While it’s easy to be preoccupied by the abstract arguments, concepts and theories of an academic thesis, PhD supervisors and students need to remember that the thesis document is a material entity, even on the screen, and specifically, as Pat Thomson argues in a recent and highly recommended post, a visual entity.
As Pat notes, thinking across disciplines here is useful, as poets and designers are experts in white space, and in giving words and ideas room to breathe. The readability and aesthetics of theses can have a powerful effect on examiners. One of my examiners even commented in her report, on how “clean” my thesis was, and she was referring to the white space, which had been carefully crafted in relation to chapter openings, positioning of images, font, headings, paragraphs, borders, line spacing and even kerning (spaces between letters).
Here are two useful websites to assist with understanding this idea, for those who are guiding students in the presentation of their documents:
This lyrical blog post by poet Orlando White explores the concept of “functional white”, which is just as important in a thesis as in a poem; functional white takes the reader through a text. Language and silence collaborate on every page of writing, even academic writing.
This graphic design blog post by Pratik Hegde describes how white space is integral to branding; this is a useful concept for supervisors and students, to think how the design of every page of a thesis contributes to the student’s branding and academic identity. This post provides thesis-relevant textual examples.
Fundamentally, working with white space is about empathising with the reader; this is very important for a thesis, when the stakes are so high!