The visible voice: Typographical distinction in thesis writing
On my bookshelf, there is a collection of PhD and Masters theses that I have supervised across the last decade. While some of these face outwards with uniform black spines set in glinting gold type, some do not. These alternative formats, while still hardbound represent recent changes in academic writing and formatting in the discipline of visual communication design. Here, carefully modulated typographical considerations permeate and enhance the clarity of the writer’s voice. The dialect of these theses is no longer Times Roman, Baskerville, or Arial normal. Typography is nuanced, elegant and cognisant of Romano’s assertion that the purpose of type is to ‘to advocate, communicate, celebrate, educate, elaborate, illuminate, and disseminate. Along the way he suggests, ‘words and pages become art’ (Romano 2002: ix).
Concerns with designing the typographic voice do not happen in isolation. Currently within the academy there are contestations across diverse disciplines where researchers seek to extend the richness and clarity of their communicative potential. Such contestations include multimodal research formats that enable the researcher to embed audio and animated files (Ings 2014), the employment of polyvocal writing (Hamilton 2011), and new approaches to document design including page orientation, proportion, foldout spreads, and pictorial information graphics. Arguably, the more such renegotiations of convention appear in the public domain as well resolved expansions to communicative quality, the more we are able to move the articulation of research processes and products forward, Paltridge et al (2012) suggests that little attention has been paid to how typography is actually employed in thesis writing, despite the fact that these documents vary considerably across the academy (Dudley-Evans 1999, Thompson 1999, Ravelli & Starfield 2008). These observations are not new. More than twenty years ago, writers like Noble (1994) and Goodchild and Miller (1997), observed that theses were being written in new ways and the formatting of academic thesis often deviated significantly from prescriptions offered by published guides and university handbooks (Swales & Najjar 1987, Partridge 2002).
Historically students rarely laid out their theses (Hodge 1998), and today many universities still have fixed guidelines within which candidates are expected to operate. By extension, most academic journals still have their typographical voices prescribed by editors. Normally, what scholars write is formatted in a pre-set visual dialect before it is released for public consumption. Although it may be maintained that the quality of written content should take precedence over features of presentation, Bringhurst reminds us that it is typography that endows ‘human language with durable visual form’ (Bringhurst 2002: 11). Given such observations it is perhaps useful to consider how typographical concerns have become manifest in recent candidates’ work.
In considering this issue, this article employs a case study methodology. It examines four visual communication design exegeses at PhD and Masters levels at one New Zealand University. Although the use of typographic design is not a ubiquitous practice in higher research degree exegeses, it is becoming increasingly evident in the fields of creative writing, architecture and visual communication design (Ings 2014). In the broader domain, Ravelli and Starfield (2008) note that it builds upon emerging approaches adopted in wider academic scholarship.
A case study methodology is useful because it can be used to consider a distinct participant pool, drawing conclusions only about that group and only within a defined context. Anchored in real life (Flyvbjerg 2001), suggests that the case study can be employed to illuminate and explicate a subject and its related contextual conditions (Thomas 2011). Because a case study does not seek to produce either generalisable, transferable truths, or cause–effect relationships, its usefulness lies in its ability to consider and describe what is existing and evident (Feagin 1991).
The typographical voice
Typographical decisions in thesis writing can establish expectations for a reader about not only the thesis writer’s identity (Ravelli & Starfield 2008) but also about the authority (Anderson 2012) and credulity (Morris 2012) of the text they create. This is because as Brumberger notes, ‘we assign personality/emotional attributes both to typefaces and to passages of text, and as a consequence, typographical treatments may be understood as having personas that convey not only visual texture and mood, but also rhetorical stances that vary in their emphases’ (Brumberger 2003: 208).
By encouraging writers to conceive typography as part of their written voice, supervisors can significantly enrich new ways of ‘knowing’ and creating. Typographical consideration can lead to levels of embodiment and ways of being ‘in the physicality’ of voice. Accordingly such emphasis may open spaces, trajectories and encounters that had not been previously envisaged or imagined. By exploring pedagogically such meaning making possibilities we have the ability to significantly enrich processes of writing.
