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How to Make Scientific Posters for Free with Scribus

Updated on March 17, 2016

Free as in Freedom... AND Beer!

In this lens I will teach you how to make simple scientific posters in Scribus, the free and open source desktop publishing software. Scribus is available for free, thanks to the work of many dedicated volunteers, and is a remarkably powerful program for creating publishable, print-ready documents and graphics of a wide variety that I won't have time to go into. I recently used this program to make a poster for my physics undergraduate thesis, and I would like to share what I learned.

Disclaimer: I am by no means a Scribus expert, and am new to the program myself. That said, I got it to work very well for my needs, and thought these tips would simplify the process of getting started for any others out there needing to make a science poster.

Go Ahead and Download Scribus

If you haven't already, go ahead and download Scribus, at scribus.net. Just go to the downloads section. Under the heading "Stable" choose the appropriate package for your operating system. On Windows, the install procedure is simple and standard, and I don't recall any attempts to install 3rd part software either. Once you have it installed, run the program!

Set Up Your Document

Upon opening, Scribus will have a "New Document" window open, allowing you to choose a variety of settings for your document. Now is a good time to make some decisions about your poster. The following should be set now:

Document Layout: I would expect "single page" for a poster.

Size: Our poster was limited to 3 feet wide and 4 feet tall. In the "size" menu of the new document screen choose a standard page size, or custom, and enter your own values. I went with the maximum values I was allowed: 36 inches wide, 48 inches tall.

Default Units: Since I was working on a page measured in inches, I chose default units of inches, so the scribus grid would line up with the edges of my page, for accurate placement. Work in whatever units you prefer, but I strongly recommend choosing units which evenly divide your widths and heights, if possible. I believe the default unit is "pt" which, in Scribus at least, is (I believe) 1/72 inches.

Margin Guides: If you want to have a border around your poster, set "margin guides" of the appropriate size now. Scribus will automatically draw a highly visible border at these distances from each edge of the page, and when placing objects on your poster, they will "snap" to these guides to aid in accurate, aligned placement. In my case I chose to have a border of half an inch. Note these guide are only visible when editing your poster, not when saving to PDF or printing!

The new document window, with all my settings described above, is shown in the photo below! Red lines have been drawn to point out the areas I edited from default.

When you are happy with these settings, click "OK". Don't worry too much though, you can always change this stuff later if necessary.

New Document Window

Changes in red.  I set document layout: single page, size: custom, width: 36 in, height: 48 in, default units: inches, and all margin guides: 0.5.
Changes in red. I set document layout: single page, size: custom, width: 36 in, height: 48 in, default units: inches, and all margin guides: 0.5.

Get to Know the Controls

Explore, You Fearless Explorer!

When you first get a new piece of software up and running, it can be a bit overwhelming. Especially with very technical software like Scribus. So you should take few minutes to look around and get to know the controls.

If you want to zoom in or out, hold control and scroll with your mouse, or hold control and press "+" or "-" on your keyboard. Otherwise you can use the GUI buttons at the bottom left of the screen (the magnifying glasses) or type in an exact value (the white text box with the number and % also in the bottom left). I recommend zooming out so you can see your whole paper now (or most of it).

Set Up Your Workstation

So there are several super handy-dandy features of Scribus that you should make use of. First is the grid. Click "View" in the menu at the top, and go down to view grid. If nothing seems to happen, never fear; I have found that you must be zoomed in to a certain level before the grid becomes visible. Now you should set up the grid. Go to "File" and click "Preferences".

On the left hand side of the Preferences window, select the "Guides" icon. This will bring up a place where you can set up the grid. Choose the check box beside "Show Page Grid" and pick appropriate values for the Major Grid spacing and Minor Grid spacing. I chose 1 inch for the major grid, and 0.2 inches for the minor grid. This way I can place objects on my poster to within 0.2 inches of accuracy.

Note: Scribus may convert your units to pt for these grids. If you want 1 inch, just type "1 in" and it will automatically change it to "72 pt". I am not sure why the default units don't always carry over to the grid.

When you have done this you are ready to get going!

Plan Your Design

Here's Where You Start to Get Creative!

Now you should take some time to determine how you want to layout your poster. For mine, I decided to go with 2 columns for content, and a wide header at the top with my title, name, and other important information. Since my design was simple, I dove right in and got started, but if you are a more creative soul than me, I would recommend drawing up some plans and rough guide measurements on paper now.

