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Developing posters


Posters and exhibitions are a great way to engage the public and will help you to think of new ways to explain your research so that non expert audiences can understand. Posters can be used as stand-alone methods to raise awareness or they can be used to draw an audience in and encourage them to talk to you, or take part in a demonstration. Exhibitions and posters can be hosted in a number of venues:

  • Your university or institution, during open days and other public events
  • In public spaces such as shopping centres, libraries or cultural venues
  • At festivals, conferences or other special events
  • In museums or science and discovery centres (usually in partnership with the host venue)
  • At roadsides, bus stops or subways, or even on the buses themselves

Getting started

Before you begin, take some time to think about why you wish to communicate, what you want to get across (the purpose) and who you are trying to engage (the audience).

Do your research. Look at other posters, flyers and exhibitions to see how other messages have been communicated visually to your target audience. You can learn a lot from commercial advertising.

Discover the kind of imagery and messages that are most likely to draw your audience in, and what might interest them about your work. It would be an idea to consider audience research to help you find out more about what could work. Either mock up samples or use previous examples of posters and test them with focus groups, representative of your target audience. 

Plan, plan, plan. Plan your design, plan the message and the preferred layout, think about the images you need and what your message is. Think about the point of the exhibition and create a narrative which the audience can easily follow. Make sure you leave plenty of time to develop your poster or exhibition. The design process can be lengthy, especially if you want to test and re-draft the imagery on members of your audience. Host venues may also have lengthy lead times to consider.

Think about what you want to do. Do you want to develop a large, interactive, modular stand? Or maybe you would prefer simple, mounted posters. Is it a travelling exhibition? If so, portable, pop up banner stands may be appropriate. All of these decisions will have cost and time implications.

Think poster/ exhibition not book. If you want to tell a linear story with lots of text – put it in a book! People will engage with exhibitions in different ways and may read your conclusion before your introduction. So make sure every part of the exhibition speaks for itself. Posters that are full of text are a turn off – so if you want to include that much information, write a leaflet.

Designing posters and exhibitionsGarden Share Scheme Poster

Forget what you already know. You may be used to structuring academic posters for meetings and conferences, which are text heavy and leaden with academic jargon. You need to think very differently if you want to communicate with the public.

A good poster should:

  • Be eye-catching, with images which are identifiable at a distance
  • Be accurate, clear and concise
  • Communicate a clear message
  • Draw people in to interrogate further (i.e. prompting the viewer to ask questions and to look closer)

Get the right software. If you want to design professional looking posters or exhibition stands, you can’t rely on everyday programmes such as Word or PowerPoint. Most designers use desktop publishing software such as Adobe InDesign or QuarkXPress, along with graphic design and digital editing software such as Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator. 

A picture paints a thousand words. Your poster or exhibition should be clear and highly visual. Make use of striking imagery to draw in the crowds, but don’t be afraid of white space. It would be a mistake to clutter your poster.

Get help. Not everybody has a design flair – getting the colours, layout and message right for audiences is not as easy as it sounds. If you want your exhibition to look professional, it would be advisable to seek help from a professional designer. A designer may have ideas you would not have thought of and can produce something more eye catching, much more quickly than you can (but be sure to brief them properly). Your organisation may have its own design department. Hiring a designer will have cost implications, but they may also be able to get preferential rates from printing and exhibition providers.

Using text on posters

Don’t swamp your poster with text. How much can you say, using as few words as possible? Try to sum up all of your main points in one or two short straplines. You should leave yourself plenty of time for this. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that fewer words require less time and effort. It can be harder and more time-consuming to reduce your points to a short, but effective, paragraph than it is to write a much longer essay; as Blaise Pascal said: “If I had more time I would write a shorter letter.”

