Powerpoint for Posters: Why not? (Part 1)
Updated: Jun 7, 2019
How I design and create templates for scientific posters. In Powerpoint. Because.
"Do you think you can make a template for posters in Powerpoint?"my husband asked. Full disclosure: he is a researcher who occasionally chairs committees for the American Thoracic Society. Occasionally, he would ask me to look at his poster before going to a conference, but this was something new. He wanted me to design a template for his research group so that their posters would have a consistent look and feel.
If like me, you don't come from a research or academic background, it can be hard to imagine what poster presentations at scientific conferences are like. Well, consider that conferences like ATS take place at the same venue as Comic-Con International. Imagine a crush of cosplayers trying to get from one event to another, except that the cosplayers are jet-lagged scientists who are trying to inhale information while they rush from one enormous exhibition hall to the next.
At his last conference, my husband noticed that he could easily identify the posters from a particular research group because they had the same colour scheme. Meanwhile the posters from his group had a variety of colours and formats. To mitigate that, he came up with a set of guidelines for designing and producing posters, however not everyone was following them. So how could he make it easier for time-strapped researchers to present their findings with a consistent design so that their work could stand out and be easily identifiable at conferences?
The answer was templates. Powerpoint templates to be precise, and this is where I come in.
To me and to most designers who have worked in print, Powerpoint seems an odd choice for making posters. My enduring memory of Powerpoint was trying to get the damn thing to work in the early aughts, and avoiding it like the plague ever since. But when I was required to use it at work, I was pleasantly surprised. It was easy to use and elements snapped intuitively, making alignment a cinch. In the intervening years, Powerpoint seems to have outgrown the worst clichés of Microsoft products and I found myself actively seeking opportunities to use it as a design tool.
Most students and researchers had access to Microsoft Office, so Powerpoint became the obvious choice for designing scientific posters.
Powerpoint works best for presentations of course, but since individual slides can be resized and exported as PDFs, and because it was part of the Microsoft Office suite which most students and researchers have access to, it became the obvious choice for designing scientific posters. It would have been unrealistic to expect that researchers who are heavily reliant on grants could justify the expense of purchasing additional software like Adobe Illustrator, InDesign or Photoshop.
Unlike a researcher though, I did have access to graphics software which I used to create a preliminary study. As useful as Powerpoint was, I found that it was still easier and faster for me to work in Illustrator. I would then use the study as a background over which I could place elements in Powerpoint.
I approached the preliminary study as though I was designing a regular, one-off poster. This seems like an unnecessary step, but sometimes you have to walk yourself through something to realize what works or not, and to verify certain assumptions such as:
Research posters are dense with information.
There is a LOT of text, most of which sails over the heads of ordinary people like me. There are also complicated charts, figures and graphs across multiple columns. And because all of that has to fit in a single poster, readers can often feel like they're drowning in a sea of information with no white space in sight.
They're usually not very visually appealing.
There are hardly any photographs or any illustrations, and the only graphics you are likely to find are logos of various styles and quality. Most of the logos are placed at the bottom together with the acknowledgements and citations. Researchers naturally feel that the data they are presenting has to be prioritized, and formatting would be a secondary concern at best.
One design is not going to fit all.
I used part of the content of my husband's previous poster to create a mockup. That's when I realized that as wordy as it was, his poster actually had less text than most. And it certainly wasn't my place to force researchers to limit their content to a certain number of words or letters. It quickly became apparent that I had to come up with several templates to accommodate varying amounts of content, as well as the different formats that were allowed. I was aware of the 2:1 and 4:3 formats, but which one was more popular and more importantly, were there others?
Sometimes sexy is the enemy of practical.
When I was making the mockup, I asked my husband why they didn't use tools like Plot.ly to create sexier charts and graphs. Heck, they could create sexy charts and graphs right there in Powerpoint. He explained that these tools don't work well with raw data from experiments - they would have to reformat their data before they could be entered into most data visualization software. There was also the possibility that presenting the data in a less than straightforward fashion would make it even more difficult to understand.
Another thing I tried was to introduce some background images or colours, but then I quickly realized that researchers would then have to find white or inverted logos, which are not always available. They would be forced to isolate logos in a white box on top of a solid colour, which could violate the branding guidelines of the MUHC, as well as other organizations that they relied on for collaboration, resources and funding.
I had a set of assumptions, but I needed more information before I could make other decisions that would affect the outcome of the final design, such as:
What formats (or sizes) should the templates be available in?
How many columns should there be?
How many sections would each poster have on average?
Are there other requirements or issues that I may not have been aware of?
So I attended a poster presentation at the Glen. I may have freaked some people out because I was looking really, really closely at the 42 posters on display, hovering behind groups while they were judging and tapping furiously on my phone (Note to self: get a counter). Discomfited students aside, here's what I found out:
Square - 14 posters
4:3 (landscape) - 11 posters
ISO-based - 9 posters
4:3 (portrait) - 6 posters
2:1 - 2 posters
Having only accounted for 2 formats when there were actually 5, I was also surprised to find that the Square format was the most popular. It hadn't even occurred to me to design a square template! I was also surprised to discover that there were more 4:3 portrait posters than 2:1 posters.
2 columns - 8 posters
3 columns - 24 posters
4 columns - 8 posters
5 columns - 2 posters
3 columns were clearly the winner across all formats, with 5 columns coming in last because they were used for the wider 2:1 format. One thing to note is that the columns are not necessarily the same width. For instance wherever there are 3 columns, the middle one is usually wider so it can accommodate the Results section which contains graphs and figures.
3 sections - 2 posters
4 sections - 4 posters
5 sections - 7 posters
6 sections - 6 posters
7 sections - 7 posters
8 sections - 5 posters
9 sections - 4 posters
10 sections - 1 poster
Note: With limited time to observe and record my findings, I made a rule that anything with a heading qualified as a section. My tallies did not add up to 42 because some posters did not have a clear heading or distinction between sections.
There was a wide variance in the number of sections, with 5 and 7 sections being the most popular. Some posters even omitted the heading of the first (Introduction or Abstract) and/or final sections (Acknowledgments or References).
Mainly serifs Little to no Sans Serif fonts, probably because Times New Roman is the default font and because dense body text is easier to read with serifs.
Must be readable from at least 1 meter away Text sizes were fairly large and uniform - smaller text was mainly used in citations and as captions. Also, see previous point re: serifs and readability.
Titles across the top / headings in a box is a thing These were consistent across all posters, though hopefully negotiable because (A) titles across the top takes up too much real estate, and (B) there are better ways to make headings stand out than putting it in a box.
Results section uses more than one column This is a tricky one because columns have to be a consistent size or else your layout will look bonkers. Some columns were widened just to accommodate their Results section. Alternatively, this section can span multiple columns, but there will have to be a way to visually group the columns so they're obviously part of the same section.
Traditional posters can include full abstracts in the first section Old school supervisors often require their students to place the full abstract in the first section, which means encountering a formidable block of text very early on.
LaTeX has been used to design posters And you thought using Powerpoint was weird.
Powerpoint fonts Special care has to be taken with regards to fonts, as in which ones would not only be readable but would also be safe to use with (A) different computers, (B) running on Windows, and (C) be legible when used with charts and figures. Thankfully, I found this really helpful guide.
Here's the mockup I mentioned earlier. I started this before I conducted my research, so there's going to be some changes. I will be going into more detail about the design process in Part 2, but for now you can get an idea of how the template will work by looking at the GIFs below.
Lee-Yan Marquez is a designer and writer who loves solving problems. Ask her to make something for you.