In an environment where a plethora of font options is available at the scrolling of a menu, writers have increasingly become ‘their own typographers’ (Stöckl 2005: 213). While this may sound egalitarian, effective typographical design is a complex skill and considerable care needs to be taken with how the appearance of a writer’s voice is constructed. When we talk about designing such a voice, we are considering not only letterforms but also a range of other factors including spacing (tracking, kerning and leading) , justification and line set, emphasis (weight, size), and complementary relationships.
These issues are integral to how visual communication designers construct written text. Indeed, critical writing in the discipline has a long history of expression through typography. Among the most respected professional and academic journals: I.D (est. 1954), Visible Language (est. 1967), Creative Review (est. 1980), Émigré (est. 1984) and Eye (est. 1990), one can trace these concerns with communicating simultaneously, the content and typographical ethos of what is written.
Approaches to voicing the thesis through renegotiations of its typographic form are not new. Early experiments may be traced back at least to Armstrong’s (2002) doctoral project, ‘Towards an Ecosophical Praxis of New Media Space Design’, where he used non-standard approaches to columnisation and leading. More recent doctoral level examples may be found in two distinctive Indigenous theses, Talita Tolutau’s (2015) elegant, ‘Veitalatala: Mātanga ‘o e Talanoa’ and Patrick Stewart’s (2015) controversial deconstructionist dissertation ‘Indigenous Architecture through Indigenous Knowledge’. The latter was designed with a distinctive arrangement of spacing that replaced uppercase letters, full stops and commas.
Positioned against these negotiations of the distinctive scholar’s voice is a largely conservative and cautious academic mindset. Here Ravelli and Starfield (2008) suggest, ‘features such as a sans serif font, standard layout and orthography have come to be naturalized as a conventional and acceptable form of academic presentation’ (144). Significantly, Anderson (2012) in his discussion of the employment of designers by academic publishers notes that most journals pursue solutions closely related to the aesthetics of authority. While these concerns may arguably be supported by Morris’ (2012) research into the impact of typefaces on perceptions of credulity , they also reside in the context of a burgeoning volume of online ‘advice’ to thesis writers. Indicative of this is Jewell’s (2013) Typographic essentials for academic texts that lists five typographic ‘essentials’ for thesis writing. Among these are instructions to use a serif typeface for the main text and a sans serif typeface for headings, tables and figures. She also states that writers should avoid more than two typefaces in a single document and refrain from underlining for emphasis. Significantly, her advice is that when in doubt the student seeking an authentic typographical voice should err on the side of conservatism .
But perhaps it is useful to question this preoccupation with convention. When in 2001, Katie Salen’s seminal essay ‘Surrogate multiplicities: Typography in the age of invisibility’ considered how typography operates as an agent for cultural standardisation, theorists began to reconceive type as an instrument of social marginalisation (Ings 2011, Papaelias 2015, Sinfield 2014, Waldner 2013). Salen argued that typographic treatments could function as a form of ‘visual voice over, which constitutes a ... symbolic environment, as well as the organic process by which a standardized voice is generalised across an entire range of cultural expression’ (Salen 2001: 134). Thus, she argued typefaces like Helvetica, Bell Gothic, Arial, Univers and Interstate have become ubiquitous voices of a dominant order that we rarely question. She suggested that these faces, being utopian and generic, belong nowhere, they are regionless, and without an accent. In a mediated, global environment, they have no dialect and no affiliation to region and although seemingly non-aligned; they are culturally superficial and stereotypical.
Typefaces like these have become the default for much publishing, including a lot of what is produced within the academy. Writers’ voices are encapsulated within pre-set typographical templates. Inside these, our dialects of otherness become subsumed and reconstituted. Significantly, Salen suggests that it is against these sanctioned faces of the dominant order that typographical representations of otherness become demarcated and defined.
