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

Text

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.

The text content of an academic poster will generally be very important, so you need to make sure it is easily readable, and helps viewers follow the flow of ideas.

In this section we'll take a look at some basic principles of text layout for posters, and then we'll look at the process of adding and configuring text in PowerPoint.

Some basic principles

Readability can be improved by reflecting on some essential principles of text design. You'll find a lot about this on the web, but here are a few pointers.

The three-levels model

The three-levels model is a structural principle based around three levels of text: title(s), sub-headings and body content. If you design three distinctive appearances for these, it helps the reader find their way around the content.

At the very least, these should use different sizes, but it's worth giving consideration to colour and font choice too. For example:


This is a section title

This is a sub-heading

This is some body-text. Most of the writing on your poster will be body-text, naturally. But that text can be broken up into sections (e.g. thematic boxes) and then further sub-divided into sub-sections. This is a fairly basic example but it gives an idea.

This is another sub-heading

And this is some more body-text. All three levels of text in this example are using the same font, but with different weights, different colours, and different sizes.

How much text?

It may be that your brief specifies a minimum wordcount, but otherwise, how much text should you be writing?

A poster is not an essay. It's one of those situations where 'less is more'. Let visuals speak for themselves, and keep your written content as efficient as possible. Use shorter paragraphs than you would normally, and make good use of summary methods like bullet points.

As a rule of thumb, 300-500 words might be typical. Plus references. But practice varies from discipline to discipline. As ever, try to find some peer examples for inspiration.

Think about other forms of poster too, like street advertising. How do they convey a message? What text is being used? It's an extreme example, but sometimes there are opportunities to even forgo text altogether and let visuals do the talking...

For instance, here's a process being outlined... a methodology of sorts...

A kettle steams; a tea-pot radiates heat; a brown-red liquid is poured from the teapot into a cup.

Think of your poster text more as an extended, illustrated abstract summary... like the abstract you get with a journal article, only with the added advantage of illustrations. There won't be room for everything but there doesn't need to be. Let your visuals do as much work for you as possible, and concentrate on the "must know" elements for the text.

You might find it helpful to draft out the text for your poster in advance. Look at ways you can structure it and break it up into sections on your poster. It might help you to formulate your layout and your design as a whole.

Text characteristics


Font choice

If you 'Google' about readability of fonts, you'll find all sorts of opinions, and even quite a bit of research. You can ignore most of this if you remember:

  • Upper case ('capitals') does not make things easier to read — in fact it multiple lines of upper case text are much more difficult to read. Avoid fonts that have no lower case.
  • UPPER CASE IS NOT EASIER TO READ

  • There are many 'fancy' or 'artistic' fonts around — these are extremely difficult to read, and are likely to encourage anyone reading your poster to give up!
  • 'Fancy' or 'artistic' fonts can be tiring to read —
    ESPECIALLY IF YOU WRITE THEM IN UPPER CASE!

The best way to judge the readability of your poster is to ask someone else to read it.

In terms of font selection, University-managed computers have a broad range of fonts. If you're on your own computer and want a better variety of fonts, there are a number of free fonts available online. We got the fancy font above ("Arizona") from Google Fonts, and there's also Font Squirrel. As always, use caution if downloading fonts from unfamiliar sites.


Font size

As any optician's chart will demonstrate, size of font is important. Your poster needs to be readable from at least a metre away.

Font size in PowerPoint is in 'points' – a sizing convention which is consistent across different paper sizes: 14pt on a sheet of A4 paper is the same as 14pt on a sheet of A1, which means you can always print off a handy font-size chart in Word and use it as a guide. However, different fonts have different interpretations of points: one font at 14pt may be a different size to another.

On a poster you will need to use higher point sizes than you would for writing a hand-held document, simply because of the viewing distance. As a simple rule, look to double the font size you might use for a hand-held document. The advice typically given is to use:

>72pt for titles,

>50pt for other headings,

and >30pt for the main body text.

However, this very much depends on which font you choose, and even on the nature of the text you're writing (you might go as low as 18pt in some "smallprint" cases, though probably not much smaller). Size isn't everything, and there are other factors that can affect readability.


