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Posters with a Powerful Point: A practical guide to designing academic posters

Preparation

Informative posters are a popular way to share information and research work at conferences and exhibitions, and PowerPoint is a simple but effective tool for designing them.

All good posters begin with an empty page. But how big a page? Then it's time to think about what goes on that page: we consider the layout, choice of colour, and what's going on in the background.

Size and orientation

So you've decided to make an academic poster using PowerPoint...

Before you do anything else, you should:

  • Start a new 'blank' presentation
  • Decide on the paper size
  • Decide on the orientation — portrait or landscape
  • Configure these in PowerPoint

A-series paper sizes

When preparing an academic poster, you will usually be working to one of the standard 'A-series' paper sizes — often A1 or A0. All A-series sizes have the same aspect ratio (the relative sizes of width and height) and each is half the size of the last. This table gives the dimensions of sizes from A0 to A4:

SizeDimensions (cm)
A0118.9 x 84.1
A184.1 x 59.4
A259.4 x 42.0
A342.0 x 29.7
A429.7 x 21.0

A1 is the size of flipchart paper (eight times the size of a sheet of A4), and A0 is double that. If you're working to a brief, it may specify the paper size and possibly even the orientation. Otherwise, the choice will be yours. Deciding which way up your sheet goes can often be the hardest thing, so it's a good idea to draft some ideas out on paper first before committing to PowerPoint.

PowerPointConfiguring size and orientation

These are set from the Slide Size dialogue:
Design > Customize > Slide Size > Custom Slide Size... (Called Page Setup on a Mac and also accessible from File > Page Setup...)

Slide Size dialogue

Use the Custom size option, set the Orientation, and enter the Width and Height values. In this case we've gone with an A1 landscape page: a page that is wider than it is tall.

You can ignore any other options in this dialogue box and hit OK. PowerPoint will prompt you to choose a resizing option (Maximise or Ensure Fit). Since you don't yet have anything on your page you can choose either of these options — it won't matter which.

Always design at the size of the final poster — PowerPoint is not very good at changing the size of things after the fact, and enlargement will never work well.

Size and printing

Printing devices never print to the very edge of the paper, otherwise they'd get ink everywhere. It would get very messy.

Because of this, if your design includes content or background to the very edge, a few mm will be missed off and the paper will be trimmed to give a clean line (without any white edges).

In commercial design work you would extend backgrounds beyond the edge (into what's called the 'bleed' area). It would be printed on over-sized paper and then trimmed to the correct size.

When using PowerPoint, simply make sure you have sufficient margins and none of your important content is too close to the edge.

The University's Design & Print service are used to posters produced in PowerPoint, but if you're using an alternative printer (or if you need important detail right up to the edge of your poster), you will need to check requirements for size, 'bleed' area and crop marks and account for those in your page set-up.


Bleed and crop

For professional use, a PDF should be supplied with a 'bleed' area and a margin containing crop marks. These are in addition to the poster size.


Bleed is the area outside the desired printed size — typically 3mm. Any content on the edge of your page should overflow into this bleed area.

Crop marks are short lines indicating where the printed result should be trimmed to obtain the required paper size. Because of your bleed, any cropping along these lines will give a printed image to the edge of the paper with no white excess.

Let's consider an example...

An A1 poster needs a width of 84.1cm and a height of 59.4cm.

Adding 3mm of bleed to all four sides gives a width of 84.7cm and a height of 60cm.

Adding 5mm margins for the crop marks gives a width of 85.7cm and a height of 61cm.

So you would need to set your page up to 85.7 x 61.0 if it needs to be printed in this way. You could then mark out your actual poster size with guides, which is what we're going to look at next...

Laying out the page

An attractive poster will catch a passer-by's interest and draw them in for a closer look

Academic posters are generally social animals: you'll seldom see one on its own. If you're presenting a poster at a conference, for instance, there'll be other posters there too. There'll be people milling about the conference venue, laden with conference programme, coffee and biscuits, looking for people to network with. Your poster will not be at the top of their list of things to do, and even if it was, your poster has to shout louder than all the other posters to get some attention. It's a bit like advertising: there's so much advertising out there on the sides of buses and telephone boxes and street hoardings. How can you make yours stand out?

Because of these circumstances, your poster has a finite amount of time in which to be effective. You've got to capture and hold the attention of somebody passing by. They've got to think "ooh, that looks interesting; let me take a closer look!" and for that reason your poster's topic needs to be clear and understandable from a good 3 metres away. Some of that can be conveyed using attractive, relevant images; some of it will be the work of your title text.

