This question involves only wary use of ≤ 3 readable colours (e.g. an author used 3 colours: black for text, green for quotations, and blue for headings). One benefit is immediate distinction of an author's, from others', writing.


The use of multiple colours by many textbooks substantiates both drawbacks as conquerable.

  1. Colour printing costs feel paltry and immaterial, as readability ought be prioritized. A reader of a PDF can always choose to print in black and white.

  2. The visually impaired who are harmed by colour, can again print in or convert to BW.

  • 1
    Others may feel that the minimal impact of color to portray textual information that already has standard ways to delineate (like quotes) is not a good trade off for, say, the significant number of people with color blindness.
    – Jon Custer
    May 25, 2018 at 2:50
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    I’m not sure I agree with the premise. I use color all the time in papers. Overuse of color is potentially problematic, but I think that is true in all formal writing, not just academic writing.
    – Thomas
    May 25, 2018 at 4:02
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    From recent experience, one reason to avoid colour is that it makes it really expensive to print out your thesis! (at least if your university, like mine, reckons that a colour page costs 5x as much to print as a black one...)
    – Flyto
    May 25, 2018 at 5:13
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    And if we're talking journal publication, including a single colour figure can cost an author more than a thousand US dollars. See e.g.: journals.aps.org/authors/color-figures-print
    – G_B
    May 25, 2018 at 8:29
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    Because then all readers need to bleach their eyes, which comes with significant health concerns.
    – Cape Code
    May 25, 2018 at 18:52

5 Answers 5


People who are good at doing research aren't necessarily the best graphic designers. In fact most are pretty awful graphic designers. For good reason: learning to be a good graphic designer takes a lot of time and practice. So most good researchers do not have time to also become a good designers.

So if I see a researcher trying to be fancy in his design (e.g. use colors) I will automatically assume the design is going to be awful and most of the time that assumption will be correct. So I don't have a aversion to colors in academic writing per se, but it is an extremely reliable warning sign for me that some bad design is coming.

So my general advise to students is to focus on the content and keep the design as minimal as possible.


Most journals and book publishers follow a consistent house style, which authors have to implement. This leaves authors very little discretion over design choices (probably for the better).

When it comes to colored figures, which are usually allowed, each additional color costs money. With xerox printing, this is now less than ten years ago, when for each primary color, the page had to run through an additional stage of the offset printer, but it still adds considerable costs. Of course, this only applies if the text is printed at all.

Some textbooks use colors and other graphic design elements. If well done, this can help to convey information rather than distract from it. But in order for it to be well done, it needs to be taken care of by a professional designer.

With respect to individual manuscripts, you can of course do whatever you want. But unless you have a talent for design, it's easier and more efficient to use a standard template and to follow "less is more" as a rule of thumb. It is also safer, because aesthetic judgement is quite subjective, and because more people overestimate their design talent than underestimate it.

Moreover, academics are a conservative bunch when it comes to scientific conventions; and they tend to suspect that "eccentric" form only serves to cover up weak substance.

Finally, one remark about color blindness. Colorblind people can see colored objects quite well, they just can't tell the difference between certain colors (mostly red vs green). Therefore, colored text doesn't hurt them (unless you use red type against green background), nor does it help them to print a colored document in black and white.

  • 1
    I believe color still requires multiple passes per page, so that's why many journals allow "color online" options and then print in black and white if the authors don't pay for color in print.
    – aeismail
    May 25, 2018 at 15:14
  • @aiesmail yes, but I think it was more costly back when offset was the only norm. Big xerox machines, printing on demand, are now becoming more common. May 25, 2018 at 19:26

The real question is rather: do you have actually any real evidence that your use of color improves readability in any way? It seems to be your main argument, but I don't believe it holds any water.

How does writing quotes in green improve readability? I don't see how. Quotes do not need to stand out from the text, otherwise we would already write them in italics, for example. Similarly, headings already stand out from the text: they are usually in a bigger font, in bold, and/or separated from the rest of the text by white space. Does writing them in blue achieve anything at all?

You also say that your goal is to stand out from other authors. You say this as if it were a good thing. My gut feeling is that most people will rather think: "Why does this author want to stand out by coloring their paper like a children's book? Is their research so weak that they need to stand out in another way?"

It is also rather inconsiderate to say "color blind people can just print the paper in black and white". You are requiring extra effort from people who already face some struggle in their daily life, for barely any reason.

  • Your sentence about the gut feeling is very interesting. Indeed, I also have the impression that many people look down on good designed graphics and feel the research can not be good. This is a shame, as many papers and textbooks could be improved by better graphics and adding colors (but in a different way as the user "Greek - Area 51 Proposal" discribes).
    – Udank
    Jul 11, 2018 at 22:34
  • A researcher SELDOM has time for proper graphic design. The one who tried to do this in my environment ran out of time during his PhD.

  • Certain publication venues ask that publications remain intelligible when printed in black-and-white.

  • Certain publishers charge (or charge more) for every colored page. The employers (universities, research institutions) might not wish to support this in addition. At home, a researcher doesn't necessarily get support for such a kind of spending.

  • 1
    "A researcher SELDOM has time for proper graphic design." Skipping graphic design does not actually save time. One of the most common comments I put in a peer review is "The labels on the figure are too small to read." So the authors have to do the work over again when it would have been faster to do it right the first time. May 26, 2018 at 0:26

From the design aspect an academic paper holds intense information and the reader will spend considerable time reading it. You do not want to have too many colors on anything that the user will spend long hours interacting with it. It is tiresome for the user(reader in this case).

  • In text I agree. In graphics color can make a huge difference and help with understanding.
    – user64845
    May 25, 2018 at 11:21
  • @DSVA, true, but even here it's important that the figure still "works" in black and white. May 25, 2018 at 15:39

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