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I quite enjoy paying attention to how I design my documents and presentations. I usually spend hours thinking over and designing my slides for a workshop or presentation, so that they are aesthetically pleasing and as intuitive as possible. Likewise I recently started revising my CV I figured and I wanted to make it stand out a bit more. (Just to make it clear I don't mean making a clown of a document but just better use of colors, contrast and design elements.)

I have long wondered whether or not this is something that can backfire, since most documents in academic context are extremely plain, at least in my experience. It's very common to see the default Powerpoint slides (white bg, black arial text) or something as hideous as that.

My question is as follows: is putting time and effort into design of academic documents something that can backfire? Will I risk being prejudged with first impressions such as "well he put much effort in the presentation his documents, perhaps because the content is sub-par"?


I realize that the question might be somewhat subjective from person to person but I encourage everyone to consider it in terms of this SE blog entry: Good subjective vs Bad subjective.

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If used with caution, I never saw a nice document to backfire. I myself take a very similar stance to yours and never had issues. This view is also adopted by many other in academia. Just look who the authors of great LaTeX packages are. Take an example of LaTeX beamer (pgf/tikz), etc. People from academia. Good design is never bad. –  walkmanyi Feb 12 '13 at 10:01
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Thank you for this question. I sometimes have the impression that scientists, in the best case, are the Amish people of layout. In the worst case, they are the clowns of layout, with entire posters typeset in Comic Sans. –  biologue Feb 12 '13 at 10:22
    
If down well, new design is good. E.g. presentations in Prezi usually attract more attention, and people tend to sleep less on a non-generic talk. However, throwing a lot of candy features may be bad (good != inconsistent, with tons of things from different styles). –  Piotr Migdal Feb 12 '13 at 15:15
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Prezi talks make me motion sick. –  JeffE Feb 12 '13 at 17:18
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@JeffE: Here here! There was a talk here at Rice on Prezi recently and while it looked cool, beyond a certain point it was just disorienting. I expect that its success possibly depends on the content and execution (what doesn't), but with so many equations and so much zooming in and out I eventually just gave up on looking at the slides entirely. –  Aru Ray Feb 12 '13 at 18:45

6 Answers 6

up vote 11 down vote accepted

It all comes down to a cost/benefit analysis. But, there is little risk to improve the design, graphics and typography of your documents (theses, figures, presentations). There is little risk that it backfires if you present a higher-quality document. In fact, the only case I can think of is if it seems that form took over content: i.e., if you have a very shiny designed presentation with just-meh scientific content, the contrast might draw attention.

One thing that might be a problem is if you put too much theatrics, 3D effects, animations, cartoons… I had a colleague who used every single “animation” possible (it was the early days of Apple's Keynote and its nice 3D effects) in the same presentation, and it was simply too much. It distracted people from his message.

Finally, coming back to the cost/benefit analysis: I believe that as in everything, 20% of the work can get you 80% of the reward if you choose wisely. People will have different pet peeves, but the areas which I think you should polish for presentation slides are:

  • Graphics quality: no pixelated crap
  • Consistency between graphics and text, and self-consistency of graphics: same quantities reported and plotted, same units, consistency between graph scales (as much as possible), etc. Sometimes you take pictures from an earlier paper, and they don't quite match what you are showing with them. Avoid things like “graph on the left is concentration, graph on the right is volume fraction” when they can be converted straightforwardly.
  • Careful about background colors: to me, this makes the different between decent slides and good slides (for the presentation, not for the scientific content). If you use a colored background (not saying you should), don't include graphics with white background. Try to use graphics with transparent background (easy with vector graphics, use PNG with alpha channel for bitmap images).
  • If visualization requires it, use movies to show a complex system: time evolution of spatial distribution, autorotation of a structure you present if it makes it clearer, etc.
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Good points, nothing new for me but useful for others who might stumble upon the question. For the record, the only animation I will ever use in my slides is the "appear effect", which I use to iterate through a list of item, one at a time. Anything else is a big no-no in my view of how a presentation should be. –  posdef Feb 12 '13 at 10:44
    
There are arguments against visualising things as movies or animations, namely, that it is easier to remember two images, such as a before and after shot, than to remember an movie. (Source: What's use of lectures? Donald A. Bligh.) –  Dave Clarke Feb 12 '13 at 11:33
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@DaveClarke that's why I said “if the visualization requires it”. For example, there are some intermolecular reactions with multiple steps that definitely benefit from a dynamic presentation. –  F'x Feb 12 '13 at 12:08

Good design is invisible. The goal of design it so increase understanding/clarity. If your design is truly good then it will go unnoticed but your content will be better understood. If your design is noticed and distracts, then it is bad. I feel these principles are universal.

So to answer your question, yes, good design is worth it (it increases the amount that your content is understood), but just adding "design" elements without a good understanding of the audience and their expectations will not likely result in good design.

