If you’ve been working in academia for a while, you have probably seen it all: badly designed posters, presentations full of bullet points, and conference flyers with jarring color schemes. It’s our mission to create better science communication through design, so we’ve summarized some lessons from our Design Crash Course for scientist to help you become a better designer.

The design of your message can influence whether people read it or not!

Make your main message big

Design is never the priority, your research is. So if you want to create an appealing poster or infographic, you need to make sure that the biggest text on your canvas is also the main message. It’s the one thing you want people to remember.

But how do you write a good main message for your report, poster, or infographic? When people only read your title, they should ideally have one of two reactions:

  1. They learned something new about your research. For example: “The RDS protein is a potential new biomarker for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.” This is a statement with the main conclusion from your research.
  2. They are curious to know the answer to your question and want to read more about your research. For example: “How can we create more resistant materials for off-shore windmill parks?”. This is a question, for example your hypothesis.

If you want to communicate your research to your audience, these are two strategies you can use.

And don’t forget to make your main message big. It should be at least twice the size of the rest of your text and really stand out. If you’re creating a poster, people should be able to read it from the other side of the room.

So, to begin your design, make a good headline with either a statement or a question, and make it BIG!

Create a scannable design

Why is it good practice to make your headline big? It’s because you need to give your audience clues on what’s the most important element in your design. You need to create hierarchy. In other words, the biggest elements are the most important things.

79% of people only scan text, hardly anyone reads word-for-word anymore.

Your design becomes much easier to read when you highlight the important bits. What you want to create is a design that makes sure that people can understand your research by just reading the biggest texts on the design. You can read more about this in our blog Improve the readability of your text with content design.

Align your elements

A bad design has real-world consequences. People won’t take you seriously or get distracted from your main message. So make sure your design is well-aligned. This means that all texts, images, icons, and images are aligned to each other. Misaligned boxes makes your design look unprofessional.

All your design choices should have a good reason

Do you have a box that is bigger than the other boxes on the page? Are you using a different color for a label? Is the text size larger? Be aware that your reader will think that you’ve done this on purpose. So make sure that everything you do is well thought out. All your design choices should have a reason. Making something a different color than the rest will make it stand out, so this should be a very important element. If this is not the case, your readers will get confused.

Use more white space

White space is the most important design element you can use. We don’t know why researchers are so afraid of using empty space in their designs. They often interpret extra space on their slide or poster as an invitation to cram in more text and data. But please refrain from this bad habit. White space is good: it looks professional and makes your design easy on the eye.

Use more white space around elements to create professional designs

Emphasize the most important part of your message

The most important things in your design, like a main message or an important number, should be emphasized. You can do this by making them BIG, but you can also emphasize them by putting text on top of a bright colored background, or point an arrow towards important text. However, only emphasize one or two items in your design. Not everything is that important, and emphasizing everything in your design will make it look cluttered.

Text is the most important thing in your design

When researchers are instructed to visualize their findings, they frequently leave out all text. But text is always the most important thing in your design. You cannot tell a story by using only emojis, icons, or images. You always need some text so your reader can make sense of it.

In our design workshops, we do an exercise called “What does the arrow mean?”. We show an infographic or diagram with an arrow that does not have accompanying text, and we try to guess what the author meant. We often have no idea…

Always write full sentences with verbs

And while we’re talking about text, do not forget to add verbs to your text! We’ve seen too many bullet points without text and they are still haunting our dreams. Without verbs, it’s very hard to understand what a sentence means. Compare two sentences from a science poster: “ECM remodeling and stiffening” and “Fibroblasts replace dead cardiomyocytes”. In the first sentence, we have no idea who is doing the remodeling. In the second one, because of the verb, we know exactly what is happening.

Left align your text

Do not center your text. Unless it’s a label with 2 to 3 words, centering text will decrease the legibility of your text. That’s because when you read centered text, your eyes need to find the first line of the sentence every time. It slows down reading speed a lot, and it makes it harder for you to align your design well.

Do not center your text, it much harder to read.

Do not justify your text

Justifying text means that you align it to both the left and right margins. This might seem like a good design choice, since it creates a perfect square text box, but it’s bad. You often create gaps in your text with this approach. This does not only make it look like someone erased some words; it also slows down reading.

Do not justify your text, it creates annoying gaps inside your sentence.

Create shorter line widths

A good reading width is 50 to 75 characters. Reading longer text resemble watching a tennis match. For shorter texts in infographics you can go as short as 3 words.

Another benefit of creating shorter text boxes is that you can cram more text in create more white space, since shorter text boxes take up less space on a page.

A good line width is between 50 to 75 characters.

Do not use unnecessary gradients

We don’t know what’s up with all the gradients we see in PowerPoint slides and poster presentations. Gradients can be very cool, but if you’re not a designer, it’s very hard to use them well. I’ve personally never heard a good reason to use gradients. You can live without them, so please don’t spend your precious time on something that usually does not make your design better.

Be consistent in your design choices

Consistency is the key to getting your materials to look professionally designed. This means that you use a simple color palette consistently throughout your design.

  • Don’t give every line of text a different color or font size.
  • Use the same style of icons and images throughout your design.
  • Create a simple color scheme and stick to it.
  • Use the same amount of spacing around all your elements.

Make sure all images have a function

“But adding a funny image of a 3D man will make everyone like me!” No. Only add an image if this helps your audience understand what you want to say. Other images can distract from your main message. You do not need an image of a chemistry set if you’re doing work on chemical reactions. And only use images of molecules if it’s essential to understanding your work.

Keep things simple

Don’t add anything unless there is a good reason for it. If you’re not a designer I recommend choosing a single accent color, and keeping the rest white and grey. It’s very hard to use multiple colors in a design and do it well. Do you need all the boxes around stuff? Are there any redundant lines you can remove?

A great website with more design tips is www.visualmess.com.

Learn from real designers

You’ve probably never taken any classes in design during your education. So instead of spending every free minute on your time in learning how to design a slide or poster from scratch, just copy what other designers have done. Get inspired by beautiful infographic designs, and use their color schemes and fonts for your own poster or infographic. Alternatively, look for a great infographic template to fill out in online design software like Canva, or diagram templates from Visme.

This has two benefits: it creates better designs and it saves you time.

Here’s an example of a badly designed poster about knee injuries. We redesigned it according to a beautiful infographic we found, and we instantly made it look more professional. This took me just about 30 minutes to create. Don’t make it harder on yourself than you need to!

A redesign of a visual abstract according to a beautiful infographic is an easy way to create a better design.

Do you want to learn more about the best design practices for researchers and create beautiful posters, presentations, and graphical abstracts? Check out our Crash course design.

About the Author: Liesbeth Smit

Liesbeth combines her knowledge of science communication, technology and design to explain difficult topics to a wide audience. You can use her practical tips immediately in your (poster) presentations to create a bigger impact. She developed dozens of websites, infographics and animated videos, and regularly gives workshops about design at The Online Scientist.

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