Making a poster in Inkscape

I went to Physiology 2016 at the end of July, and I presented what I think was definitively my Best Poster Ever.


Poster selfie!

A photo posted by Beth McMillan (@teraspawn) on

I usually make my posters in LibreOffice Impress, but this time I had some trouble with Impress crashing and so finally decided to make the switch to Inkscape, a free vector graphics program which works on Linux, Mac and Windows. I'd used it previously for making some vector graphics, but I still learned a lot of new tricks in making this.

One word of warning - I used the Linux version of Inkscape, and I'm not sure if everything's in the same menus for all versions.

Change page size

First things first: set the page size to your poster size. Mine was A0, which is an option in the list, but you can also enter custom values. Go to File > Document Properties > Page, or Ctrl-Shift-D > Page.


I seem to constantly hide the scrollbars by accident. The shortcut to show/hide the scrollbars is Ctrl-B (you can see why I might have this issue...)

There are also some useful shortcuts for different zoom levels - 5 zooms out to show you the whole page and 1 gives you a 1:1 zoom.

Snap to Grid

First, show the grid by going to View > Grid, or #.

Then, tailor the grid to the size you want by going to File > Document Properties > Grids, or Ctrl-Shift-D > Grids. It's a good idea to change Spacing X and Spacing Y to integer divisions of the page size - e.g. I wanted 100 squares across on an A0 page, which is 841 mm, so I set the grid to 8.41 mm squares.

You want your boxes to line up, so select the "snap to grid" button from the top of the toolbar on the far right of the screen. To snap to grid when you're resizing boxes, select the "snap bounding boxes" button, which is the second button on the far right toolbar.

Align & Distribute

This toolbox was very useful for centring the titles of my boxes. Bring it up with Option > Align & Distribute, or Ctrl-Shift-A. Select a box and an element inside it, and then use the buttons to align the element with respect to the box.

Cropping images

To crop an image, create a rectangle the right size and position it over the original picture. Select both objects and go to Object > Clip > Set.

Group and Ungroup

When it comes time to reorganise sections on your poster, it's useful to select a whole area and group all of the objects together, so you can move them as one. If you want to edit an individual component of the group, you can then ungroup the items. Go to Object > Group or Object > Ungroup, or Ctrl-G/Ctrl-Shift-G.

Text boxes

Wrapping text in Inkscape has to be done in a somewhat roundabout way. First, make a box that is the size you want your paragraph to be. Then, select the text and the box and go to Text > Flow into Frame (or Alt-W).

It's a bad idea to resize a text box after you've created it, because you'll end up changing the font size while you do it. I'm not sure how to fix that problem! You can re-flow the text into the box if you need to change its shape.


I like to use fonts other than the usual Calibri, Arial, or Times New Roman, just for a bit of variety. We're not talking Comic Sans or anything particularly wacky, but there's enough difference between even fairly conservative fonts to look a little different. Google Fonts is a useful resource for nice, downloadable fonts.

For the A0 poster I made for my latest conference, I was recommended to use a 96 point font for the title, 48 point for the section headings, and at least 26 point for axis labels. I used 32 point font for the body text, and I think it looked right.

Matlab figures

If you use Matlab for your figures, you can export them directly as vector images. I made a Matlab script for printing out an eps and a png of the active figure, given X and Y dimensions in cm and a filename: tidyprint.m

Logos and colours

I would hugely, massively, incredibly strongly recommend that you use vector versions of any logos or pictures that you include in your poster. Pixellation is incredibly noticeable, especially at the large sizes that you're likely to be using. For example, the EPSRC and Oxford both offer vector versions of their logos.

If you want to take some of your colour scheme colours from a logo or picture that you're using, the eyedropper tool (F7) lets you pick up and use a colour from anything in your document.

To make the built-in Inkscape palette a little easier to access, click the triangle to the right of it and select "wrap" so you can see them all at once.

It's important to make your poster colourblind-friendly. I was recommended the ColorBrewer website, which can create you a palette to use. In general, steer clear of rainbow palettes, and replace green-red pictures with magenta-cyan pictures.

I'm really happy with how my poster turned out in the end and I'm sticking with Inkscape for all future posters. I hope that these tips were useful - if you have any more, share them in the comments!


