Educationally challenged: designing for academics

Somewhere between where I once was and where I am now, I spent a long, long stretch working exclusively with academics. As the in-houser at the local Higher Education Quangoplex, I learnt a thing or two about this very particular species of client. Should you ever have to deal with one, here are a few of their favourite things. PAY ATTENTION AT THE BACK.

  • Bullets. Oh, how they love a good bulleted list. And sometimes, they love a bad bulleted list. Take it from somebody who once had to typeset a 44-page-long list of time-saving tips for teaching staff.
  • PowerPoint. The academic's layout tool of choice. If you want to see a designer cry like a gingham-clad schoolgirl with her pigtails tangled in her skipping rope, send them an inbox-suffocatingly dense poster designed with PowerPoint and tell them "it just needs finishing off".
  • Business cards. If I were of the academic persuasion, I'd simply stick to the business card template set by the esteemed Wile E Coyote: "Genius. Have Brain, Will Travel". This is essentially what all academics want their business cards to say. Instead, what it'll actually say is: their name (followed by a ludicrous string of qualifications, memberships and random letters); their office number; mobile number; home number; switchboard extension number; fax number; home fax number; research assistant's home fax number; and pager number. Just in case you really need to contact them in an emergency and/or the 1980s.
  • Diagrams. Incoherent diagrams that translate simple ideas into angry piles of arrows, boxes, symbols and halftone patterns. Usually constructed using a combination of PowerPoint, WordArt, Excel-generated graphs and copyrighted images. Laboured visual metaphors are optional. The accompanying explanation of how the diagram should be read is usually longer and more incomprehensible than the concept it's trying to convey in the first place.
  • Double spacing. The typewriter habit that will not die. And it's not just double spacing, oh my no. Some get so swept away by their own stream of intellectual brain-spewage that they simply don't have time to deal with trivialities like spaces, and simply smack the spacebar a random number of times between each sentence.
  • Silly names. I've peeked behind the curtain, and can reveal that academic writing conventions are grounded in an ancient juvenile contest to see who can get the silliest names into their footnotes. Extra points if you can reference hilarious-sounding writing pairs – a mention of Bohner & Wanke (yes, really) is always good for a high score.
  • Journals. Some twenty or thirty years out of date, the academic journal publishing racket is an exercise in creating the maximum possible distance between author and designer and publisher and audience. It's costly and slow and inefficient. And unfortunately the education system is entirely beholden to it. It's infuriating. If only somebody could come up with a system whereby knowledge could effectively and swiftly be shared by one and all. Maybe using computers?

Of course, not all academics are that bad. Most of them know how to use a spacebar. Some of them even have Macs and use twitter and stuff.

Rather inevitably, after years of being subjected to all of the above, I gave in to Stockholm Syndrome and married an academic. Dr KM Benneworth-Gray BSc MSc PhD CPsychol AFBPsS is one of the good ones – I just hope she doesn't want me to design her a business card any time soon. It's through noseying around in her office that I discovered that academics and designers have one major thing in common that totally makes up for all those infuriating (and, let's be fair, perfectly surmountable) niggling habits. Books.

Oh how they love their books. And they never throw any out. Big books, old books, new books. And best of all, plenty of yellowing, fragrant 1960s paperback books. Lots of Fontana Modern Masters and Pelicans. So many Pelicans. The more baffling or cerebral the content of the book, the more abstract and beautiful the cover. No stock footage or generic Adobification here; it's all physical graphic design made with blades and glue and paint and ideas.

A visit to an academic's office is an intense education in 20th century book design. Even better – if you think your fragile little mind can cope with the printly beauty of it all – try a visit to a university library. You could lose days in there.

Academia: where print isn't dead but it really, really wants to eat your brains.


Originally published in the April 2013 issue of Creative Review.
Illustration by Cristiana Couceiro