Since your poster is going to be so effective from that distance, you also need to assume that a bit of a crowd will start gathering around your poster. For that reason, assume further that any text on your poster will need to be legible from a distance of about 1 metre. But how can you make that text attractive, and how can you make it easy to follow from such a distance?

Do a bit of research before you start your design: look at other posters in your subject area to see what the competition is up to. You'll probably want to adopt some of the conventions you observe, but also think about ways in which you can make your design stand out from the crowd.

Designers frequently work with a layout grid to ensure boxes of text and images achieve consistent positioning. If your poster has a regular design, use this approach.

Posters can also be based on other shapes, or you can, of course, go for a 'free-form' design - though unless you have a very good eye for these things, it can look a mess! 

The main thing is that for most of us it's a good idea to have some sort of guides to work with.

Column structure

One of the most common layouts for an academic poster is to use a structure based around columns. These columns needn't be of uniform width, and the content of the poster does not have to adhere to the columns rigidly. Consider these two posters, for example:

A poster based on uneven column widths

Landscape poster in three columns, the first narrower than the other two. The title crosses all three columns, and a box at the bottom left crosses the first two columns. Lorgut (2014) CC SSA 4.0

A poster based on equal column widths

Landscape poster with three uniform-width columns. The title crosses all three columns, and a box at the bottom left crosses the first two. Yutaro Takase, University of York

With a column-based layout you should try to plan content so it spans whole numbers of columns, like the two-column boxes in the three-column examples above. Again, it's worth drawing it out on paper first.

When planning, bear in mind the order you want viewers to read your content. Those used to left-to-right text will normally start at the top left and read down the first column before moving on to the next column.

Western convention from newspapers and magazines is to read down columns from left to right.

PowerPointConfiguring layout and guides

Three things to do before you add guides in PowerPoint:

  1. Make sure the ruler is visible (View > Show > Ruler)
  2. Switch to a blank slide layout (you won't be needing any of the PowerPoint place-holders for content)
  3. If you're using a column-based layout, decide how many you want and do the arithmetic to calculate their widths and the gaps between them.

Adding and positioning guides

PowerPoint can show a grid of dots covering the whole page, but you may find this too distracting. A better alternative is to turn on the guides and add your own extra ones. This gives you vertical and horizontal dotted lines that you can position wherever you like.

  1. Turn on the Guides (View > Show > Guides) — the default ones are centred vertically and horizontally
  2. Drag to re-position individual guides
  3. To add more guides, point to an existing guide, hold down Ctrl (Windows) or Alt (Mac) and then drag — this generates another guide.

Colour

Unless you’re dealing with a commercial printer, you don't need to think too hard about colour, but you do need to be aware of the relationship between screen colour and print colour and how this may affect the final printed poster.

There are essentially two different methods of colour mixing: one for mixing light (used on screens) and one for mixing pigments (used in printing).

They do not map exactly to each other, so colours designed on-screen will never look the same when printed — they usually look less intense and darker. You'll need to allow for this when choosing colours.

Screen versus print

Screen colour

When red and green light combines it creates yellow; when green and blue combine they give cyan; when blue and red combine, magenta. The combination of all three gives white.

Screens use three primary light colours (red, green and blue) to generate all colours. With all at 100% you get white, and with all at 0% you get black (or the closest your screen can get). This is additive colour mixing, and relies on the fact that most people’s eyes have red, green and blue colour sensors (the ‘cones’). You’ll see this referred to as RGB colour (Red, Green, Blue).


Print colour

We may remember from school the basic principle that combining cyan and yellow pigments gives green. The combination of cyan and magenta pigment gives blue. Yellow and magenta gives red. All of them together gives black.

Printing uses subtractive colour mixing with cyan, magenta and yellow. The pigments absorb light, so the more you use the darker things get. In theory, mixing all three should give black, but most printers also use a pure black pigment, so you’ll see this referred to as CMYK colour (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Key (blacK)).

Commercial designers use applications that work with a CMYK colour palette, and calibrate monitors to get as close as possible to the final printed colours. PowerPoint only works in RGB, so this will be 'mapped' appropriately at the printing stage.

