Writing for design students, part 3: three essentials

Here are three key areas that can make a huge difference in a reader’s appreciation of an essay, dissertation, or thesis.

1. References as evidence

There is some uncertainty about when to refer to external resources (other texts or objects) to support your argument. In short: every statement needs to flow from some resource or previous statement in the text, and every claim needs to be supported. The exception is general, fundamental knowledge in the discipline that you can assume your readers know. (For example, writing about typeface design you do not need to explain what the baseline and the x-height are, but you may need to explain — and illustrate— that Arabic is a right-to-left script with no strict horizontal alignments.)

The most straightforward way to support your argument is through primary sources: original books, prints, type, drawings, and so on. In this case you definitely need to include images of the originals, with the scale controlled, and a good description in each caption that tells the reader what they need to focus on.

If you are using secondary sources (i.e. texts by others) then it is important that you try to go to the original source (i.e. Tom’s text, not a quote of Tom’s in Jerry’s book). If you can, cross-reference the source by trying to locate relevant information in other sources. Reviews of books can be quite helpful in this, as can dissertations and theses (which should carry comprehensive referencing).

Here is an example from a recent article, a paragraph with the two footnotes belonging to it [footnotes indicated in parentheses, because Medium is a bit typographically naive]:

[…]
More important for a typographic evaluation of the types is the lack of their use in any other editions. Baskerville printed smaller octavo volumes where the narrow proportions of the Greek would fit more naturally; indeed the editions that are most commonly referenced as models for the use of his Latin typeface are fairly compact.(12) Additionally, Baskerville printed bilingual texts with Greek in a secondary role (embedded within the Latin script as a quote, reference, or annotation) with Greek types in the conventional style for the period.(13) The narrower, more consistent style of his original Greek types suggests that a typographically more complex document would be a more appropriate context for their use. 
[…]
(12) Publii Virgilii Maronis,
Bucolica, Georgica, et Aeneis. John Baskerville, Birmingham, 1766. 
(13) David Jennings,
An introduction to the knowledge of medals. John Baskerville for T. Field and J. Payne, London, 1764.

Here the statement that Baskerville printed compact editions is supported by pointing to a well-known work of his; his mixing ofGreek and English typesetting by a book he produced for another imprint, indicating that he was well aware of conventions at the time, and would follow them for other publishers’ titles. (It is worth noting that in this case the references point to books, but not for the content of their text, but to the objects as original evidence.)

When you are using secondary sources, be critical as to the author’s status, as well as bias due to time, location, and author perspective. In these two references:

[…]
(31) John Selby Watson,
The life of Richard Porson. Longman, Green, and Roberts, London, 1863, pp. 361–362.
(30) James Mosley discusses Porson’s Greek in “Porson’s Greek types”,
Penrose Annual, vol. 54, 1960, pp. 36–40, and “Porson’s Greek type design”, on http://typefoundry.blogspot.co.uk/2014/10/porsons-greek-type-design.html, 5 October 2014.
[…]

Here Watson’s source, even though it is book, is likely to be out of date in terms of its scholarship, unless you corroborate through other evidence that its veracity has survived. On the other hand, even if one of Mosley’s sources is a personal blog post, the recent date and academic status of the author lend it first-order trustworthiness.


A common mistake in academic writing is “writing for one’s self”: you may know things through your own research and experience, and write as if they are obvious or self-evident. This is wrong: you need to establish your observations for your readers with independent evidence.

Here is an example:

[…]
The rapid expansion of the internet also supported the newspaper revolution. The expansion of digital services and the availability of newspapers in different regional languages on screen and in print, has meant that India’s newspaper market is spreading from local to international and to millions of other language speakers.
[…]

In this example, the author makes a range of claims:

  • that the growth of the internet also led to the expansion of newspapers
  • that newspapers became available in more regional languages (meaning minority languages and / or scripts?)
  • that India’s newspapers are finding new readership internationally

Any of these may be true, but there is no evidence through industry reports, circulation figures, publishers’ annual reports, and so on.

