How to design an eye-catching academic poster in just one day

I was challenged with the task of designing an academic poster to represent one of the research institutes at the University of Melbourne – and only one day to get it done. I’d never designed an academic poster before and I’m not proficient in graphic design, but what seemed like shortcomings turned out to be strengths because I came at the design from a completely fresh angle.

Most academic posters are a series of squares filled with text. Maybe an image or two. Maybe some arrows pointing from one square to the next. However, I was blissfully unaware of this. Hence, I found myself right at square one:

what is the point of designing a poster in the first place?

I thought about the very first interaction people will have with the poster. It’s a crowded room filled with the scents of hot coffee and fresh croissants. People want to grab a bite in between talks, they want to greet their colleagues, but you want them to be looking at your poster. The problem is the walls are plastered with posters and your audience has limited time and interest. The answer is…

You need to be visual.

I mean really visual. From across that crowded room the very sight of your poster should demand attention so that anyone glancing in its direction thinks “I need to go look at that”.

My solution was to centre the poster around one large, intriguing image.


My topic was the ways technology is changing society so I selected a picture of a city atop a mobile phone. I got into Adobe Illustrator and added a few details like cars and trees to make it more interesting. Hopefully, people see this image, combined with the (relatively) minimal text surrounding it and find it welcoming. Which leads me to the next key factor…

Use as little text as possible.

If your poster is on display at an event it is likely people are time poor and their interest levels are getting eaten up by the talks and presentations. They don’t want to use their break time reading large swathes of size 12 font about the history of your organisation.

To be honest, my first draft contained lots of text. I set out with the intention of being minimal but my enthusiasm for our work at the Melbourne Networked Society Institute lead me to adding an extra sentence here, a paragraph there. It’s likely there are many interesting tidbits you want to share with your audience but the bottom line is that less text will make your poster more appealing.

It is important at this point to remember – 

the purpose of your poster

– it should be a taste-tester, an aperitif to whet the viewer’s curiosity. You do not need to tell the whole story here, just the blurb, enough to make them buy the book.  Try and distill your text down to the bare minimum. Every time you do a re-read ask yourself “is this sentence essential? Is that information vital to understanding the basics of my idea?” Anything that is not essential, highlight, copy, paste it in an external document in case you need it later, then delete from your poster. Once you pare back your text you can also increase the font size.

Font size was an element that took my design from okay to awesome.  

Increasing the font size again forced me to rethink the wording. If I included all the words I wanted the overall poster looked cluttered, which took away from the visuals. Again: visuals come first. The purpose of a poster is to be visual. That’s how it gains an audience, it’s how posters ideally communicate – through visuals.

Less words also means more punch and more precision. Plus, I had to think of more non-verbal ways to convey meaning. This led the poster to be more interactive as I added a QR Code leading to a promotional video. 

If I’d been given more time to work on this, I think there are areas of text that I could have swapped for diagrams or graphs. Infographs are an essential ingredient for any truly brilliant academic poster. 

While you ask yourself “do I need these words?” at every sentence also ask “how would this idea be represented visually?” at every turn. With words you want to avoid cliches, with imagery you can embrace them. Find the images that are commonly interpreted one way – so a flat cap for academia or graduation, an open book for reading, or a magnifying glass for searching.

Embrace iconography

because it will make your poster easy to interpret for more people. Hope you enjoy my tips to academic poster design. They worked out well for me – we ended up with a design unlike any other poster in the room – and I’m looking forward to my next design challenge.

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