Make a poster – it may also help you write a paper


Academic posters. They are a thing. You can find academic posters at a lot of conferences. Ah, conferences. Remember when we had face to face conferences? Oh, that seems like a long time ago now – but when we had them, academic posters were often displayed in a separate conference room. Separate poster sessions may even have been timetabled – makers standing anxiously by their posters. Or the posters may have been cunningly positioned in the refreshments area to encourage conference attendees to browse.

The need to encourage viewing is a clue to the status of the poster. Even though conferences give prizes for the best posters, they are often seen as a lesser form of communication than the conference paper. There are, I am told, some disciplines which think highly of posters, but I am not in one. In my field, the academic poster is a somewhat unloved scholarly child.

However, the academic poster is, at its best, a neat and quick way to find out about research projects. The poster is shorter than a paper, can economically provide an argument and key supporting evidence, and often makes its point in a well-worded informative heading. Academic posters can do several communication tasks at once – attract viewers/readers, inform them, and persuade them of the trustworthiness and significance of the work. Posters also support networking and can help to build the researcher’s profile.

You often see academic posters displayed in university buildings. Poster displays are a great way for visitors, students and peers to find out about the research that staff and doctoral researchers are doing. It is a bit pointless though if they are not updated regularly and they start to sage, tatter and get clearly out of date! Academic centres and schools that take on the poster-as-ornamentation need to keep on top of the task.

Posters with this kind of conference after-life have both a specialist and a generalist audience. Even at conferences this may be the case. Poster information thus always needs to be assembled carefully. Making an academic poster is about clear and effective communication via a judicious choice of images, headings and texts. Posters also offer a chance to be a bit creative.

There is a load of online advice about making academic posters. Some is very specific – like this –

Characteristics of a Scientific Poster

This resource goes on to recommend fonts, font sizes, word lengths… You may not want to be so tightly prescribed.

And there are debates about academic posters – check out Mike Morrison’s video ( if you haven’t already seen it) which suggests that we might want to throw the dominant poster designs and conventions out the window and do something more daring.

Morrison’s work has provoked discussions, see here and here – and an entire twitter hashtag #betterposter of examples. If you search for posters in your discipline you may see a lot more than the usual rather dull three columns and cramped text – there’s comics and lots of free form posters about now.

But I often use academic posters as part of writing workshops. I go from writing the title using the key point to be made, to writing a structured abstract and then to making an academic poster. Making a poster forces you to think about viewers who can easily walk past your poster if it doesn’t immediately seem of interest. This awareness points you to the importance of

  • crafting a title that your viewer will find interesting and informative
  • writing a succinct warrant for the research
  • giving sufficient information about the research process to show that it meets the scholarly standards expected in your discipline
  • presenting the most important results in a form that is readily able to be understood (usually graphic as well as text)
  • making the take home message completely obvious and unavoidable
  • giving some indication of the significance of the results and their implications for further research policy practice scholarship.

Most people do find that it is helpful to work through different iterations of their argument. Rather than several drafts and many thousands of words, you work with different writing genres, each of which supports you to add to your argument, while also allowing you to develop it. Each version of the paper gets bigger, and each version also focuses on communicating to a reader/viewer. In my workshops I also add in a powerpoint display and a conference handout.

You might want to try working through different genres, including the poster, to see if you too find it a useful strategy to build up to a paper. The bonus of the iterative strategy is that at the end you have a poster you can put online, above your desk, or in your corridor. As well, you have most of the bits and pieces that you need to actually submit an abstract to a conference or a journal as well as a coherent paper outline.

If you are new to making posters and want to experiment with poster-making as an aid to writing as opposed to make the most interesting poster on the planet, there are a load of free poster templates available – try these for starters.

Or just grab a big piece of paper and a marker and free style it.