At this time you should also start to think about the text on your poster. Scribus has a useful tool called paragraph styles, which I will describe below, but to put them to best use you should plan out the different text styles you will need for your poster. For example:

Title style: Big, white or light to go on dark header background.

Author, and School Info: Smaller, but big enough to be read from a distance. Same colour as title.

Headings: Smaller than title, but big enough to be read from a distance. Same colour as title, again.

Body Text: Smaller than the rest, but dark, to go on the light background for main content.

Once you have figured out your text styles, it's time to put them into Scribus. First click "Edit" in the menu, and go to "Styles". This brings up the "Style Manager." Click "New" then "Paragraph Style". You'll now have a screen with two tabs, "Properties" and "Character Style". Go to "Character Style" and choose the font you want for your new style. For my Title, I am going to use "Calibri." Under "Style" you can choose bold, italic and others. I'll leave mine as regular for now. Since this is for my title, I'll make it font size 85pt for now. The great thing about paragraph styles is that if you change your mind about something later, you can change it in the style, and ALL text items using that style will be updated! This is great for changing fonts or colour schemes later on. Choose a color for your style as well. I will use "LightGoldenRod" for now.

Now go back to the properties tab. For the linespaceing, choose fixed linespacing and set the size to be the same as the font size. In my case that is 85. Give your style a name! I chose "Title" since it is for my title.

When you are all done, click "Apply" and then make New paragraph styles for the rest of your text styles. If you realize later you need more styles than discussed above, just make more.

For the rest of the styles, I used 56pt Calibri in LightGoldenRod for my Author style and my Heading style, and black 36 pt Calibri for the body style.

Below are screenshots of the Character Style tab and Properties tab for my Title style, with changes shown in red.

Style Manager - Properties and Character Style Tabs

Click thumbnail to view full-size
calibri font, lightgoldenrod colour, 85 pt font.name: Title.  linespacing: 85 pt.  Click apply.  Click "New" to make more styles!
calibri font, lightgoldenrod colour, 85 pt font.
calibri font, lightgoldenrod colour, 85 pt font.
name: Title.  linespacing: 85 pt.  Click apply.  Click "New" to make more styles!
name: Title. linespacing: 85 pt. Click apply. Click "New" to make more styles!

Before you do anything else, in the menu click "Page" and select "Snap to Grid" and "Snap to Guide" This makes placement of objects on your poster easy and accurate.

Making a Title

Let's Get Going Already!

Whew!

Okay, so you've made it so far. You've made some text styles, and your document is all set to go. Let's get this party started!

First thing is first. Scribus does everything in "frames". Text goes in text frames, images in image frames, etc. So we will make some frames. For my title, I want a big navy blue box across the top, inside which I will put my title and my name, and school. To do this:

First, at the top of the screen just under the menu, click the "Insert Shape" tool. Hover over the tools to see what they are called. Chances are it looks like a square right now. The keyboard shortcut is just "S", and so its worth remembering to save you time. With this tool, click and drag from the top corner of your page (I chose to go from the corner of the margin guides, to keep my border intact) and drag across to the other side. I made my title box 4.5 inches tall, but you can adjust as necessary later. When you have drawn the rectangle, right click and choose "Properties". Here you can set the colour and other fun stuff.

In properties, click "Colors", and choose any colour you like. There are two colour types , "fill" (the little paint bucket icon) and "stroke" (the pen icon). I chose Navy Blue, with 80% shade for my fill, and no stroke colour (so no border). Next I clicked "Shape" and set "Round corners" to 0.5 inches. This gives the box softer, rounder corners. The final result is shown in the first photo below.

Next you should create some title text. Click the "Text frame" tool (shortcut "T") and click and drag a box roughly where you want it. When you have done that, right click on the new text frame and click "edit text" (or press Ctrl+T). This brings up the story editor, where you can insert text and choose a paragraph style. Type your title. Beside the line will appear a box saying "No style". Click it and choose "Title" to apply your title style. Now click the green check mark and your text will appear. In the Story editor you can also choose to center align text, or right align, or justify. I'll leave my title left aligned. The Story Editor is screenshot-ed in the second photo below.

Now repeat the process to make your name and school (or whatever else you want) show up in the title box as well. Remember to use "Author" style! The final result is in the third photo below!

Note that I had to change the font size for Author to 45pt to make it look right, and change my title box to height of 4.7 inches.

