Writing for design students, part 2: Describing things

An unidentified person examining tables in a session run by Michael Twyman at Reading

In Part 1 of this series I outlined a structure that can be used as a starting point for pretty much any text in a design education environment, regardless of its length. This means that the structure will be less explicit in a shorter text, and expanded in a longer one. In a short essay (say, 1,000 words) each section might correspond to one or two or three paragraphs, with no separate headings. On the other hand, a dissertation or thesis will need to expand some of the sections into more than one, in order to go into the required depth of discussion.

At the heart of a good structure is the section describing the subject matter — be it one or more artefacts, an act of making, or a series of ideas (section 3 in the framework). A well-done description:

  • introduces and clarifies your terminology;
  • reveals the aspects of the artefacts/acts/ideas that are relevant to your subject;
  • sets priorities that correspond to your subject (or research questions);
  • enables you to introduce notions that you will be discussing in your analysis;

and generally puts things in the right place for your reader to engage with the core arguments in your text.

So, here’s some pointers for this section of your work. I write referring to artefacts, since they are likely to be the most common case for design students, but you can apply this approach to an essay on other people’s texts, for example.

View things at multiple scales

Start by describing an object at the scale that connects the object to its context: the overall physical properties, and its position within its environment of use. Foreground any aspects relevant to your subject, and downplay peripheral information. (For example, describe the book as if you are viewing it closed, noting its dimensions, and any notable features of the binding. Note its format and physical properties.) Draw on your research to connect the object to the period and place of its making, and the technological environment. This scale enables you to place it in a cultural, business, geographic, technological, and user context.

Move your scale closer to the scale at which a user interacts with the object. (In the case of a book, the layout of its spreads.) This level represents the design decisions embodied by the object, and provides insights into the agents of its making (authors, clients, editors, typesetters, and so on). It is the level which reflects the conventions that apply at the time and place of its making, and any departure from these that the object represents. This scale makes connections to genres, and enables a description of several items across specific features, rather than serially, one after the other (more on this later).

Lastly, describe the object at the scale that reveals its construction as a product of identifiable, discreet actions. (In the case of a book: the types or fonts used, the effects of the typesetting methods employed, the manner of making and placing illustrations, and so on.) This level reveals the potential and limitations in the decisions of makers. It is a scale often invisible to the user, but it is the foundation for any narrative focusing on the making of objects.

To summarise: describe for context, for meaning, and for making.

Two walls of Juliet Shen’s room when she was working on her dissertation on Morris Fuller Benton

Expand into wider meaning

Especially when examining several objects, this structure will allow you to avoid a linear description (“this thing, that thing, then the other thing”) and create a thematic description: “this aspect in all of the objects, then that aspect in all of the objects, then the other aspect in all of the objects”. (For example, you could be looking at text areas across many books to identify the bias towards justified setting in hot-metal systems; then connect this to the typesetting of list-like matter, like contents pages, that do not really need to be typeset justified, and highlight the dot leaders spanning the page.)

By separating out aspects across objects, a thematic description allows you to make connections between objects and the notions that drive your subject, or the research questions you are investigating. It allows you to identify technological or other factors that underscore whole categories of work, and make connections to the ideas that might be driving the makers of the objects. You can distinguish between trends (the patterns of action by many) and exceptional narratives, which signpost decisions by individuals who redefine ideas in our field.

Thematic descriptions form the basis of a reflective discussion of subjects relating to design. This is because they enable you to write about objects within a network of makers situated in wider communities, the conditions prescribing their actions, and the knowledge they draw on and generate.

In other words, thematic descriptions help you write about design as a cultural enterprise.

A timeline by Ferdinand Ulrich from preliminary stages of his research on early digital type design systems

First things first

Before you start, familiarise yourself with the general context of your subject: what’s the culture, the economy, and the professional norms in the society in which your objects exit? What are the relevant technologies? (For books: understand the technologies of typesetting, how publishing finances and distributes titles, and the different roles in the chain: authors, editors, production managers, and so on.)

Then, use the process above to make observations about objects, in a loosely structured system. This should allow you to rearrange snippets of information according to the themes you identify. You can use any system that works for you (and there are several suitable software-based tools) as long as you can relate discreet elements — imagine rearranging Post-Its on a wall. for many subjects, starting with a timeline is an easy way in.

Arrange your observations in a manner that allows your themes to emerge, and you can start writing your text following the structure in front of you.

And: no public promises for when other instalments may appear…