2. Visual documentation

It is very difficult to discuss and evidence a visual discipline without images; and there is no reason to attempt it. Use images alongside the text, to answer questions the reader may have, and also support your argument. Use 100% scale always if possible, and add different scales to enable comparison and observation. If the original sizes of the objects you are showing do not allow a single scale to be used, then use stepped scales (e.g. 100%, 50%, 150%) not random scales to fit a page grid.

Make diagrams, tables, and annotations on images to help the reader make sense of your material, and how you are using it to support your arguments. 
And use a layout that is appropriate for rich image use is important (check out Typography Papers and good dissertations for examples). Here are some good examples of visual documentation sourced from MATD dissertations:

In the spread above, the author has made diagrams to indicate the different typographic colour and texture. Using a diagram allows the reader to focus on the key differences along the lines of text, rather than on the characteristics of specific documents. (Katharina Seidl 2016)
This spread makes good use of different scales: the object is shown in its entirety, which places the type in the context of its use. Then the scaled up images allow the author to draw the reader’s attention to the features that are relevant to the discussion. (Katharina Seidl 2016)
This spread functions in a similar manner: it shows at the top the type at 100% scale, then enlarged so that details can de discerned, and then assembles a set of all the characters in the typeface so that alignments and features can be compared across all letters. (Ueli Kaufmann 2015)
This spread focuses on comparisons across typefaces in use, scaled and aligned so that the reader can easily see how they compose in text. (Ueli Kaufmann 2015)

In both the third and fourth layout the author has chosen to split the footnotes typographically: they are in the same block of text, but they begin with the bibliographic coordinates of the source, followed by the author’s commentary (the reason why the image is used). For example:

Froben’s second Italic: Desiderius, Erasmus; Paraphrases in epistolam Pauli. Basel, 1520. Shown at 300% of original size. Photo by the author. 
A zoom-in reveals a peculiar variety of shapes and varying character-widths; while straight letters are very narrow, the o, p, and q are very wide — a feature that can also be seen in various Roman types of the time. A conspicuous detail is the fluid construction and the generous width of the letter r.

So in this caption the author locates the original resource, and explains what the reader should focus on in this image. An earlier reference in the main text will have prepared the reader to consider the proportions of letters.

Note that these layouts use the left pages for images and captions, and the right ones for the main text and footnotes. This is a fairly good choice, allowing the images to be positioned close to the relevant text. Both authors here place footnotes as sidenotes in the column to the left of the main text; this is fine, as long as the number and length of footnotes allow this. Particularly long footnotes are best accommodated at the foot of each page.

3. References in the text and the bibliography

Always include a bibliography at the end of your text. Include there everything you have consulted, even if it is not referenced in the text. There is no need to separate into print/online sources, they’re all sources. Give the full bibliographic reference according to the standard you prefer (or your institution recommends), e.g.:

Victor Scholderer, Greek printing types, Trustees of the British Museum, 1927

or

Victor Scholderer (1927) Greek printing types, Trustees of the British Museum

Notice that I am omitting the place of publication, and a full stop at the end: this is a personal deviation from standards; you can do such things, as long as you are consistent, and it is obvious to the reader. Note also that I am not capitalising all words in the title of the book, to disambiguate any names included in the title. (So “British Museum” is capitalised because both words are part of the name of the institution.)

Within the text, give the full bibliographic details the first time you make reference to the source only. On subsequent references use a short form:

[…]
(22) Victor Scholderer,
Greek printing types, Trustees of the British Museum, 1927, p. 13
(23) Scholderer,
ibid
(24) John Selby Watson,
The life of Richard Porson. Longman Publishers, 1863, pp. 361–362
(25) Scholderer,
Greek types, pp. 45–46
[…]

This sequence means: 
• Footnote 22 is the first time the author uses Scholderer’s text as evidence. 
• Footnote 23 refers to something that is in the same reference as above (page 13 of Scholderer’s book). 
• Footnote 24 is the first time the author uses Watson’s text as evidence. 
• Footnote 25 is another reference to Scholderer’s book, but in a different location in the book.

Note the use of “p.” for “page” and “pp.” for “pages”; also the use of an en dash for a page range, instead of a hyphen.


These straightforward recommendations can make a big difference to the clarity and support of your argument, and make it easier for the reader to follow your narrative.

Part 1 of this series was about structuring your argument.

Part 2 was about describing resources as evidence.