take-home message, should be clear right away. Don’t stick to the regular paper structure of introduction, methods, results, conclusion/ discussion (which is usually your key message and in the end). Put the information that is most important on top of your poster, right below the title (maybe even in a different colored box).

o   300 seconds to read the entire poster

In order to keep up with the 3-30-300 rule your poster needs to be well-designed. The following, more concrete tips will help you with that.

Visualize your research

Visuals stand out in a poster – they attract the attention of the audience. It is important to think about which elements to visualize in your research. For example, for my own dissertation I developed and tested an online friendship program for people aged 50 and over. The online program has its own website (you can check out the website here). I decided to shape my poster as the actual website of the online friendship program The poster attracted attention because of the website lay-out – that the research had something to do with a website became clear right away, mainly because of the taskbar at the top of the poster. Keep in mind though that the visuals should support your message. So when you are selecting images or visual representations ask yourself; do these visuals have anything to do with the information next to it? And do they support the message, (and not contradict!) your message?

Also, try to add something to your poster that stands out from the rest. In my case, that was a QR-code (a barcode you can scan with your smartphone) which linked to an animated video with an example from the friendship program.

Font size and whitespace

Mind the font size you are using, try not to use anything below 24 points (if you have to you can use 18 for references etc.). Also, avoid using different font sizes, try not to use more than two in the main sections of your poster. If your font size varies it makes the poster look messy and makes it harder to read. Don’t use italics, if you want to emphasize something make it bold.

Something that even I did not manage to do is keep about 40% of your poster ‘white’ (i.e., without text). Your font size and whitespace should be used in such a way that you can read the entire poster in 300 seconds (remember the rule) and from about 1 meter distance. A nice way to check the layout of the entire poster is to print it on an A4-sized paper and check if you can read everything without trouble. If it is easy to read (font size) and nice to look at, you are heading in the right direction.

Names and a picture

Remember, it is your poster – so your name should be most prominent on it. If you like, you can choose to put your name on top (below the title) and the names of your supervisors at the bottom. Another nice way to draw attention to your poster (and yourself) is to put a photo of yourself on your poster. That way people know whose poster it is, even when you are not standing next to it.

Tamara Bouwman at the PhD Poster Market


Just a brief tip about the use of colors on your poster. All black and white will be boring, so of course you want to use nice colors in your poster. Do keep in mind, however, that too many colors can be confusing. The general rule to keep in mind here (and with the rest of your poster) is to keep it simple. Try not to use to many colors. Also make sure that if you use a colored background the color of the font has enough contrast. Check out the earlier blog by Robert Paauwe for some great tips.


Hopefully these tips are useful for you when you need to present a poster at a conference. They sure helped the PhDs who presented at the poster market and made it very hard for the jury to decide which poster should get the FSS PhD Poster Award. The jury, consisting of five members of the FSS who recently finished their PhD, had the difficult task to decide which of the 21 (!) posters that were presented at the poster market would win the award. I must admit, the tips and tricks I described in this blog worked for me, because my poster won the award at the FSS PhD Poster Market!


Tamara Bouwman MSc is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Sociology. Her research project is about developing and testing a multifaceted, web-based, friendship program for adults aged 50 years.

The aesthetics of science — How to visualize your research

Robert Paauwe  by Robert Paauwe / Reading Time: 5 Minutes /

In 2012, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) announced a major discovery related to the Higgs boson (an elementary particle). Unfortunately, most of their presentation looked like this:

©CERN 2012

Although the findings were a major discovery in particle physics, there was a particular hype in the media regarding the visual appeal of the presentation. The purpose of presenting your work (poster, presentation, blogs, video, etc.) is to communicate. In the case of CERN, the combination of bad typography, poor choice of colors, and the amount of information presented resulted in the aesthetic appeal of your average high school science project. Even if the audience is used to complex graphs and dense information, overloading them with information still harms your story. In this blog I will present some easy, initial steps how to make your research more appealing and communicative without turning into a full-time graphic designer.

Originally, ‘less is more’ was introduced as a minimalist design principle by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. It refers to the principle that by using less means to achieve a certain effect will lead to a more appealing result. This is applicable not only for design and architecture, but also for conveying information. A great example of this is the data-ink ratio, as proposed by Edward Tufte. The data-ink ratio is the proportion of ink in a graphic devoted to the display of information that is essential. Hypothetically, the data-ink ratio can be calculated by dividing the amount of ink used to display data by the amount of total ink in used in the graphic. This may sound very abstract, but the visualization below based on Tufte’s work should make it clear. Both graphs convey the same amount of information, however the right graph uses less ink to display this information.


The question you should ask yourself when making a presentation is: is what I am doing contributing to the message I am conveying, or am I trying to be fancy? It is better to stick to plain and clear, than (try) to be fancy and miss the point. Adding more things for the sake of adding more things does not help your message, or worse adding things because it was the easiest way to do it (did you copy your tables directly from SPSS?).

Which font you use can make the difference in how your work is is perceived. There is not a universally ‘best’ font. It all depends on where and how you apply it (FontFeed is a great resource for information on typography). Selecting a font should be a conscious decision. Some fonts are great for titles, but terrible for entire texts (e.g., Arial Black, Akzidenz Grotesk). Other fonts are amazing for the entirety of the text, but not very eye-catching as titles (e.g., Times New Roman, Adobe Caslon). Some examples:


But most importantly, if you use a custom font, remember to export your presentation to PDF! The machine you will presenting on will not have that font, and your presentation will look horribly mutilated. By exporting it to PDF, you will ensure your presentation looks the way you intended.

The colors you use have a huge impact on if and how your message is received. We all remember that one presentation that burned our eyes whilst squinting to read the slides. A good rule of thumb for color is to have enough contrast between background and type, and do not use complementary colors (colors that are opposite in the color wheel; red-green, yellow-violet, blue-orange, etc.). Some examples:


A great tool to help you find good color schemes is Adobe Kuler, a tool that helps you generate color schemes based on certain principles. More interestingly, they also maintain a huge database of amazing color schemes for you to use, created by their community. To illustrate this, below are some examples that work well based on popular color schemes on Kuler.


Since Google, it has become amazingly easy to find high resolution images with zero effort. However, at conferences, in papers, and on blogs, I still encounter grainy and stretched low resolution images. When searching for images, simply use:

Google Images > Search Tools > Size > Large or greater.

There are no excuses for not doing this.

Most likely, your university emphasizes that you should use their predesigned templates. Also, it is very easy for you because you do not have to think about your design. However, it makes your presentation uniform and look like all the other presentations. Do not use these templates. All APA articles look the same. All university presentations look alike. Make your own templates.

Of course, these few thoughts are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to making your research compelling and visually appealing. The best way to check if people understand your data, is by asking non-scientists and people outside of your field of expertise to look at your presentation, poster graphs, or tables. If they get the idea (without you explaining every detail), you are in the right direction. Furthermore, if you are interested in novel ways of visualizing data, take a look at Information is Beautiful. They have a large variation of infographics and several ways of making your data more communicative.

To conclude; do nice aesthetics make bad presentations good? No. Neither do poor graphics completely ruin a presentation (regardless of what designers will tell you). However, by being more considerate of the visuals and style you use, you can empower your story, be more communicative, and ensure your message comes across. Will CERN’s next presentation look appealing? I do not know. Will yours? I hope so.