Thoughts on creating this website

What worked and what didn’t in the process of creating my website based on a Hugo theme

Building this website using github, Rstudio, Hugo and Netlify

I will describe the process I went through to get this site up and running which includes many botched attempts. These attempts may or may not be useful for others, but I wanted to document my process. This website was built using the Hugo theme “academic”. Hugo is a way to build static sites (as opposed to dynamic sites where the content is created each time a visitor opens the website). This theme appealed to me visually and is very rich with features.

TL;DR - If you want to serve your website on Netlify - use academic kickstart and add content from there. See Section Four for what I actually did.

Previously I had used Weebly to build my website and while I enjoyed this platform for its ease of use and nice design, I felt that it was time for something different. I wanted to control more of the details and do more of the building of the website myself. While attending OpenCon Switzerland I participated in a workshop on creating websites via Github with Hugo themes with Joao Martins where I got quite excited about the possibilities available with Hugo. When I decided to rebuild my website I was convinced that I was going to use the blogdown R package which allows you to create websites using Rmarkdown with Hugo.

My final path was not quite as straightforward as I had imagined, but nevertheless here is how I got to this edition of my website.

First Attempt

I started out reading the directions on the blogdown page and it seemed straightforward enough to follow the workflow proposed on the blogdown site.

  1. I scrolled through various Hugo themes and settled on the hugo-academic theme.
  2. Then from the RStudio console I ran install.packages("blogdown") to install blogdown and then blogdown::install_hugo() to install Hugo which is used to serve the site locally.
  3. I ran blogdown::new_site("gcushen/hugo-academic") to create my new site.

I didn’t document it well, but I ran into some problems with this attempt where I actually had the default hugo-lithium theme used for the website instead of my desired hugo-academic theme. I decided to start over to keep things from getting too complicated.

Second Attempt

For building this website I wanted to work in RStudio as I wanted to take advantage of the built-in functionality for many blogdown functions. For this attempt I tried to use some of the built-in functionality of projects with blogdown to create my website.

  1. In RStudio I started a new project (“File->New Project”) where I chose “New Directory” and then “Website using blogdown”. Like the first attempt, this auto-generated some content for a basic website which enabled me to play around with the directory structure of these site. I learned that generally the documents that are edited are in /content, the static content that is formatted is in /static and some of the configuration is found in /config. I was also able to play around with some of the functionality in RStudio where from the “Addins” menu you can easily spin up a preview of the site and create new blog posts.

However, I was still not getting my theme of choice to work. Nevertheless, I wanted to see if I could get the site up and running on my custom domain.

  1. I created a git repo in my website directory (git init) and added files in my website directory (git add), committed these files (git commit -m "trying out this Hugo stuff") and then pushed to an empty repository I had created on Github.
  2. Then I logged into Netlify, clicked on “new site from git”, then clicked on Github, authorized Netlify to access my repositories, found my repository, chose the basic settings and then deployed. This gave me a Netlify site address, but I wanted to use my custom domain. I followed the steps outlined by Netlify where you can assign your custom domain to your deployed Netlify site and configure your DNS provider to redirect to the Netlify servers. It took about a day for my website to be available via my custom domain after configuring my DNS provider (GoDaddy).

This was a good start: I have a website served by Netlify available on However, I was still not able to use the theme I desired.

Third Attempt

This time I decided to “rtfm” for using academic with RStudio. I created a fresh directory and a fresh git repo. Then I used the directions from the theme on how to use this theme with RStudio.

  1. Used the directions on the theme website for installing with Rstudio
  2. Copied the config.toml from default/ up to the root of the website directory as a workaround for a blogdown bug.
  3. Copied the content/ folder in /themes/academic/exampleSite/ to my root /content folder which enabled me to get started with the site and adding my content.
  4. I tested out the site now and then by clicking on the RStudio button “Addins -> Serve Site”, then clicking “Open in Browser” to view the page in my browser.
  5. I added my files to my git repo (not the same repo as in the second attempt) and then pushed to Github.
  6. I added the Github repo in Netlify and then when Netlify was building the site I ran into all kinds of errors. One error was because I did not have the correct version of Hugo specified, and this could be fixed by adding a netlify.toml file to the root of my website specifying that I would like to use Hugo version 53. Another error occurred when Netlify could not find the hugo-academic theme. It turns out that the theme is supposed to live as a git submodule in the themes directory and I did not have the submodule configured properly. I briefly tried adding it using a .gitsubmodules file in the root of the repository, but this did not work for me. I played around with this for a little bit, but decided to try another approach.

Fourth Attempt

I used the Netlify one-click method available from the Hugo Academic website. This is finally what has worked for me.

