Powerful Poster Presentations: Putting on the Glitz

hatlee 5 poster.jpg

A quick look at this award winning poster created by Tim Hatlee, a graduate student in meteorology, shows the importance of using graphics, color, and visual hierarchy of text and images to draw in your viewer.


A scientific poster relies on the pictorial or visual representations to communicate. Think of them as the centerpiece of your poster–make them big and colorful. Make sure they communicate the relationships key to your discussion section quickly and easily. You want your audience to grasp large amounts of information while they are likely to be standing, and possibly walking, eating, and talking!

A common error in pictorial representations on posters is to ignore audience adaptation. The graph used in a printed report may be too detailed for a poster, so it may need revisions for a poster audience. General rules for visuals are as follows:

Keep it simple (Don’t cram!)
Design with the audience in mind
Number each figure and table independently and include informative captions
Provide the context, integrate in the text, and place appropriately
Include all necessary information, but include no excess (Visuals should be able to stand alone and be meaningful)
Put independent variables on the x-axis and dependent variables on the y-axis
Label each axis carefully and specify the units of measurement
Use consistent size, format, visual codes (captions, symbols, scale, etc.)

Your purpose should guide you when deciding between using a table or a figure (includes graphs, photographs, charts, diagrams and illustrations). When you need to provide large amounts of exact data, use a table. When you need to show patterns and trends, use figures.   Bar graphs (including frequency histograms), xy-line graphs, xy-scatter plot, and pie charts are used the most in posters.


Use color for emphasis too, but think strategically about how you use it. Arbitrarily adding color is distracting. Generally stick with three or four colors and use them consistently for the same elements. For example, if one sub-heading is in dark blue, use the same dark blue for all the additional sub-headings. Color engages your viewers, but it also allows for easier skimming because it provides predictability. Be careful of the selection of the background color too. There’s a reason we usually read dark print on white paper; it’s easier on our eyes. Use dark type on a light background. Avoid busy backgrounds that add nothing to the communication.

Visual Hierarchy

Use visual hierarchy (using size and proportion) for emphasis. For areas of major importance, provide more space. Giving the results section the entire middle column of your poster is a good example of using visual hierarchy to bring attention to this important section. One of the best ways to plan the arrangement is to tentatively sketch your layout and critique it. If it isn’t easily seen, understood, and interesting within ten feet, consider redesigning it.

White space (the absence of text or images) is important too. Densely packed posters are like parks with no benches; there’s no place to rest. Give your reader’s eyes a place to rest between segments.

Hats off to Tim Hatlee for creating a powerful poster with glitz and style! And thank you, Tim, for sharing it with us to use as an example.

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