Jacqueline Lorber Kasunic, University of Technology Sydney
Jentery Sayers, University of Victoria
Kate Sweetapple, University of Technology Sydney

Altering texts to enable interpretation is a key role of the visual communication designer. Designers turn text files into web pages, posters, annual reports, wayfinding, books. They do this by choosing typefaces, point sizes, leading, column width; by considering hierarchy, proximity and juxtaposition.  All of these choices are strategic decisions – a set of graphic and spatial codes – assembled to guide the reader’s interpretative process.  Altering the visual qualities of the ‘page’ to affect meaning is the stock-in-trade of the designer.

However, the focus of this panel is to think about alteration as means of discovery. In this context a designer does not have a specific communicative intent in mind, rather she is interested in creating new texts that can bring to our attention new possibilities of meaning that we might not have seen otherwise. (McGann and Samuels 2001, p. 116) This process of alteration is called deformance. Critically positioned by Samuels and McGann, it is a deliberate disruption of a text through making and remaking bringing about an alternate way of encountering the work.

Digital technologies have made deformance more accessible, allowing us to treat a text as infinitely malleable and mutable. This has enabled humanities scholars to explore sources in ways that were previously difficult, if not impossible. Although deformance is receiving increased critical attention as a method (Owens 2012, Sample 2012) few attempts have been made to describe these strategies beyond the procedural. Descriptions of how to alter texts – reading backwards (performative), n+7 (Oulipian) and collage (Dada) make these strategies transferable and repeatable but offer only a surface understanding of deformance.

In this panel we will look at deformance from both a design and digital humanities/scholarship perspective in an attempt to address key questions at the intersection of these fields.


Paper 1: Jentery Sayers

In this paper I highlight the role of design and deformance in the production of literary history. While recent scholarship (Dunne and Raby 2013; Sterling 2009) has focused on the importance of speculation and conjecture for talking about the future, hardly any work has attended to asking “what if?” of the past—to prototyping or experimenting with history, if you will. More specifically, I survey various deformative methods for researching material culture from the 1800s and 1900s, with an emphasis on texts (e.g., manifestos) that contain charged designed elements. I then conclude with some of the benefits (including pedagogical benefits) of manipulating, altering, or deforming primary source materials to learn more about their forensic, cultural, and aesthetic features. My primary claim is that a subjunctive stance toward literary history does more than balance or correct hermeneutic suspicion; it foregrounds the prominent yet frequently ignored functions played by design in the creation and preservation of texts over time.


Paper 2: Jacqueline Lorber Kasunic, Kate Sweetapple

In this paper we reflect on the role of graphical, spatial and structural materiality in the process of deformance. This is based on the premise that interpreting a text depends not only on linguistic engagement but also on a ‘reading’ of the visual qualities of a page.

In order to account for the many materialities that constitute deformance, we create a typology of deformed textual artefacts. This typology reveals a relationship between the linguistic and visual properties of a text. From this view, we can begin to wonder whether certain deformance strategies lead to particular kinds of textual discovery.



Kate Sweetapple is a visual communication design academic with special interest in data sense-making and information aesthetics. Her focus is on text visualisation, using practice-led research to open up new ways of engaging with written texts from books through to immersive digital environments. This research extends to visualisation in the GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives and museums) sector, where the digitisation of content is requiring a rethink of how cultural collections are explored and presented. Kate is working with colleague Dr Jacqueline Lorber-Kasunic, and the Humanities + Design Research Lab at Stanford University on projects that explore visualisation approaches that account for the qualitative, interpretative nature of humanities data.One project is ‘Writing Rights’, which visualises the evolution of ideas that inform the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789).

Jentery Sayers is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Victoria, with research interests in comparative media studies, digital humanities, Anglo-American modernism, computers and composition, and teaching with technologies. His work has appeared in Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy; Computational Culture: A Journal of Software Studies; The Information Society; Collaborative Approaches to the Digital in English Studies; ProfHacker; The Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies; and Writing and the Digital Generation.

Jacqueline Lorber-Kasunic is a design academic who explores design history and theory, material culture and visual knowledge production. Her research draws on the use of visualisation as a method of inquiry that can open up alternate ways of interpreting text-based data in the field of humanities. Working with Dr Kate Sweetapple at UTS, Jacqueline explores the capacity of visualisation to reveal narratives that cannot be accounted for by aggregation in texts. Instead they draw on the visual epistemology of design to develop approaches that more wholly express the qualitative nature of data. Two of their projects are: ‘Writing Rights’ and ‘Visualizing Chinese Input’ working with Humanities + Design at Stanford University.



Dunne, A. and Raby, 2013, Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction and Social Dreaming, Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press.

McMcGann, J. and Samuels, L. 2001, ‘Deformance and Interpretation’, in McGann, J. Radiant Textuality: Literature after the world wide web,’ New York, Palgrave.

Owens, T. 2012, ‘Discovery and Justification are Different: Notes on Science-ing the Humanities,’ http://www.trevorowens.org/2012/11/discovery-and-justification-are-different-notes-on-sciencing-the-humanities/

Sample, M. 2012, ‘Notes towards a Deformed Humanities,’ http://www.samplereality.com/2012/05/02/notes-towards-a-deformed-humanities/

Sterling, B. 2009, ‘Design Fiction,’ Interactions, Vol. 16, No. 3, pp. 20-24.