  1. I clicked on the link to deploy an example site, “Academic Kickstart” on Netlify. This worked very easily. I left the address as a Netlify address while I worked on various changes. You have the option to change the repository name now (or you can do it later as I did). This option creates a git repository under your connected user in Github that you will use to add content to your website. This approach made it easy to ensure that everything was properly set up to work with Netlify. A little while later I changed the address where the site was deployed to my custom address. Since I had already set up my DNS for Netlify (in Attempt Two) I was able to see my deployed site immediately on my custom domain.
  2. With the site successfully deployed on Netlify, I cloned the git repository to a new directory on my laptop (leaving the other failed attempts aside).
  3. In Attempt Three I had created content (e.g. biography, publications, experience and presentations) based on the example site and I had set up the menus and website settings. I copied these two folders (config/ and content/) with my content to the appropriate folders in my new “academic kickstart” folder and then worked from there.
  4. I noticed that the themes directory was empty and remembered that the academic theme is pulled in as a submodule, so I ran git submodule update --init --recursive to get the files from the theme into my local directory. This is necessary for serving the website locally (on your computer), but also useful if you are making changes or customisations to the layout and need to copy some files from the theme to your root where you will change them. Before this, I did not know anything about submodules in git but I was happy to learn about this slick way to store one separate repository within another.
  5. This version was not quite set up to work out of the box with RStudio, i.e. cannot currently use the RStudio functionality of New post or serve site because I did not have a config.yaml. I chose to serve the site from the command line using hugo server from the root website folder and then work on files while it was being served to quickly see that I was not breaking anything and to easily see my modifications. This way it was quick to see if there was a problem and to diagnose it from the command line using the helpful error or warning messages displayed. The RStudio plugins were handy, but at this point I was getting a bit impatient to get my site up and running so I forged ahead using my text editor and command line.
  6. For adding my publications I chose the list style (after trying all of them) which I liked, but was frustrated that the journal name and year of the publication were not visible from the main page. I customized the layout so that the year and journal name were visible by copying /themes/academic/layouts/partials/li_list.html to my website root /layouts/partials/li_list.html and editing this file. I am still not completely satisfied with the publication list style, but will do more updates at a later date.
  7. I thought it might be fun to add a few pages in French to my website since Hugo offers the ability to create sites in multiple languages. The Hugo academic site has some instructions on getting this set up, but it took me a few attempts to actually get things working. My default page is in English (as defined in config/_default/config.toml defaultContentLanguage = “en”)
    • I copied the yaml files for my desired languages from /themes/academic/i18n/ to a new directory /i18n. These provide the website interface in different languages and work quite nicely.
    • In /config/_default/languages.toml I added a second section for French by using the example that was contained in this file.
    • With Hugo you can either keep all of your multilingual content in separate sub-folders (e.g. in my case, content/en/ and content/fr/) or you can keep all of the content in one folder (content/) and use the language codes to identify which files are in which languages (e.g. which is in English, the default language and which is in French). The option that worked best for me was to keep all the files in content/ and then identify the files by language code.
    • I ran into some problems getting my biography (served from content/admin/) in two languages. With this theme and the way that I am using it, much of the biography information comes from the “admin” user profile that lives in /content/admin/ and then this is referenced by a widget using /content/home/ If I just added a new file in content/home/ my website crashed. What finally worked (by trial and error), was moving /content/admin/ to /content/admin/, adding /content/admin/, moving /content/home/ to /content/home/ and then adding /content/home/ So what I ended up with for my bio files was:
      • /content/admin/
      • /content/admin/
      • /content/home/
      • /content/home/
    • The order of files for the French content is turned on and off and ordered using the same parameters as the English content (e.g. for the files in /content/home/ the “active = true” needs to be set and the weight for its position in the page). The top menu bar content for French is organized in config/_default/languages.toml.
    • Apparently in the config.toml you can add a line to disable a language which could be useful if working on a translation. To disable French and Japanese, for example, you would add: disableLanguages = [“fr”, “ja”]
  8. I also wanted to change the default website icon (which is seen in the left-hand part of the web browser tab) from the academic theme “A” to something more personalized for my site. To do this I followed the instructions on the theme website which instructed me to have a 16x16 pixel icon as icon.png and another 192x192 pixel icon as icon-192.png in the root static/img folder. I created my icons in Illustrator and placed the icons in static/img, but I was not able to change the website icon this way. Based on a github issue I saw that what could work was creating a public/img folder from my website root and putting the icons there. This worked!
  9. Since working on this blog post I found that the fonts were too large for me, so I scaled down the fonts by copying the font for the overall theme that I am using (“default”, not “classic” or “playfair”) from /themes/academic/data/fonts/default.toml to a new folder /data/fonts/default.toml. Here I changed the font size from 20 to 16 and the small font size from 16 to 14.
  10. In the publication section for each individual publication there were multiple buttons for sharing on twitter, reddit, facebook, etc. This didn’t feel necessary to me so in config/_default/params.toml I set sharing = false (by default it is set to true) which removed the buttons.

Future Improvements

Currently there are still things that I would like to change and adapt for this website, but for now I am going to release it into the wild and come back to it later.

  • At a later date I would like to:
    1. Improve the publication format. I find the information does not scan quickly.
    2. Add some nice pictures to the site.
    3. Update the presentation format so that it is a bit more structured.


It was useful to create this website with a Hugo theme, however, for my specific desires, it was not as straightforward as I thought it would be, but I now have a website that I am happy with. I am very appreciative of all of the nice work that has gone into the Academic Hugo theme.

Julia A. Gustavsen