Software to create a scientific poster for a conference

Scientific posters

When starting your Ph.D., you will sooner or later go to a scientific conference to hear what others are doing, present your work and get to know the scientific community of your field. The slots for talks are usually rare at conferences, but you can always submit a scientific poster for the poster session.

To get inspiration for the layout of your poster, you can have a look at a few of the thousands of posters available at F1000 posters or similar web sites. But the question that remained for me was: which software should I use to make my poster? My short answer: use OpenOffice Impress or something similar. If you want to know why, read on.


We are running Linux at the institute, but I also have Windows at home, and I often work at home. Therefore, for me it was important that the software I would use is:

  • easy to use / very little time required to learn
  • cross-platform, or at least available for Linux and Windows
  • free (preferably free as in free speech), or at least very inexpensive

One should also keep in mind that posters are printed quite large, on paper sizes which are rather uncommon in science (Often DIN A0 in Germany). This means you cannot print them yourself, but you may have to give them to the printing center of your university or institute to get them printed. They usually require you to submit PDF files. So our list gets longer, the software should also:

  • be able to export to PDF format
  • support large, preferably arbitrary, paper sizes
  • be vector-based (instead of using pixel-based images), so no pixels are visible when scaling things up or printing on very large paper

Software to create posters — some candidates…

In the beginning, I thought publishing software (like Scribus, Adobe InDesign or MS Publisher) or vector-based image manipulation software (like Inkscape, Corel Draw, or Adobe Illustrator) would be best for the task. Some weirdos at my institute, which is a computer science institute, even suggested I should use LaTeX (ugg!). But looking at the list of important properties above, they all fail. They all take too long to get used to for the busy people in science, because they are no standard software scientists use on a daily basis. (Some are also expensive, only available for Windows, or just suck).

… and my suggestion

The answer was much simpler: use a presentation application like MS PowerPoint or OpenOffice/LibreOffice Impress!

poster_impressA poster designed in the free Impress application.

This has several advantages: these applications are installed anyway, and people already know how to use them! They also support vector drawing and PDF export. Impress is also multi-platform and free, yay!

Some practical hints and design suggestions:

  • Most important: Do not put too much information on your poster! There will be many posters, and people have little time to check your poster (a few seconds before they decide whether to read more or move on, maybe a few minutes if they decide to stay and read more). Too much will scare them away! Do not copy your paper which was not accepted to the poster!
  • Have a strong title and a very short abstract that allows people to quickly determine whether they should read more. Spend time on making the abstract sound good and interesting!
  • Make a template to re-use it at the next conference! Or ask other people at your group whether such a template already exists.
  • Print the poster on normal paper (like DIN A4 / US letter) early during design to test font sizes etc. If you find it hard to read in this size, it has too much content! (Yes, a poster is larger, but people also read it from farther away! Also see the first point above about people’s time.)
  • All the usual slide stuff also applies to posters: do not use too many different fonts, font sizes, colors, etc.
  • Leave some white space on your poster, crowded posters are ugly.
  • If possible, have something like the summary slide of a talk at the bottom of your poster. Use 3 to 5 catchwords in a large font size to show the reader the important take home message. For those catchwords, assume he did not read the poster (except for the title, and maybe the beginning of the abstract).

Technical hints:

  • Set the paper size of the document to A0 (or whatever you need) first, before doing anything else
  • Be careful with importing bitmap images, ensure their resolution is high enough. The Impress draw tools are safe (they are vector-based), use them to create text boxes and the general design of your poster.
  • Avoid (or be careful with) transparency in OpenOffice Impress, weird stuff can happen when exporting to PDF!
  • If lines drawn in Impress do not show up in the exported PDF, their line thickness may be set to zero in Impress.
  • Print a test version (A4 in black and white is OK) before submitting it to the printing center. Some errors are harder to see on a screen than on paper.

About dfspspirit

PhD student in bioinformatics, interested in photography, level design, digital image manipulation, architecture and, of course, bioinformatics.
This entry was posted in Bioinformatics, Science and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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