A few tips for reducing the amount of text:

  • Edit, edit, edit. Think about all of your main points. Try to sum them up in one sentence. If this is too difficult, create a few sentences and then re-draft them, reducing the word count each time
  • Think in terms of key words
  • Are there any images or symbols that you could use to illustrate some of those points?
  • Look for ways to combine text and images
  • Make use of bullet points. This reduces the number of peripheral words required for sentence structure

Getting more from posters and exhibitions

Posters are a great way to catch someone’s eye and draw them in. Make the most of the opportunity to further engage them, by providing additional opportunities, such as:

  1. The opportunity to talk to a real researcher (you, your colleagues, or students)
  2. Tangible objects and props the audience can hold and feel
  3. Intriguing demonstrations, including hands on activities and experiments the audience can participate in
  4. Further literature, worksheets or table top exhibits to interrogate
  5. Opportunities for the audience to give feedback or share opinions and experiences i.e. a ballot box or wall chart they can add to
  6. Handouts such as samples, flyers, small posters and other literature that they can take away
  7. To draw audiences in for further engagement – a striking poster or exhibition might intrigue passers-by and encourage them to stop and find out more.

What it can be used for

  1. To advertise, or create momentum, for further engagement activity
  2. To engage hard to reach groups who might be unlikely to attend a public event. (Particularly if your exhibition takes place in a generic venue such as a supermarket, museum or roadside)
  3. To raise awareness among wider audiences– if you are hosting a long-term or permanent exhibition, you will be able to reach significantly higher numbers of people

Things to bear in mind

  • Think about the colours you use. Make sure the colours don’t clash as this may be off putting. Be careful, also, of using different shades of the same colour e.g. if you are using two shades of blue, ensure that they are on the same gradient. (The colours on the same gradient will be directly above or below the colour you are using, in the colour palette in your digital editing software).
  • Take disability considerations into account. Ensure that there is a good contrast between background colours and the foreground text. (Dark text on a light background or light text on a dark background works best). The colours red and green can be difficult for people with red/green colour blindness. Green is the hardest colour for people with vision impairments to read. Avoid capitalisation and underlining. People with dyslexia often recognize words by the patterns they form. Capital letters are the same height, which removes these word patterns. Underlining makes text run together which also makes it tricky to read.
  • Be aware that screen colour (RGB mode) is different to printed, mixed-ink mode (CMYK). If you want to print your image as you see it, switch to CMYK mode in your image editing programme.
  • When providing images to a designer, or to the printers, make sure you are using the preferred file extension (e.g. gif, jpeg, eps).
  • Ensure that the poster or images used are high resolution. This does not refer only to the number of pixels in a document but also its dpi (dots per inch).  High quality printing requires images that are no less than 300 dpi. Large formats may even require 600 dpi. Never include web graphics as these are usually low in terms of dpi.
  • Stick to one platform. If you design something on a PC which you want another designer to edit on a mac (or vice versa) you are asking for trouble – your design is likely to become garbled.
  • Make sure your poster stands alone – if you are on a tea break or talking to someone else, does it make sense without your explanation?
  • If you are holding your exhibition in a venue such as a museum or science discovery centre, take their advice – they are well experienced in putting on exhibitions.

Cost and time requirements

Example costs

Design fees: May vary but professional designers charge approximately £500-£650 per day. Depending on the number of iterations, and the amount of work required, a poster design could cost £500-£1000; while a larger exhibition design would cost approximately £1000-£3000.

Printing costs: Will vary depending on the size of the poster or exhibition. If you work with a professional designer, they may be able to get preferential rates for printing. £60-£200 for simple roller banners and mounted posters. £300-£2000 for larger exhibitions, modular kits and larger pop up displays.

Host venue cost: Variable. Some venues will only require a nominal fee but others are surprisingly costly. You are competing with commercial ventures for placement in shopping centres, hotels and public transport, so be prepared to pay commercial rates.

Example timings

Allow yourself plenty of time to plan and perfect your poster or exhibition. Find out well in advance what the lead times of the host venue are.

Once the exhibition is designed, allow at least a week for printing and delivery (and more for more complicated exhibitions).