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I feel you are going a bit into the theory of design there. For the sake of clarify, or relating it to practical terms, can you elaborate on what you mean by the audience and what their expectations might be, in different cases. I personally feel it varies from person to person, such that no two individuals reading a document or attending a presentation will have identical expectations or preferences. –  posdef Feb 12 '13 at 13:03
    
Oh and I should also add that I am not really in favor of the following statement: "Good design is invisible". –  posdef Feb 12 '13 at 13:05
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@posdef you are entitled to disagree but I really do think that good design is invisible. Good design should only serve to increase clarity and understanding so if you are doing that then the reader/viewer is only aware of the fact that they clearly understand the content. The design might be interesting or beautiful but if it distracts from the content then it is bad design. –  KennyPeanuts Feb 12 '13 at 13:38
    
In other words, design is a mean rather then a goal. –  Dror Feb 15 '13 at 7:14
    
@dror that is something I definitely agree with, however it doesn't mean that's "the mean" should be completely invisible, especially to those who have a keen eye. –  posdef Feb 15 '13 at 10:09

There are different kind of academic documents, and it might change from one field to another. For instance, journal/conference papers often have a required style, and so there is little room for improving the overall design of the paper.

About the CV, I have seen many places asking for a specific style for the CV (i.e., they give you a Word document to fill in ...), but when they don't, as long as the content respects the traditional Education/Experience/Publications, then it shouldn't be a problem.

When it comes to presentations, I would say it's a bit trickier. The overall impression I've had when talking with colleagues at a conference, is that the quality of the speaker matters first. I've attended excellent presentations where the slides where black and white powerpoint, because the speakers were merely using them as a support to put the keywords and the important formulae. Conversely, I've attended boring presentations where the slides where very nice, just because the speaker was not comfortable speaking.

In other words, I don't think putting time and effort in the design of slides will backfire, and it will not necessarily bring you bonus points, what matters is the quality of the presentation itself.

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Thanks for your answer, overall I agree with your points. One exception, at which I will have to disagree, that is while it is the content should matter the most, I cannot ignore the slides, and if they are poorly made (e.g. too cluttered, bad choices of colors/fonts etc) I will get distracted and that does effect what I remember from that lecture/presentation. –  posdef Feb 12 '13 at 10:47
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@posdef: Yes, I agree, a bad design can prevent a good understanding, but a boring design is not necessarily bad. –  Charles Morisset Feb 12 '13 at 10:52
    
Your end-summary is exactly the answer I would given: "I don't think putting time and effort in the design of slides will backfire, and it will not necessarily bring you bonus points, what matters is the quality of the presentation itself." Lots of people get top placements with basic design. Good design won't hurt, and might help a little, but remember you are doing it because it makes you feel better or find it fun. –  Benjamin Mako Hill Feb 12 '13 at 17:50

The only other note I'd have to add is that you should also remember who your audience is when designing your documents.

You can have a fancy version of a CV or a presentation template, and there's nothing wrong with that. However, as an example of where this could backfire: assume you have a LaTeX'ed CV that is being sent to an HR department of a large company. The text of the CV will probably be tested against some set of keywords for "appropriateness"; if it can't match because of ligature issues, you're out of luck.

Similarly, if the documents will need ti be scanned in on the receiving end (perhaps because they require an actual signature), then the design should be one that doesn't make the scanned version illegible.

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Interesting points, I am not sure I follow though. Perhaps it's because I am not familiar with the procedures you mentioned. Why would there be ligature issues? or why would the design of a document make it's scanned version illegible? –  posdef Feb 12 '13 at 15:13
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Ligature issues — If a company isn't smart enough to parse the ff ligature that LaTeX puts at the end of my first name, I really don't want to work there. –  JeffE Feb 12 '13 at 17:17

Some scientists don't know how to properly layout a thesis, a presentation or a poster. They probably never learned it and too often don't care about it. This doesn't mean that you have to follow this bad example. I always appreciate when my students care about readability of text and figures, and think for a long time how to present something in the best way.

As for your question, I'd say this really depends on what you consider 'unconventional'! If your CV bursts with colours and Comic Sans, it will certainly backfire. If it's a sleek design with understatement, it certainly won't.

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This answer is a tad too negative for my tastes, and may not even be true. I would imagine it's more likely that most academics are too busy to put lots of work into design, and don't care enough to put time into it. –  eykanal Feb 12 '13 at 13:40
    
@eykanal: Isn't that exactly what he wrote? –  JeffE Feb 12 '13 at 22:05
    
@JeffE Nope you are seeing a rather toned down version. –  blackace Feb 12 '13 at 22:43
    
@JeffE - The original text was that academics don't know how to do good layout. I'm suggesting that irrespective of whether they know how to, they just don't care to. The distinction is subtle but it's the difference between an insult and an observation. –  eykanal Feb 13 '13 at 0:17
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I think the original observation is correct. Most academics don't know how to do good layout. I don't think this is any more insulting than "Most academics don't know how to make their own bread." –  JeffE Feb 13 '13 at 1:56

Assuming that we have similar concepts of what good design is (clarity, readability, ...), the only point I can see where it could potentially backfire is if there is a mandatory layout and you choose not to use it.

  • thesis formats are often mandatory, and you don't want to risk failing because of not meeting formal requirements.
  • The call-for-papers that comes with an ugly Word template that is to be used
  • Many universities have a corporate design that is mandatory for public/outside presentations.
    However, my complementary experience is that judicuous changes that leave the overall impression of where you belong intact, but e.g. allow better contrast in diagrams are usually not backfiring.
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