But what of otherness? In contrast to positivistic traditions that have conventionally framed the researcher as detached and objective, Griffiths notes that in all research, we should acknowledge both our subjectivity and that of our readers because ‘all facts and information are value laden [and] … knowledge of human beings gets its meaning from the value system of the knowers’ (Griffiths 1998: 46).
In exegetical texts that often accompany research by artistic practice, the writer’s voice is normally required to accommodate both objective review and reflective subjectivity (Brabazon & Dagli 2010, Ings 2014, Hamilton 2011, Paltridge et al 2012). Here the voice is something that must speak outwards in an authentic manner because as Griffiths notes ‘the self is inescapable, because the person creating, responding to, working on, developing or evaluating performances, artefacts and practices is central to those activities’ (Griffiths 2010: 185). How the writer’s voice is constructed becomes central to the integrity of their text.
Ravelli and Starfield (2008) note that ‘a doctoral thesis in Australia is typically prescribed by formal guidelines which delimit the nature of the binding, paper size, the required front pages … single or double sided printing, minimum font size, line spacing and margin size’ (134). The same may be said for many New Zealand universities , although there is increasing flexibility around format that in certain institutions may be agreed to by the department, supervisor and the candidate . The following case studies demonstrate the distinctive ways in which four individual visual communication designers renegotiated these guidelines in the pursuit of a more nuanced voice that might speak with a greater level of resonance to the analytical and subjective concerns of their work.
Figure 1. Chapter sheet and following double page layout of Derek Ventling’s MPhil exegesis,
Designing the voice
This concern with strategically positioning research inquiries so they serve both the academy and the professions is a growing phenomenon as universities pursue closer relationships with industry. The significance and accessibility of thesis research becomes an increasing part of this association. By extension, students also know that what they write will normally become available online. Thus, for many visual communication designers their exegeses will become public demonstrations not only of their research but also of their ability to design and present information.
Accordingly, Derek spent weeks refining his exegesis. He said:
The font he finally selected was Directors Cut Pro. He had already determined that he wanted a contemporary serif font because he wanted to establish a concurrent sense of professional and academic credibility in the design (see Figure 1). On a practical level, the face was available in a number of cuts and styles that afforded him flexibility as he negotiated variations required for denoting body text, footnotes, captions and titles.
Figure 2. Double page spread from Mike Hutcheson’s 2015 exegesis ‘Paradox: How New Zealand culture
Designing the voice
The design Michael adopted was positioned a considerable distance from Warde’s 1932 assertion that typographic decisions should be so discreet (transparent and light) as to be indiscernible (Warde 1956). Building on her assertion, many typographers have argued that one should encounter a page where readability and legibility are so subtly handled that one is not aware of the type.
However, in contrast, this exegesis pursued a high level of typographical distinctiveness. The main serif face was consciously disrupted by the candidate’s decision to employ a stylistic phenomenon closely related to the Prague School’s concept of foregrounding. Here sections of his voice were designed to stand out from the norm established by the serif text (see Figure 2). The foregrounded sans serif text is orange. It operates as a ‘hook’ that responds to the propensity to seek summaries of content at a glance when reading large bodies of copy in magazines. While contrasting with the main text, this foregrounded material establishes cohesion within the writing because it is presented in the same colour as the palette used for both the exegesis cover and illustrations.
Figure 3. Chapter cover and single page spread from the introduction to Lisa Williams’ exegesis: ‘Beyond words: An investigation into aspects of meaning articulated
Designing the voice
When Lisa began her PhD, she had no training in typography. However, she was able to work successfully with a fellow candidate who was a graphic designer, because she knew on very intimate levels the tone, weight and spirit of her voice. Her relationship with this designer was co-creative and it permeated the whole of her research trajectory.
