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In scholarly journals, or publicising in certain magazines you are expected to hold true to a certain design pattern and citation style. However, when publishing your own work independently you are free from those constraints, or are you?

I am a designer by heart and every couple of years I create a new template that I use for future academic papers, following contemporary design patterns. In my opinion, my templates look nice. Not too strict, though flirting with kittenish. I am convinced that a nice design leads to a fruitful first impression. However, I am aware that this might be very subjective.

My question is, then, do academics generally look down on "design hippies" and should all retain a strict - possibly even chippy - style? Or does all of this matter not as long as everything is legible and well-formatted?

I use hand-written, cursive fonts in informal paperwork all the time. That's why I posted this question: even though certain fonts are well-suited for distinguished forms of design and publicity (such as magazines or webdesign), how does a formal academic world react to such patterns. On a (possibly less formal) website, for instance, Pacifico would be used without question. Of course, an academic audience is an 'ole other bunch all together. That's where my inner designer and outer academic struggle with one another. Should we stick to the trusted, formal (and, let's be fair, boring) style, or can we go a little (just a tad!) crazy? Note that I'm not strictly talking about fonts. It can be anything, going from structure (column layout), to colours and highlights, to bold face and font families. Heck, maybe even illustrations!

Update: people in the comments seem to focus a lot on the fact that I mentioned Pacifico, a cursive font. First of all I should clarify that I only brought it up as an example. Secondly, I only considered that font as a candidate for large headings with a font size of 24pt or larger - which increases readability. I did not imply to use this particular font as the main typography for my text, but merely as a means for catching titles. I'd also like the emphasise - again - that I am aware that certain fonts are not formally applicable and would annoy rather than refresh an academic reader's mindset. But as said, I am a big fan of design trends (focusing on, but not restricted to, fonts) and innovation, and I am simply curious to know how academics think about this: how far can one go. How different is an academic design style from for instance web, advertising, magazines and newspapers.

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    I was assuming the main reason for academic writing to use "boring" fonts is legibility. It's annoying to read less than fully legible fonts when your main aim is to understand the paper as fast as possible. – March Ho Dec 27 '14 at 18:53
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    You seriously want to use something that you define as "border-line legible"? The whole idea of a good design is to make something easily readable not the contrary. – Matteo Dec 28 '14 at 9:49
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    On a website, for instance, Pacifico would be used without question. — [citation needed] – JeffE Dec 28 '14 at 13:15
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    @JeffE Just do a quick Google search for the most popular handwritten web fonts in 2014. It'll be up there somewhere. No need to be this sarcastic. – Bram Vanroy Dec 28 '14 at 13:16
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    @BramVanroy: "Just do a quick Google search for the most popular handwritten web fonts in 2014." I have never seen a paper written in a handwritten font, ever. I have also never seen an academic website typefaced in a handwritten font. JeffE was not trying to be sarcastic or offensive, he was actually being serious when asking for a citation. – DumpsterDoofus Dec 29 '14 at 0:09
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+50

I read papers, I don't hang them on my wall. That is the main objective, and your design should subdue to it. I enjoy a well crafted book, but I get extremely annoyed when some unnecessary decoration gets in the way of usage.

In your case, the font of the titles requires a mental effort from my part to read them, which I find unacceptable, and thus, annoying. When reading a paper, I usually skim through the sections to get a broad picture of it; with Pacifico, I need to waste neurons in deciphering it while constructing my mental idea. I also find that the numbers in the text stand out a lot, probably more than they should, as they are not information I would like to get while skimming.

On the other hand, I have encountered a few unique and very nicely crafted documents, and those made a more long lasting impression. If not for anything else, I remember the general image of the article.

Bottomline is, if your design is good, it will be welcomed; but if it has flaws, some picky people like me* may get displeased and cause a worse first impression. A standard template is a safer option; but more difficult to stand out.


*To give you an idea of how much, I find several citation styles to be rather annoying because they are clearly inferior to others. For example, anything without DOI in the modern times.