Line length

Academic posters have writing on them. And that writing is there to be read. One reason why a column layout is so often used is because it reduces the line lengths, making it less likely that you will accidentally skip a line or lose your place.

...is harder to scan than...


It's why newspapers and magazines used columns in the first place.


Character spacing

Introducing a bit of extra space into text, particularly headings, can make them more noticeable. It doesn't usually help for whole paragraphs of text, though.

'normal' spacing

expanded by 3pt


Paragraph alignment

Full justification, where word spacing is adjusted so both the left and right edges are straight, may look 'neat', but it is not considered good for reading at a distance.

Centrally aligned text is fine for headings or captions, but again it's a mess to read in any amount.

Right-aligned text has its occasional uses if you're wrapping around an image, but it's another one you wouldn't want to inflict on a reader for very long.

Use left-alignment for all significant blocks of text (unless you're writing in a script that reads right to left).


Line spacing

Squashing lines together is a sure way to make them difficult to read. A dense jumble of letters is just going to put people off. Your aim is to engage people, not give them a headache. Squashed-up text like this gets buzzy very quickly.

Increase line-spacing a little to add some 'fresh air'. This is often easier on the eye even with a reduced font size. For instance, this font size is 12pt, while the previous box was 14pt.


Paragraph spacing

Use fairly short paragraphs and make sure there is a bit of extra space between them.

Since posters are printed, it won't actually hurt to space paragraphs with blank lines (possibly at a different font size), but it's bad practice (it gets messy and difficult to consistently modify), and if you're doing several paragraphs it's worthwhile setting up paragraph spacing properly.

Setting paragraph spacing is also a good habit to get into for other uses.

Adding and configuring text

PowerPointAdding text in PowerPoint

Text in PowerPoint can be entered into text boxes or shapes.


Text boxes

To insert a text box, choose Insert > Text > Text Box. However, when you adjust the width of a text box, the height is adjusted automatically to match the length of the text content. This is great for presentations, but less helpful for posters, where positioning is likely to be quite important.

What was a tidy 14:9 rectangle is now cinemascope: shorter and wider than before
Text boxes re-size to match the text length

You're therefore probably better off using shapes as your text container...


Shapes

Any shape can be used to hold text, and the size remains as set, making them much easier to use with posters. They're particularly suitable for text boxes with fill or borders, but you can also make the border and background transparent if they're not required.

You can add more text to a shape and it will stay the same size. The text may over-spill the shape if there's more than can be accommodated.
Shapes retain their size regardless of the content

Shapes can be found at Insert > Illustrations > Shapes. There's several shapes to choose from. Rectangles (with or without rounded corners) are the easiest choice to work with for a box structure, but any shape can be used. With more complicated shapes, you may find the margins restrictive, and it may sometimes be easier to overlay a transparent rectangle.

Having selected the shape you want, drag to draw it onto the page (hold shift to create a regular shape). Select the shape and you will be able to start typing into it.


WordArt

There is another form of text entry in PowerPoint... WordArt. It can do some nice things (not least being able to write in an arc), but be careful: WordArt can easily end up looking a bit... well... naff.

Blue text with a red border, arranged in a gentle arc, with a reflection effect beneath.
WordArt can easily look a little bit 1990s, so use with care...

PowerPointConfiguring text

The arrowed crosshair of a 'move' cursor selects a rectangle. The 'expansion' points around the rectangle show that it has been selected

Changing text

Highlighting a section of text will allow you to format that section, but if you want to change all the text within a text box or shape, the best thing to do is to select the entire shape. The easiest way to do that (especially if the shape has no background fill) is to click the shape's border. It's quite a narrow target to hit so it may take a few attempts before you get the knack. Your cursor will turn to the "move" crosshair pointer as you hover over the selectable area, and once selected, the "expand" and "rotate" toggles will appear on the shape. You can now start formatting.