At the outset of the thesis, where a candidate has no formal background in typography, I generally encourage them to begin ‘looking at’ the voices of other writers. Normally colophon pages note the typefaces used in art books or high end literary publications. Such texts can be used to provoke thinking and critique that can lead to more informed discussions with a designer. Increasingly, candidates like Lisa also enrol in concurrent short courses in Visual Communication Design. These programmes can open up an awareness of print potentials, layout, stock (grain, paper weight), binding systems, and the principles of typography.
Each of the six chapter covers in Lisa’s exegesis illustrated a redundant print technology. The body copy for the writing was set in AkzidenzGrotesk. Both she and the designer selected this font because it established a reserved formality that unlike Helvetica maintains circular counters and bowls. These allow it to speak with a quiet clarity and to be clearly readable when it is reversed out from background images (see Figure 3).
Designing the voice
The ‘poetic voice’ the candidate described utilised the classically proportioned Cinzel Decorative for its headings and variations of Calendar Plus for the body text, subheadings and footnotes. The combination of these faces in a spatially luxurious design produced a text that breathed with distinctive lightness. The ‘grace of voice’ this produced was enhanced by her decision to print the work on a light cream 180gsm stock, which reduced the contrast between written language, the page and the delicate images that illustrated her thinking. The overall design spoke with something other than a traditional ‘Western’ voice.
Ellen Lupton has argued that with typographical design, the ‘goal is to find an appropriate match between a style of letters and the specific social situation and body of content that define the project at hand’ (Lupton 2004: 30). She raises here something interesting about the writerly voice. The ‘social voice’, be it ethnic, economic, gendered, or disciplined-focused, may be viewed as requiring more than a preferred set of options laid out in a thesis writing manual. If as academics, we engage with different epistemologies, as well as different ways of being and speaking of the worlds we inhabit and study, then not only is the content of what we voice, but also the shape of that content, integral to how we address the world.
None of the theses discussed in this article used Times Roman, Baskerville or the faces Salen nominated in her 2001 critique of the sanctioned voice. The designs were not constructed from a set of prescribed options. Each was considered in relation to the writer’s position to their thesis.
Significantly all of the candidates in these case studies began working with typography early in the development of their theses. Even in early drafts of their research writing they were laying up pages, negotiating image text relationships and trialling typographical tone and impact in their work. Inside this process they developed increasingly advanced skills in visual communication design that heightened the quality of information graphics, conference presentations and research dissemination documents emanating from their theses.
The care they took in constructing their typographic voices raises two points for consideration. The first is pedagogical. If we expose students to a greater variety of scholarly writing that engages with both the content and shape of the academic voice, we may enable them to think more deeply about the potentials of how they process, present and receive knowledge . By extension, we also need to think carefully about the ‘readability’ of what we construct. Here, I am taking a term from typography and expanding it to mean being cognisant of, and designing writing effectively for, an intended audience. While in the first instance, the readers of a thesis will probably be in the academy, many influential projects reach well beyond universities because their thinking is designed to both represent and help shape a wider world.
Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr once said, ‘A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged; it is the skin of a living thought, and may vary greatly in colour and content according to the circumstances and the time in which it is used’. The written word is exactly this … it is ‘the skin of a living thought’ (Holmes 1918). It is carefully positioned and crafted. It is a reflection of identity. How it speaks alters the way it is understood. It is entirely logical that as writers in the academy we should pay heed to the potentials and implications of such a thing.
Welby Ings is a Professor at AUT University where he is the Head of PhD programs in the School of Art & Design. He holds a doctorate in applied narratology and is an elected Fellow of the British Royal Society of Arts. He has published and spoken widely on issues relating to practice-led scholarship, authorship and the role of typography in identity construction. Welby is also a multi-award winning designer, filmmaker and playwright. In 2001 he received the New Zealand Prime Minister’s Award for Tertiary Teaching Excellence and in 2013 he was awarded the inaugural AUT University Medal for his contributions to research and teaching.
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Vol 20 No 1 April 2016
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo