Analytical Tools for Critiquing Graphic Devices in Hybrid Novels

[TPL’s note: In one of the chapters included in her doctoral thesis, “Visual Writing”, designer Zoë Sadokierski presents three tools designed to help the critic in his or her analytical approach to hybrid novels. Reproduced here is an excerpt of that text, in which the first two tools are explained. You’ll find the complete document of her thesis in our references section. We encourage you to read it.]

The tools presented below were developed by reflecting on my process and findings from the preliminary study of hybrid novels i developed in my doctoral thesis. This is both a report on my research and a model for other researchers and critics. Three tools are presented: sketching a thumbnail schema; a questionnaire and a review of epitexts.


For craftspeople – including writers and designers – planning and drafting are vital stages in the creative process. In “thinking” through the hand, ideas are fleshed out in action, through the process of making, and reflecting on making. […]

A type of sketching specific to print design is thumbnailing. A book designer sketches a schema of “thumbnails” to map out a book. This schema allows the designer to plan where graphics fall – if they are required to appear on particular pages for print reasons – and to establish rhythm within the layout – considering how graphic devices affect the pace of reading and comprehension of the text. A thumbnail schema helps the designer envision the book as a whole – to make decisions about individual devices, in the context of the novel. […]

After an initial reading (to have an understanding of the content), sketching the double-page spreads in each novel creates a schema of the whole novel (fig. 1). This is obviously an exercise in deconstruction, attempting to understand how the book is designed by thinking like a designer: could the placement of graphic devices be determined by printing specifications? Is there visual rhythm in the placement of graphic devices? In addition, this exercise forced me to engage with the graphic devices with my hand as well as my eye. It is a meditative exercise that encourages me to “converse” with the graphic devices, revealing new insights about these devices. Committing pen to paper – sketching the graphics – requires breaking down the composition of the page in order to sketch it. The slowness of the process encourages reflection, and shifts my engagement from that of a “common” reader to a “critical reader”.

I created a colour code to mark the different graphic types, as defined by the typology of graphic devices: photographs, illustrative elements, ephemera, diagrams or typographic devices. Part of the value of thumbnailing the novel by hand was that for between an hour and an hour and a half – the time it took to sketch the schema for an entire novel – I was completely focused on the “bigger picture”, a meditative process. Because I was looking at the double page spreads as graphic compositions rather than reading the text, I considered how the graphic devices inhabit the page, how they relate to each other spatially within the novel. I looked for repetitions and patterns in the types of graphic devices, and noticed variations in size and reproduction that may have been missed by looking at the book as a “codex” – page by page, rather than as a schema. The thumbnailing exercise encourages looking with a “curious eye” – actively seeking what is not yet known. […]

The process of sketching thumbnails reveals insights about how the graphic devices function within the novel as a whole. In addition, the thumbnail sketches form a schema that can be used as a reference while further critiquing hybrid novels. However, although meaningful to me, the loose, reductive nature of the sketches is not detailed enough to share with others, or to re-examine the devices later in great detail. For this reason, the graphic devices were also catalogued in their original size, by scanning the pages.

-Scanned thumbnails – making an archive/catalogue for presentation
The scans isolate devices for closer scrutiny, but also allow them to be considered in the context of the surrounding text. They show compositional elements such as size, colour, texture and graphic presentation on the page, as the reader of the novel will experience them. It is important to have reproductions of the novels at exact size to be able to make “visual quotations”. Including correctly scaled scans in written critique allows readers to experience the devices in as close an approximation to the actual novel as possible; the reader is better equipped to assess my critique if they can accurately see what is being discussed. The scans can also be reproduced at a smaller scale to show readers what is being discussed without the distraction of a readable page of text. […]

To a book designer, creating this archive of graphic devices for presentation – “framed” by double page spreads, as they appear in the text – is an obvious exercise. However, I have been perplexed at numerous conference presentations and reading publications where hybrid texts are discussed without either showing the text, or reproducing it in an inauthentic way. Effective critique of hybrid texts must find innovative ways of presenting analysis.