Paragraph attributes

You can get more precise control of your paragraphs from the dialogue launcher toggle at the bottom-right-hand corner of the Home > Paragraph ribbon group (on a Mac, click on any text then go to the Format menu, then Paragraph...). Here you can configure settings such as line-spacing and paragraph-spacing:

The spacing options at the bottom of the Paragraph dialogue control the space between paragraphs and also the space between lines.

The "Multiple" option in the line-spacing settings lets you express line spacing fractionally, as a multiple of the default line space. 1 gives single line spacing; 2 gives double line spacing, etc. So in the example above, 1.2 means there's an extra 20% of space for each line.


Text attributes

You shouldn't have any problems setting the font, size etc, but for other attributes there's a dialogue launcher at the bottom-right-hand corner of the Home > Font ribbon group. In addition to providing more font control options, it also has a tab for setting up character spacing:

The 'Character Spacing' options allow for characters to be spaced by a defined number of points. Assume that a full character's worth of width corresponds to about half the font size, so 6pts of expansion for a 12pt font should stretch your text about twice as long as normal..

Align Text controls vertical alignment

Text positioning

When you first create a shape containing text, the content will be centred; there will also be a margin around the text. These attributes can easily be changed using Home > Paragraph > Align Text. The More Options section of this Align Text menu will open the Format Shape side panel where there are further settings, including margin options. We'll look at those in more detail in the next section...

PowerPointConfiguring text boxes and shapes

The text boxes and shapes used for text can be configured in various ways to help with presentation.


Shape Fill and Shape Outline

As with the background of the page itself, the background of a shape (its fill) can be a solid colour, graduated, patterned or even a photograph. You can also set its transparency level, which allows some of the background to show through, though be sure to test this thoroughly as it can sometimes give poor results when printed.

A shape's border — its outline — can be solid or patterned, and can be of different widths.


Once a shape has been drawn, its attributes can be changed from the Shape Format > Shape Styles ribbon group:

Shape Fill, Shape Outline, and Shape Effects live on the Shape Format > Shape Styles menu

When you select More Fill Colors... from the "Shape Fill" or "Shape Outline" dropdowns, you'll have the chance to set a precise colour (and transparency) using numerical values:

The Colors dialgoue includes a palette, numeric colour modeller, and transparency options

Shape Effects

A number of special effects can be applied from Shape Format > Shape Styles > Shape Effects — of these, the most commonly used with text boxes is the drop-shadow.

Employed with care, it can appear to lift the shape slightly off the page:

This box uses fill and outline but does not have a drop-shadow.

This box uses fill and outline and also has a drop-shadow.

This box has fill and a drop-shadow but doesn't bother with an outline.


  1. Select the shape first, then choose Shape Format > Shape Styles > Shape Effects > Shadow
  2. Usually the simplest Outer shadow will be suitable, but there are a few default options to choose from
  3. If you want to adjust the shadow, select Shape Format > Shape Styles > Shape Effects > Shadow > Shadow Options... — this will give a side panel for you to adjust the shadow.

Text Margins

When you first create a shape containing text, there will be a margin around the text so that it does not sit tight against the edges. All four margins can be changed independently if required.

This box has quite narrow margins. The text is right up against the sides. Sure, the box is longer than the text, so there's a bit of space to the bottom, and the text is left-aligned, so there's space to the right too, but potentially the text can go really very close to the edges.

This box has much bigger margins than the other box (four times the size). The wider margins mean there's a lot more blank space between the box border and the text itself.


Margin controls can be found on the Format Shape side panel: Format Shape > Text Options > Textbox

The controls to set these margins are a little buried:

  1. Select the shape
  2. Select Home > Paragraph > Align Text > More Options... to get to the "Text Box" settings in the "Format Shape" side-panel. You can also get to the "Format Shape" panel by right-clicking a shape and choosing Format Shape...
  3. The "Text Box" settings in the "Text Options" allow you to set the margins (along with various other features).

Textbox controls are rather straightforward for rectangular shapes. For other shapes you may find that the writing area is a little restrictive, even with margins set to zero. You may find it simpler to overlay a transparent rectangular shape to hold your text.

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