Title Box, Story Editor, and Final Title

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Pointing out the properties window, the title box, and the shape tool.The story editor.  Remember to set the style, and click the green arrow when you are done.A majestic title for a serious business poster.
Pointing out the properties window, the title box, and the shape tool.
Pointing out the properties window, the title box, and the shape tool.
The story editor.  Remember to set the style, and click the green arrow when you are done.
The story editor. Remember to set the style, and click the green arrow when you are done.
A majestic title for a serious business poster.
A majestic title for a serious business poster.

Adding the Main Content

Fill Up that Poster With Style

Okay, we now have one cool title. Moving right along to the main content.

So far you have learned about everything you should need except the image frame. Image frames are super easy. Just select the "Image Frame" tool from the toolbar (shortcut "I") and click and drag wherever you want the image, just like for the text frames. Once you have drawn the box, double click, and a window will pop up to choose your image. Look around and find your image and voila! You may want to right click and choose "fit image to frame", if your image isn't displaying properly. Then you can resize your frame, and the image should change with it.

Note: When using images, ensure they are in high enough resolution so they don't print blurry. Typically you should shoot for 300 dpi or higher. Therefore if you have a 300x300 px JPG or PNG file, no bigger than 1 inch by 1 inch on your poster! You can avoid this by using vector format graphics. Scribus accepts PDF or EPS in the image frames. If you go this route be sure to go to "File", "Preferences", and go to the "PDF Export" tab and choose "Embed PDF and EPS". This keeps the vector quality of your image. Ignore the "EXPERIMENTAL" warning, it seems to work well. Otherwise choose at least 300 dpi resolution for EPS graphics.

Now that you know how to use images we can begin. As I said before, I want to have two columns. I will leave 0.4 inches between the columns. My plan is to give each section a blue rectangular header, the width of one column. On this rectangle goes the section title. Extending from that rectangle is another rectangle, which is light in colour. This forms a background for my text. When you draw these second rectangles, if you want the light rectangle to go behind the header rectangle where they overlap, you may need to right click the lighter rectangle and click "Level", "Lower" (Ctrl+End).

Once you have this pale background for your text you can add images and text. Use the grid to lay things out nicely. To get text to wrap around images, go to the image's properties window (by right clicking, or pressing F2), going to "Shape" and choosing one of the "Text flow around frame" options. I used "Use Frame Shape" in the example below, but you should experiment. After this, just draw your text frame as a box covering the whole space where you want text (including over the image) and the text will auto-wrap around the image frame!

With this knowledge, and a willingness to experiment, you should be able to take things from here and fill up your poster with stylish content.

Example Content Section

Introduction example.  Notice the rounded edges of the rectangles, and the wrapping text around the cute little bunny.
Introduction example. Notice the rounded edges of the rectangles, and the wrapping text around the cute little bunny.

Finishing Touches

So you have chosen your sections, and text and images, and carefully arranged each section over the page. Things are looking good. But the white background is a bit boring. If you like it, great, stick with it. Otherwise, we can add a simple gradient background.

Draw a rectangle across the entire page. Right click this rectangle, go to "Level" and "Lower to Bottom" so the colour is behind everything else. Now go to the rectangles properties window, and go to "Color". Here you can choose a solid colour background, or play with some of the colour effects. Where it says "Normal" you can click and bring down a menu where you can choose various types of gradients. I chose a vertical gradient, but you should experiment to find what you like.

The final result of my example poster making is shown in the photo below.

The Finished Product

Save Your Poster

To get a PDF file to send to your print shop, you simply click "File", "Export", "Save as PDF". Sometimes so warnings come up when you click here, but if you are sure you are ready, and your images have high enough resolution, click "Ignore". Now choose a file name, and click "Save". If you are using any PDF or EPS graphics, again, remember to click "Embed PDF & EPS files" to preserve their vector quality. Otherwise, you can choose a resolution of 300dpi or higher to embed the EPS graphics, and things should still print okay. With your file saved, your ready to print!

Good luck!

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Now Experiment and Explore

...Like a Scientist!

This has been a breakdown of some of the basics of scientific poster making that I picked up when I had to make mine. Now you can experiment, explore and get to know Scribus better, and hopefully create truly beautiful and informative scientific posters in the future!

If you have any questions about this tutorial, or any other feedback, please leave a comment!

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