This second tool examines the graphic devices in closer detail, as individual images and in terms of their function within the novel. It is a questionnaire, designed to reveal insights about graphic devices, and inform critique of hybrid novels. […]

The questions employed literary scholar Gérard Genette’s paratextual theory to explain that graphic elements are conventionally supplementary in novels –thresholds to interpretation, but not part of the primary text. Genette analyses each paratextual device by its position in the landscape of the textual whole, before describing its particular literary function: “Defining a paratextual element consists of determining its location (the question where?); the date of its appearance and, if need be, its disappearance (when?); its mode of existence, verbal or other (how?); the characteristics of its situation of communication – its sender and addressee (from whom? to whom?); and the functions that its message aims to fulfill (to do what?)”. [1]

The first four questions – where, how, when, from whom/to whom – locate and describe the paratextual device. The fifth question – to do what – considers the function of the device. Genette does not ask ‘what does this thing mean’, but what is this thing, and what function does it perform in the context of the novel.

Although I argue that graphic devices in hybrid novels are integral, not paratextual, Genette’s approach to the analysis of paratext is a useful model because it leads to the kind of questions that reveal, rather than prescribe, insight. […]

— Questionnaire for graphic devices in hybrid novels
Graphic “type”: What is it? I developed a typology of five main types: photographs, illustrative elements, ephemera, diagrams or typographic devices. However, a device might be a combination of these types, such as implied ephemera (typesetting that implies the form of a piece of ephemera, such as a letter or business card), or a photograph presented as an ephemeral object (a Polaroid, or a postcard), or a typographic illustration (a piece of type- setting that forms a recognisable shape).

Reproduction: How is it reproduced on the page? Is it embedded in the written text, separated with a frame or border, presented on a new page? Does it sit within the text boundaries (typographic grid) or fall outside the grid? Is it full bleed? Is it produced in colour, or greyscale? Was it originally full colour, greyscale, single colour? Is it the actual size, or scaled up/down? Is it cropped? The reproduction could offers clues about graphic type, for example it could show the difference between a photograph and a piece of ephemera.

Author/viewer (fictional): Who is supposed to have created the device in the world of the novel – the narrator or a character? Who is supposed to ‘see’ the device – the reader or a character?

Author/viewer (actual): Who is credited with creating the device – the author, a typesetter, a designer? Where is the device credited – cover, imprint page, acknowledgements, outside the book (website, interview)?

Originality: Is the device original (created specifically for the novel), or found (did it exist before the novel – in an archive, a family photograph album, as an advertisement, in a film)? If the device exists outside the pages of the novel, is it a well-known image, and what associations does it carry?

Location: Where does the device appear within the novel? Does it appear in the preliminary pages or the primary text?

Repetition: Does the device appear more than once? Are there other, similar devices in the novel? Are they related?

Many of these questions are linked – they are not sequential, but a collection of questions designed to prompt insights, and inform critique.


These tools are not presented as a definitive set. As the “canon” of hybrid novels develops, more innovative and noteworthy examples will inform our understanding of the ways graphic devices could function in a novel. As other critics discuss these novels, it is my hope that new perspectives will complement and challenge these analytical tools. It is my intent that other critics could add to it, and to the critique of hybrid novels more generally.

Design educator Neal Haslem states: “The strength of practice-led-research is in the way it allows the practitioner to use his or her most fluent language (the language of design: be it visual, system or artefact) as the key research tool. The artefacts produced through that practice embody and further the research concerns in, I would argue, a poetic way. [2]” It is my hope that more practitioner-researchers will contribute more “poetic” approaches to researching hybrid texts.

[1] Genette, G. 1997, Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation, trans. J.E. Lewin, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
[2] Haslem, Neal. 2006, “Poetic language”, Online Workshop for AHRC Review of Practice-Led Research in Art, Design and Architecture.

Post a comment