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    I agree. Good designing should have a goal, and the primary goal in academic writing should always be promoting understanding. It's not that good design isn't appreciated in academic writing, it's that anything that detracts from that goal, which includes some elements of the example, is bad design. – Roger Fan Dec 27 '14 at 19:21
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    I think if one wanted to be truly revolutionary, they would publish papers in a format like tex and simultaneously distribute style sheet so the people who like numbers can have them and the people who don't won't. While we are at it, at least one style sheet should be friendly to the vision impaired - either producing a paper that works well with text readers or perhaps produces an audio publication. – emory Dec 28 '14 at 0:18
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    This seems to bring up culture-specific issues, and a "plain" font might be the most culture-independently legible one. I am saying this because I personally absolutely disagree with your statement "the font of the titles requires a mental effort from my part to read them", though on the other hand, that is because the font of the titles is more or less exactly the font that I was taught (and, by some teachers, even required) to use during all of my school life, hence this experience is obviously country-specific. – O. R. Mapper Dec 28 '14 at 8:02
  • +1 for style without DOI. 30 seconds of googling per citation is nontrivial considering the amount of people who will look them up. – March Ho Dec 29 '14 at 10:11
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    @MarchHo and even worse, without DOI and without titles! – Davidmh Dec 29 '14 at 10:13
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As March Ho mentioned in the comments, one important factor is legibility. This is true both at the level of fonts and more broadly in design/structure: if your most important goal is to communicate your ideas, then it's worth optimizing for ease of reading and comprehension. Unfamiliarity is itself an obstacle, so even if your design would be superior if widely adopted, it might prove inferior in practice.

Another issue is demonstrating membership in the community of scholars. Choosing an unconventional design amounts to announcing "I am an outsider," and although being an outsider is not a bad thing in itself, it can come across to readers as a terrible sign. For example, when I see mathematics papers with highly nonstandard formatting, they are almost always crackpot papers of no value whatsoever. That's not company you should voluntarily join. I wouldn't consciously ignore a paper just because of the formatting, but I can't help approaching it with a strong prejudice. Unless your papers are really exceptional, unconventional design is likely to decrease your readership.

The fundamental issue here is whether you are writing for yourself or others, which is a common tension within academia. You can take the position that you are creating a work of art and aren't willing to compromise on your vision even if it will hurt the work's reception, or you can try to do what's necessary to increase your work's impact on the scholarly community. Different authors end up balancing these concerns in different ways.

  • I agree with the point about labelling yourself as an outsider. I think I would probably treat something that is substantially different from the norm as 'suspicious until proved innocent'. – Jessica B Dec 27 '14 at 22:14
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If you are self-publishing, then you are free to format your work however you please. However, as the others have already pointed out, the harder your work is to read, the less it's going to be read, and the more trouble you will have getting others to take your work seriously.

As you mentioned in your question, you yourself find the font "borderline legible." That's already a huge strike against its use: why would anyone else want to read it if you, the designer, find it only marginally legible?

As someone who greatly appreciates good page design, I have to admit that I find it too "cute" for its own good. There are many fonts that could serve your design purposes of being "original" without sacrificing legibility. Pacifico is not one of them. Also, the bold numbering in the text is probably not good unless those are going to be hyperlinks.

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    +1. Using a font that isn't easily readable doesn't make sense. – BrenBarn Dec 27 '14 at 21:35
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I believe the guidelines can be stated fairly briefly.

The typography should convey the message without providing resistance to the reader. Selecting good type faces and setting the text according to typographical guidelines regarding line spacing and line length (number of characters) is key. Remember many journals are set to conserve space rather than readability as a prime target.

The illustrations should as show (in Edward Tufte's terminology) graphical excellence, that is give the viewer the most ideas in the shortest amount of time with as little "ink" as possible.

Just remember that if the main point is communicating science, then the ease with which the reader can access the information is more important than personal design ideas. The challenge thus lies in achieving "excellence". Fortunately, excellence usually also is beautiful (my personal note)

References Edward E. Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Graphics Press.

(e.g.) Robert Bringhurst, 2012. The Elements of Typographic Style Fourth Editions (vesion 4.0). Hartley & Marks.

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Academia should be in part about the transfer of existing knowledge, and in part about pushing the boundaries and discovering new things. For the former, being a little bit formal and traditional is OK - although it's also good to bring a new and personal style to the way you convey the information (think of Richard Feynman's incomparable physics lectures that brought a new clarity to a traditional subject).

