in Science, Software, Technology

Making Scientific Posters in PowerPoint – an exercise in masochism

science PowerPoint poster

Every student or researcher in the STEM fields has likely made science PowerPoint posters at some point. Chances are that you struggled with it as well. Don’t feel bad, almost everyone does. We’re using software that wasn’t really meant for this purpose. Why do we continue to subject ourselves to the pain of using the wrong tool?

Microsoft Office is always there

At every school, at every business, on every computer, you can practically guarantee Microsoft Office is installed. Most people also have at least some training or experience in using it as well.

You’ve probably had trouble formatting a Word document before, especially when you start to introduce graphics into the picture. Word is really only meant for 8.5″ x 11″ style documents. Excel sure as hell isn’t going to cut it. That leaves us with the classic PowerPoint.

So you’ll probably search Google for a poster template, download something shiny, and get to work. At least I hope you start with a template because starting from scratch is even more stressful. Things seem to be going well at first but then the problems start piling up.

Why PowerPoint, why?

Arrange menu science powerpoint posters

This menu is not very fun to use at all.

If you have any perfectionist tendencies, then getting things to line up just right in science PowerPoint posters is frustrating. Multiply that stress by the number of tables, figures, and sections in your poster and you reach a moment where pulling out your hair feels better than fighting with this software for a second longer.

Guides can help a bit, but you can’t always place them exactly where you want. Then the default “snapping” functionality kicks in and you’re ready to throw the computer out the window.

Maybe at one point it looks good to have one table overlap another, then you discover the joys of the “Arrange” menu. It works, but other software has it figured out already by using layers. And layers are beautiful.

Since we don’t have layers in PowerPoint we hobble along using grouping. It’s a poor substitute though. PowerPoint was never really meant to do what we’re asking of it though, remember? We just end up cramming too many things on one slide and it wasn’t designed for that.

I’m ready to print!

You finally get everything where you want it 4 hours before your print deadline and you go to print. Then you double-check the poster requirements for the conference and realize your poster is a bit small. It’s always better to fill up the space you’re provided!

So you try and resize your poster and learn about PowerPoint’s max slide size (56″). Plus, when you change the size there’s a chance that things shift around and don’t scale well.

You’re clever though and you do some quick napkin math and scale the final print size in the printing screen. The final slap in the face is that you designed your poster on the Mac in the computer lab and the printer is using Windows. Did you know that PowerPoint can sometimes display things differently between the two versions? It’s gotten better with recent versions of PowerPoint, but it still happens occasionally.

True story, for my very first oral presentation at a science conference I designed my presentation on Mac. On a hunch I decided to check my PowerPoint in Windows since that’s what was hooked up to the projector. All of my bullet points were question marks and I had to furiously fix everything in under an hour. Combined with the stress of talking in front of a hundred PhD’s, my laser pointer was jumping around on the screen almost from one edge to the other.

Isn’t there something better?

Of course there are better tools for making science PowerPoint posters.

My first choice goes to Microsoft Office Publisher. The problem is that it is only on the Windows Office Suite, no Mac version available. It is fairly intuitive and easy to learn if you already know Word and PowerPoint.

Adobe InDesign science PowerPoint poster

Adobe software has always been expensive, but ouch…

Another option is Adobe InDesign. It is extremely expensive though with the cheapest option being a one-month plan for $29. If you need it again later, you’ll have to pay again. It also has a steep learning curve.

The real issue with using anything other than PowerPoint for creating science PowerPoint posters is that when sharing or collaborating on a poster, most people won’t have access to any additional software nor the training to use it. Unfortunately, we’re stuck with PowerPoint for a while longer.