Things I've been up to in 2011

"Bring It, Don't Bin It" happened: we collected a load of clothes, toiletries, kitchenware and bedding (which, as you can see above, we promptly sat on) from departing Erasmus students and had a yard sale at the union. The profits and the rest of the stuff went to St. Vincent's, a Sheffield homeless charity. We got the electrical stuff PAT-tested, too! There was a second collection in June as the rest of the students left - unfortunately I couldn't attend, as I was at BarnCamp. I'm really pleased with how this project turned out.

I played in the National Concert Band Festival with the Sheffield University Wind Orchestra. We won a gold award, which sounds great until you realise that there was also a platinum award, and somehow managed to get to Glasgow and back in a single day. What madness.

BarnCamp - the annual techheads-go-camping-and-drink-too-much-cider extravaganza - was awesome (if very, very wet). My favourite workshop was on fractals, by Mike Harris. He was showing us the <canvas> element in HTML5, and how it can be used to make things like Mandelbrot sets. There are some great photos on flickr.

Incidentally, the person who coined the term "fractals", Benoit B Mandelbrot died last year. The B in his name stands for Benoit B Mandelbrot.

Lots of people I like have died recently. Janet McCleery, my awesome singing teacher - Dennis MacDonald, a fellow volunteer at the BitFixit Cafe (and a million other community projects) - Charlie Dickinson, a cracking lad I knew at school - and my lovely friend Brian Jackson, who I miss rather a lot. So that's not been great.

I found out today I have a confirmed place on my Mechanistic Biology Masters course for next year, so that's me sorted until next September. Last week I started my internship for the summer at Oxford Uni working on computer models of heart cells. I didn't know much at all about electrophysiology until last week so it's been a pretty steep learning curve! I'm really enjoying the challenge. Happy summer, everybody.


Free software talk

Tux mug

I did a talk this morning about free software with my friend, scary brainy sysadmin Alan. Alan covered the philosophy of the free software movement, and I talked about the practical ways people could start using free software every day.

I thought I'd make a post about some of the things I linked to and talked about.

  • We had a look at AlternativeTo, which is a website that lists different programs you might want to use (for example Photoshop) and lists some alternatives (for example, the GIMP). You can select "Open Source" from the drop down box to see only open source software, most of which is also free.
  • Portable Apps are really nifty programs. You can install them onto a USB pen drive and use them on any Windows computer. It's really handy to have, for example, Firefox with all of your bookmarks and add-ons ready to use when you're using a friend's computer or at work. Also if your job is particularly boring they have a massive list of games.
  • I have already mentioned Firefox and the GIMP, but some other programs to look at are LibreOffice, which has all the functionality of Microsoft Office; Thunderbird email client; Pidgin chat client (you can use it instead of MSN messenger, AIM, Yahoo! etc.); VLC media player which can handle pretty much any type of video or audio file; Audacity for editing sound files (I used it for my podcast).
  • If you want to run your whole computer on free, open source software, you can use some kind of GNU Linux instead of Windows or Mac OS X (you can also have both Linux and Windows/OS X on your computer at once without slowing it down). There are lots of different flavours, or "distributions" of Linux. You can use this Linux Distribution Chooser quiz to find out which one is the best for you, based on your computer knowledge and what you want to use it for.
  • For a Linux beginner I usually recommend Ubuntu, which is really user-friendly and has a really attractive desktop. It will run on most machines, but for super old computers, Debian might run faster, and is a bit more stable.
  • If you want to try out Ubuntu before installing it, you can make a LiveCD or LiveUSB and play around with it, without changing anything on your hard drive.
  • This isn't really related, but Alan's presentation was made using S5: A Simple Standards-Based Slide Show System, which is a really cool HTML-based way of doing slideshows. I'd never seen it before, but I think it's great!

Free software's pretty awesome. It doesn't cost you any money, and you can distribute it how you like. Anyone can see the source code, and anyone can submit revisions to it, which means that when there's a problem with the program it's often fixed really quickly by the community. There's always a huge number of helpful users on the internet who make tutorials and answer questions.

It's not just on the internet you can get help either - in Sheffield there's Access Space near to the showroom cinema. They're a great bunch of techie arty people who will help you out with using and installing free software. There's also the BitFixit Cafe in the Burngreave area of Sheffield, which I volunteer at. We're open on Saturdays between 12 and 3 at 268 Verdon Street, and we're happy to install things, fix problems, and eat biscuits.