Fonts and Figures

So, here we are, five letters down, and from my perspective things are going quite well. So well that I’m going to cover two things for ‘F’, both of which I think are important (notwithstanding the comment on theme reveal day about disciplines that wouldn’t include figures…).

Whatever flavour of word processor you use, if you look at the drop down box for fonts, even in a relatively ‘light’ version you’ll get a significant number of options. One of my favourites is ‘Blackadder’: not for everyday you understand, but I love the wonderful flamboyance of the Elizabethan effect you get with it.

It is worth giving some thought to the font that you choose. There are a number of different reasons why you might actually be desperate for the advantage of a relatively narrow font (reduced page count) or a relatively broad one (increased page count, if you hadn’t guessed), not just because you need your thesis to look less or more than it actually is (particularly if you have a demanding supervisor who wants you to be both succinct and to have covered the research in sufficient depth). Some options (like Blackadder and, of course, Comic Sans) can be ruled out straight away. Comic Sans is supposed to be easy for people with dyslexia to read, but I’m afraid it is just wrong. I know one person who thinks it is a complete abomination and refuses to use it even when the context would call for it, but that, as the saying goes, is another story. But on the subject of making it easier to read, sans serif fonts are, reputedly, easier to read. I say reputedly, because i) I’ve never really tested it in a controlled way; ii) I am deeply suspicious of sweeping generalisations (unless of course I make them myself*) and iii) I like serif fonts. I am very fond of Times New Roman, I can’t really say why. It is another inconsistency, perhaps, but where I find Arial, overused, tired and, dare one say, a little jaded, TNR has a certain timelessness to it. It is classic: yes it is robust, perhaps workpersonlike, and it could not be described as chic**, but it does have a certain charm, flair even.

*Hypocritical? Maybe. But the reader is referred to Emerson on the subject of consistency.
**But that’s a good thing, in my opinion.

That said, one rarely writes purely for oneself, and you do need to consider the reader, particularly when that reader is going to sit in judgement on you (examiner or client, a good impression is essential). For those occasions I usually default to Calibri, but as an intermediate option I quite like Garamond – the serifs here are somewhat understated. So my advice is that it is worth thinking about your choice of font (see both ‘Book’ and ‘Design’ posts): whether in desperation or because you have the luxury of adding another layer of aesthetic consideration, the right choice of font can help win friends and influence people.

I can remember one of my friends, who was in a different class, designing a ‘cliché changing engine’ for an English exercise. (Yes, I wish I had been in that class). About all I can remember was that there was a bit that said ‘new clichés for old’. Roll forward nearly a decade, and I was preparing a manuscript for a conference paper that was going to be peer-reviewed and printed in a special edition of a journal. The word count for this was extremely…definite, and it turned out that a picture (or in this case a figure) really was worth a thousand words. Tables also counted for a specific number of words and there were a couple of other things that had to be considered when totting up the total word count.

‘A picture is worth a thousand words’ really is a tired old cliché – but perhaps not as old as you might think. However, here is another opportunity to view things from a different perspective. The point of the phrase, which was certainly picked up by the advertising community, is that even a glance at a picture will give you more information than if you read a thousand words. But consider it from the point of view of an academic for a moment. A picture is there to be explained! It contains all sorts of little nuggets of information, which you need to be the first one to spot and elucidate, educating all who come after about the meaning of what you have found – if you don’t then someone else will. Given that we are talking about academics, then those that come after will probably still try and explain it, telling you why you’re wrong in your interpretation… If you’ve done your job properly, then either there is nothing left for them, or they’ll look extremely silly trying to argue that the Sun comes up in the West, or there is the possibility of a lovely citation-increasing dialogue. So, hopefully you agree that figures are important. Figures come in lots of different forms. There are the pictures of locations, people, samples and settings, of micrographs at different length scales, scatter plots, pie charts (mmmm…pie…) and so on. Every one of these will need a caption – I suggest that in the context of a thesis, it makes most sense, is more consistent, and more professional to label these according to the chapter that they are in, even if you only have a few. Hence, you might have Figures 2.1 and 3.1 and nothing in-between, but it will make them easier to find if you refer to them again in Chapter 6. That aside, here is my list of very important things that you actually have to do with figures, because IT’S THE LAW – as ever, think about your reader:
– don’t tuck figures away in obscure corners. Make them nice and large, in keeping with the nature of the figure that you are presenting. A graph should probably be at least a half page.
– make sure the axes, legend and any data labels are legible – this is a particular issue if you are importing from another programme, e.g. from excel into word.
– as a rule of thumb, the axes should go through the origin (0,0). An absolute no no is to mess with the axes in order to make the data fit a particular theory. For example, on a scatter plot, you have a cluster of points which is either random or is actually a pretty tight grouping and you change the axes so that you can make it look like they fit a straight line.
– figures should come as soon after the paragraph in which they are mentioned as possible (NEVER BEFORE), but if this means that you are going to get left with a big white space on a page then move some text up to fill the gap. If appropriate to do so, group figures on the same page (bearing in mind that figures should NEVER come before the paragraph in which they are introduced).
– if appropriate, group several items together as one figure, but don’t force this. For example, you might have a selection of micrographs that belong together, a before and after picture or graph, or a picture and graph which belong together.

And, as stated in ‘Design’, think about the presentation. If you’re centring your figure captions (don’t, but just for example) then make sure you do it the same every time. If you’re doing Figure:, Figure -, or some other style, make sure you are consistent.


4 thoughts on “Fonts and Figures

  1. Way back when dinosaurs ruled the earth and I was President of our Student Union, our Rag magazine editor decided to set the whole thing in a sansserif font. It was – for a Rag mag a prestigious product (glossy pages and all) but utterly unreadable! If you are going to use a sansserif face for the body of your work you need to pay close attention to the’ leading’ (spacing between the lines) to make it easily readable. Experiment has show that for body text serif faces are – by and large – more readable.

    Having said that there are good examples around of having something entirely set in sansserif faces, you just need to look carefully at them.

    Agree with you wholeheartedly about Comic Sans and Garamond. One could do worse than look at both Palatino and Perpetua as alternatives to TNR. Both are very attractive and have good ‘colour’ on the page.


    1. Thanks for the tips on fonts! It’s always good to have a choice and try to match the font to the text, if you see what I mean.


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