The University Design & Print service are used to posters produced in PowerPoint. If you decide to use an alternative printer, you will need to check the formats required. They may, for example, need all content (including images) in CMYK. One option may be to export your poster as a TIFF image and then import that into a CMYK-compatible program like CorelDRAW.

Choosing colours

The temptation is to make it up as you go along, but designers will usually choose a colour scheme at the start and stick to it.

There's a lot on the web about combining colours, and in most you'll see a colour wheel, showing the gradation of colours round the spectrum.

Some simple advice is to opt for one of these:

  • Choose two colours that are opposite each other (complementary colours)
  • Choose one colour and use its various intensities
  • Choose one colour and use shades very close to it either side
Blue and yellow are opposite each other on the colour wheel, as are cyan and red

You could also use an online tool to pick a colour and see what goes with it. Rapid Tables have a useful colour wheel chart that suggests matches, while ShapeFactory have a pigment palette that can offer some inspiration if you're struggling.

Contrast

When choosing colours, you need to make sure there is enough contrast between text and any background colours:

Text with good contrast

Text with very poor contrast

Colour vision

Also avoid any combinations that are known to cause problems for those with colour vision deficiency (CVD, commonly called 'colour-blindness'). The most common forms of CVD make it difficult to distinguish between red and green, so (aside from how buzzy it is) you should never use this combination:

Not a good choice!

Another poor choice!

PowerPointConfiguring colours

It's a good idea to set a colour palette in PowerPoint before you start. There's a selection of palettes at Design >Variants under the toggle in the bottom right-hand corner, where you can also create a custom palette via the Customize Colors... option.

Regardless of the palette you choose, whenever you are choosing a colour in PowerPoint, be it for text or graphics, you have the option of defining very precise colours using the "Colors" dialogue. This can usually be found via the menu option More [type] Colors... — for instance "More FIll Colors..." in the "Shape Fill" menu.


As well as the colour-picker gradient, you can also define very precise RGB colours by using numbers between 0 and 255 for each component (Red, Green, and Blue). In this scheme, true red would be 255, 0, 0, white would be 255, 255, 255, and black would be 0, 0, 0.

The numbers 0-255 can also be expressed as hexadecimal values from 00 to FF. RGB triplets of these numbers are denoted by a "#" at the start. So red in this system would be #FF0000, white would be #FFFFFF, and black would be #000000. It's often a bit easier to copy and paste these values, and the latest versions of PowerPoint let you use hex as well as the 0-255 RGB values.

The "Colors" dialogue also allows you to set the transparency of a colour.

Another useful colour-selection tool in PowerPoint is the Eyedropper. Again, this can be found on any colour-selection menu. It will let you select a colour from any object already in your slide, including images. This particularly useful if you need to get an exact match for another colour on your page.

Backgrounds

There’s nothing wrong with designing on a plain white background, but if you intend to use colour or an image behind your content, you must make sure it doesn't make it more difficult to read.

The main options for background are:

Solid colour

Graduated colour

Graduated colours

Image(s)


A background itself need not govern readability. Text can be presented in boxes with a different background style. Here's some examples of options for backgrounds and text:


Allowing the background or image to show through a text box risks making it more difficult to read. Both dark and light backgrounds could have text in a container with a light or white fill, aiding readability. However, a little transparency can sometimes work well for tying together the elements of your poster.

Using a background image at full intensity can work, but if the content also appears in lots of small chunks, it can make a poster appear messy. You might find it useful to reduce the opacity of a background image (or give it a colour-wash) to stop it dominating the composition.

PowerPointConfiguring backgrounds

You can make changes to the background by going to Design > Customize > Format Background or by right-click selecting the slide background and selecting Format Background... — the "Format Background" side-panel will open.


The colour for a gradient stop is set using the 'Color' option

Solid and graduated fills

Solid fill is simply a matter of picking the colour, but you can lighten it further by setting transparency.

For gradient fill, you have the option of setting:

  • the colour of each position on the gradient stops — you can also add and remove stops (for a simple gradient just use one at each end)
  • type, direction, angle and transparency.

Images

The "Picture or texture fill" option allows you to "Insert..." an image from the file explorer, while "Clipboard" will use an image that's been copied to the clipboard.

The image can be made more transparent, and can be repositioned and scaled. The icons at the top of the side panel lead to further settings for applying artistic effects and colour correction, which can be useful for making a background less dominant:


Unless you're applying any artistic effects to your background image, you'll need to use an image with a high resolution. That's something we'll look at in more detail in the next section...

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