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Designing Effective Posters: Starting the Poster Design Process

Learn how to design and publish effective posters. This guide includes sections on design elements, the poster design process, and using software to create posters.

Created by Health Science Librarians

Rainbow gradient heading saying "Starting the poster design process"

Planning Your Poster

You've put hours and hours of work into your research project and now comes the best part: being able to share your awesome work with others! A poster can be an effective means of presentation at meetings, conferences, or in a classroom setting. Posters allow you to communicate your main points in a succinct and visual manner, especially if your research is highly technical or detailed. Whether you're a new student or a tenured researcher, posters are an excellent way to display your work. It's also a chance to flex your creative skills a little and have some fun!

Here are a few things you'll want to consider when you're in the early stages of planning your poster:


Format Requirements

The first thing you'll want to consider is whether you'll be doing a digital poster or a print poster. If you're making a digital poster, you'll want to find out if you will be presenting on a standard size screen (ratio of 4:3) or a widescreen (ratio of 16:9). If you aren't sure what type of screen you'll be using, a 4:3 poster ratio is usually the safest option.

If you are making a print poster, you're probably creating your poster for a class or a conference and you'll be given a set of required dimensions. The standard size for academic posters is 48 inches wide by 36 inches high (which happens to be a 4:3 ratio). 

Posters are usually presented in a horizontal orientation, but some organizations ask presenters to use vertical orientations instead. When vertical orientation is required, this will be specified.

Sometimes there will also be layout or content requirements (especially if you're presenting your poster for a class). Although creativity is always encouraged during the design process, you'll want to make sure you follow all of the requirements first!



Creating a poster can be fun... but don't underestimate how long it will take! If you are making a poster for class, you'll want to start working on it sooner than the night before it's due. If you are making a poster for a conference, you'll also have to meet specific deadlines -- sometimes months in advance. 

If you find yourself up against a deadline, don't hesitate to use a template to get things started. 


Submitting a Poster to a Conference

Submitting a poster to a conference is a great way to show off your work -- and it's never too soon to start thinking about submitting one. Conference committees will send out calls for poster abstracts in advance and to apply, you'll be asked to submit a short abstract describing what your research is about. You do not need to have a poster completed at this point; all you need is the title of your presentation and a written abstract. Poster abstract submissions typically occur through an online form. 

The committee will decide if your research content fits into the conference and let you know whether your poster has been accepted. If it's accepted, you'll be in charge of printing the poster and bringing it to the conference. 

Quick Tips:

  • You don't need to have completed your research project in order to make a poster! Many researchers present their findings while their projects are still ongoing. 
  • If you feel nervous about presenting a poster by yourself, find a classmate or colleague who wants to co-author a poster with you. Conferences always allow researchers to collaborate and present posters with others. 
  • Make sure your poster is self-explanatory and stands out! Unlike a class presentation or a slide presentation where you -- the presenter -- are in charge of how much time is spent on the content, the viewers at a conference are in charge of how much time they give to each poster. Your poster will be displayed in a room with a bunch of other posters, so you'll want yours to stand out and to be easy for viewers to understand quickly.


Design Software

You get to choose the software you want to use to create your poster. The most common poster design programs are Adobe InDesign and Microsoft PowerPoint, both of which HSL recommends. Many students find PowerPoint to be easier but neither program is really "better" than the other. Feel free to choose whichever option is available to you and is most comfortable to use. 

There is no specific setting or template in PowerPoint for creating a poster -- you'll just be using a single slide

If you're submitting your poster to a conference, you may also be asked to submit your poster in PDF form prior to the conference (in addition to bringing a print copy). Both PowerPoint and Adobe allow you to convert your files to PDFs. 

Print Your Poster

Printing procedures vary depending on which software you used and where you are printing your poster.

The following are good options for printing:


UNC Print Stop and Copy Center

  • Phone: 919-962-7016
  • Cloth available


PhD Posters 

  • You can pick up your poster from this reasonably priced online service on campus or have it delivered to your location.

  • Use a UNC email address when you place your order to get a sales tax exemption. 
  • Foldable fabric available




FedEx Office Print & Ship Center
  • 114 W. Franklin Street
  • (919) 967-0790

UNC Lineberger Digital Imaging Facility

  • Poster sizes of 36" or 44" tall with any length
  • Semi-gloss paper

Additionally, your school or department may offer poster printing services. Contact them for details.


Archiving Your Poster

Why archive your poster?

Scholarly and research posters are typically one-time use items; once the conference or presentation is over, the poster is hung on a wall somewhere or recycled.  However, these "grey" publications often have value as citable items later in the lifecycle of research.  Archiving your poster allows you to:

  • Point to a permanent location for your poster
  • Cite the actual poster with data and conclusions, not just an abstract
  • Archive research that may have value but not result in a published article
  • Provide a record or timeline for research progress
  • Include official links on reports, CVs, etc.
  • Extend the reach of innovations and ideas to a greater, public, audience
  • Market the secondary research output of a lab, division, department, or school.

Archiving your poster can be as simple as posting it online in PDF format to your lab or departmental website.  However, for more stable and long-term storage and access, submitting it to an online library such as the Carolina Digital Repository or F1000 Posters is a good idea.

Archiving Locations