How Should I Design My Curriculum Vita?

If you’ve seen my other articles on résumé design, you know that I am a strong proponent of making résumés look, well, sexy. But, a good friend of mine recently asked me (and I’m paraphrasing): but, what about academic curriculum vitas? Especially if you’re in a field like literature?

My initial response to any question like that is YES, still do something to your vita. Information should always be designed well and you should always put some thought into the design. The clearer, cleaner, classier you make information look, the better it will (almost always) make you look.

At the very least, there are four design principles that should guide the design of any document (and I’m citing Robin Williams, here, author of The Non-Designer’s Design Book): contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity. On your CV, use contrast in your headings; use repetition with typefaces and font sizes; use alignment with items that are related but not in the same location (like cities/schools, dates, job titles, and so forth); and use proximity to clump sections that are tied together (like “Teaching Experience” and “Education.”)

Three other things I would almost always recommend: 1) adjust your font size to something smaller than 12 pt. but larger than 9; 2) use two typefaces (and don’t let either be Times New Roman or Calibri), one for your name and section headings, and one for the rest of your content; and 3) use rules (lines that go across the page) or clearly distinguished white space to separate content. These three adjustments will do wonders to your CV without making it look exceptionally loud or inappropriate. It will, trust me, simply look better.

With that said, you’ll want to know the conventions in your discipline. I am a communications professor and I teach in a forward-thinking, design-conscious department. My curriculum vita works well for me, but it may be a little flashier that you might feel you can get away with. Your best bet is to ask several colleagues what theirs looks like, then show them a couple versions of your own. But my guess is, you’ll be surprised how many will prefer a nicely designed, slightly “sexier” cv. After all, it’s not like literature professors don’t appreciate good design like the rest of us. They are human, after all!

Or, you might take a bold approach. I had a wonderful professor when I was an undergraduate student who insisted on including a pink flamingo on her CV. She felt that she wanted to work at a school that was comfortable with her expressing herself in her own way. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend going to that extremt, but her point was well taken: is a nicely designed CV likely to be a turn off to the department you are applying to? If so, make your decision based on that. You may want to conform; you may not. But if you, like me, feel that good information design is good for people, you may not want to be stuck in a department so prudish that a little design hinders your ability to advance. Regardless, though, be conscious about it. Think about the design of your document just about as much as you think about the content. It does make a difference.

Try this: take your plain résumé and spruce it up and put someone else’s name on it to get an unbiased response. Then, show it to 10 people in your field and watch and listen closely to their response. I think you’ll find most will be in favor of the nicer design, regardless of your discipline. If you do it, write me back and let me know how it went!