I like it when people try different things - as long as these things contribute to the over all purpose of the paper. For example, I was very impressed the first time I read an internal report in which the author used pull-quotes to help in the process of following the narrative - very powerful, but rarely used in scientific publications. That kind of experiment - specifically aimed at aiding in the understanding of the document - is laudable. Just tinkering with fonts - especially fonts that are not so legible - is something I appreciate less. I'm OK with showing individuality of thought, and in the expression of the individuality in any form: but it has to support the main aim of the publication.

Some people publish to show how clever they are: they use long words, complicated structure, difficult mathematical derivations... this can indeed give the impression that they are "a notch above the rest of us mortals". But it does not provide access to their thoughts, and limits the dissemination of their ideas and contributions. And that, ultimately, is what publishing ought to be about.

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There certainly is room for improvement of scientific writing. The question is, are you trying to convey your work in a more efficient way, or are you just adding noise?

I can think of several examples of positive attempts at improvement: Don Knuth's TeX project, the special fonts created for his book Concrete Math. Or the work of Tufte on graphics and page layout. Even though these can at times be annoying, inasmuch as novelty often is, they do help and some of their stuff gets picked up and ends up going mainstream.

Sometimes, reading older research (say, 50+years old) can be rather refreshing as well.

On the other hand, you have to be extra careful and really ask yourself if your design really helps. If you, and several others you will show your work to, are convinced of the improvement, then definitely go for it. You may even suggest to your readers that you are open to comments and feedback.

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In my experience, academic culture seems to be of two radically different minds when it comes to design:

  • For papers, there is virtually no appreciation for design innovation, qua innovation. I suspect that the cultural focus on content makes a glitzy presentation seem "suspicious." In practice, there actually can be a good bit of innovation, especially in the design and presentation of figures, but it needs to be within some indefinable bound of scientific "good taste," whatever that means.

  • For presentations, on the other hand, the sky is the limit, and innovation in communication seems to be highly appreciated. For example, I've seen a number of talks using Prezi in the last few years, which are definitely following a trendy new tool and playing with its capability.

Perhaps a good way to think of the differences is like the differences between forms of poetry: papers are like a sonnet where you can make beautiful art within a absolutely rigid form, while presentations are free verse where there is much more freedom of choice for both good and ill.

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I think the best outlet for such creative yearnings is presentations, and perhaps posters. In these there is so much heterogeneity to begin with that you will not experience much prejudice due to simply being different.

Another good candidate is figures. Here, there are 3 chief cases particularly suited to creativity that I know of:

  • Diagrams, especially flowcharts showing steps of a project
  • "Soft data" where precision is less important. For instance, when you have a graph of number of PhDs over time not to present it as data, but to make the point that it is increasing, you can get away with some fancy colorful designs such as the default Word chart themes.
  • In complex and unusual datasets, where no good way of visualizing them has been agreed on. For example, in genetics, with heatmaps showing various signal levels across the genome you have some latitude in picking colors and adding little icons and so forth.

For publications, you couldn't easily mess around with the typography because most journals precisely specify their visual style, and they have some uniform theme across all the papers in their issue and across different issue they want to maintain. They won't let you choose your own font.

For informal texts, you do have an advantage: 90% of scientists use either Times New Roman, Arial or Calibri (the Word default). Another 9% use whatever came with their Mac or Linux system. If your font is slightly different, but largely similar to these (Pacifico doesn't work, Lato is fine) most people won't notice, and those that do notice would appreciate a good font (assuming you made good design decisions).

When I use Latex to type my own informal writing, it ends up in Computer Modern. Granted, this is a very good font, but although being vaguely similar to Times New Roman, it clearly isn't even to an untrained eye. Because of this, I doubt anyone is bothered that I used a different font, and the comments I got tended to be favorable.

So for your informal texts I'm sure you can get away with taking some liberty in your font choice. It's still worth erring on the side of being conservative, though: First, don't make it too weird. For instance, writing a report in Comic Sans (I'm sure it is obvious) is a bad idea. Writing it in Helvetica instead of Arial - the rare person who notices will think better of you for it. Second, don't change it too often - if every other letter you send to a collaborator is a different font, I imagine the charm will quickly wear away.

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