So here’s the thing, posters are meant to visually showcase your work. So it boggles my mind how often I see people just paste  blocks of text onto a big sheet of paper and hope for the best. Why not just write an actual paper? This scenario became amusingly apparent at the last Postsecondary Teaching and Learning Conference, which is largely attended by locals. Many of the posters even used the same university-provided template. It actually made it difficult to remember which poster was which because they all looked the same. Meanwhile, the ones that didn’t use template really stood out (and won best poster). The same thing happened at the recent International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (ISSOTL) conference–different branding, but lots of similar formats (one of the exceptions). This is further perpetuated by (well intentioned) workshops that give a checklist of things to include in a poster and then provide a template where you just fill in the boxes. For the busy academic (aka all academics), why not use a template? I mean it’s easy, it’s proportioned properly, it includes the officially sanctioned logo and colours, and it has all the boxes ready to go.


I’ll give you two reasons:

  1. Your poster will draw more attention, which is kind of the point, right?
  2. It will make you a better researcher by forcing you to rethink how to share your ideas concisely, efficiently, and through a visual medium.
    • Creating visuals for my master’s thesis was challenging, but it was invaluable in helping me solidify my ideas and make connections between complex elements.
  3. Bonus: You can use the visuals in a paper or in presentation slides later on.

With that in mind, here’s some ideas to help break the mould:

  1. Slowly put your hands in the air and step away from the template. Far, far, away!
  2. Start with graphics, not words.
    • Sketch a (few) graphic/diagram(s) that will be the focal point of the poster.
    • THEN think about a small number of supporting words you might include.

      Poster Design

      Initial Design Sketch

  3. Don’t worry about the list of things you’re supposed to include (title, abstract, background, findings…. etc).
    • HAVE FUN and sketch out ways to share the great work that you’ve done. If it’s worth sharing, you’ll include it anyway. You can always refer back “the list” later, but don’t let it box you in from the start.
  4. Don’t include EVERYTHING you did in your research.
    • Showcase a snapshot that can be understood in 60 seconds or less.
    • Offer a handout or a webpage for people that want more details.
  5. If it’s too long to Tweet, it’s too long for a poster.
    • Avoid blocks of text. Instead, replace them with a graphic or a few bullet points.
    • At most, use a sentence or two at a time.
    • Remember, you’ll be there to explain the details if needed.
  6. Use meaningful AND approachable headings that someone outside your discipline could understand.
    • BAD: Translinguistic discourse analysis of learning using the lens of heteroglossia–> full of jargon and can be a turnoff if people can’t immediately figure it out.
    • Better: How do you pronounce tomato? Students’ use of different words and perspectives to enhance learning.
  7. Tell a story. Show a narrative of what you did, how you did it, and what you found out.
  8. Tailor the design to support the story.
    • If you can reuse your design for completely different topics, it’s probably too generic. Make it specific.
  9. Bug Kindly ask your artistic friend for ideas on composition and colours. Return the favour, so they don’t become your former friend.
  10. Make it 3D and interactive.
    1. Someone recently told me about a great poster that used sheets dyed with tea to give a more authentic look
    2. Another poster used flaps to quiz people, where the answer was under the flap.

I’m currently working on a poster, and from the initial design sketch (above) I made a quick mock-up using PowerPoint. Notice, I haven’t yet bothered with things like, title, literature, or references. I started with the most important elements I wanted to present: the framework, the cases, and some benefits and results. The lines between screenshots were intentionally added to emphasis the connections between the individual elements, which is a key part of the framework.

Mock-up

Mock-up

Here’s what we ended up with:

Learning in Everyday Contexts as Seen Through Mediated Action

Learning in Everyday Contexts as Seen Through Mediated Action (click for gigantor-size)

I don’t claim this to be a perfect poster (if there is such a thing), but I think it turned out alright and it’s definitely unique. Bonus points for anyone that can guess the location of the background (hint – its in Calgary).

For some more thoughts on poster design, check out:

What are some other ideas for poster design?