Science - December 16, 2009

No effort spared on the cover

Joris Sprakel has won the 2009 Cover Prize. The editorial staff have set up this new prize to reward the most attractive cover to appear on this year's doctoral theses at Wageningen University. Sprakel obtained his doctorate in June for his research on paint.

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Sprakel's reaction in Boston, where he is a post-doc doing research at Harvard, is one of surprise. 'Of course I'm euphoric', he jokes. But he's also honoured that his work is appreciated. Sprakel put some serious work into his cover. 'I always notice the layout of theses, articles and books I'm reading. It irritates me when figures are poorly designed. And if you are spending a huge sum at a quality printing shop, you should make the most of that by putting a lot of effort into the cover. You've worked hard for four years on one subject so you want to give it attractive packaging.'
Sprakel did this on a rainy day, about two months before the thesis had to go to the printer's. 'The background is a photo of a fence I found on Internet. I bought the photo of the sphere and the dripping paint from the website iStockPhoto.' He used Photoshop to do the rest, including the reflection of the title in the dripping paint.
The jury feels Sprakel's cover is a perfect illustration of the content of his study (see the jury report as well). Sprakel studied the flow behaviour of water-soluble paint. The dripping blue paint speaks for itself. The sphere is a reference by the award-winner to the latex particles in the paint. 'The cracked paint in the background expresses how paint can become unstable in some situations. I also think the contrast between the glistening paint in the foreground and the old, dried-out paint in the background gives a nice image.'
Sprakel will receive the prize, an illustration by our own artist Henk van Ruitenbeek, at the end of December. That is when he will be in the Netherlands briefly to visit his family. Sprakel's work at Harvard is funded by a Rubicon grant awarded by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research. He is trying to work out the relationship between the observable behaviour of soft matter (foams, gels, emulsions) at the macroscopic level and what is going on at the microscopic level.

Jury report for 2009 Cover Prize
The jury for the 2009 Cover Prize judged all the theses on their attractiveness, their creativity and the match between the cover and the contents. Joris Sprakel's thesis was found to be the best.
The jury said of Joris Sprakel's thesis that he had thought about all aspects of the cover. He received his doctorate this year from the Chair Group for Physical Chemistry and Colloid Science for his study Physics of Associative Polymers; Bridging Time and Length Scales. The jury: 'A large, mysterious, transparent sphere, covered with dripping blue paint, dominates the cover. The colour scheme is simple: white and blue. The cover refers to the subject of the thesis - the replacement of unhealthy solvents in paint by more environmentally friendly solvents - in several different ways. To begin with, the title and author are written using brush strokes. The background and the book's back cover show peeling white paint. Thus the designer reflects the old situation: unhealthy, environmentally unfriendly solvents in paint that cause chronic toxic encephalopathy (a common disease among painters) and air pollution. Environmentally friendly alternatives are being developed; here they are symbolized by the dripping blue (water-soluble!) paint. The innovatory aspect of that product can also be seen in the glistening reflection of the title in the fresh paint on the sphere/globe. The sphere leitmotiv and style elements are recurring features on the inside too.'
The jury also singled out three theses for an honourable mention. These are the dissertations of:
- Sanne Nabuurs. The cover stands out because of its warm colours and strong contrasts. The clear drawing showing how to fold a paper boat is a metaphor for protein folding.
- Marieke Koopmans. The cover with the short, clearly stated title and the misty silhouette of stylized sponges on the sea bed signifies that there is still much to be discovered about sponges. 
- Wiebe de Vos. A pure metaphor for molecular structures (brushes and particles). The particles are cleverly incorporated in the lettering of the title. An appealing cover.

'PhD students are always testing the limits'
Wageningen PhD theses all look very different,  which makes it seem as if anything goes. But that is misleading. Cover designs are closely monitored. Professor Paul Struik, vice dean of the Doctorate Board, is the watchdog. And he will bite if he has to.
The format for a thesis cover is clear. The PhD regulations, which were revised earlier this year, contain a single example. The title is at the top of the page, under which there is limited space for an illustration and then the author's name. That is it. 'That's what it should look like. In principle, anything that deviates from that is not permitted'. Struik sounds strict.
But things are different in practice. 'There is a lot of flexibility as long as it's an illustration', he explains. 'PhD students try to stand out from the crowd. They are proud of their work and give their creativity free reign. They are always testing the limits. I can understand that because their thesis is their calling card.'
A year's worth of theses is evidence that pretty appealing 'calling cards' are possible within the limits of the format. Even so, there are one or two non-negotiable restrictions. Text, for example. Struik: 'Text is not allowed. So you can't put a summary on a cover, or logos, advertising or copyright information.' The reasoning is simple. 'A PhD thesis is a scientific product. It is an exam document that you are required to produce for your doctorate.' A work product like that needs to have a particular look, according to Struik.
'I'm not against frivolity', says Struik. 'I think it's great what they all come up with. What matters is that they keep their creativity within reasonable limits. It's the content that is important. Distinguishing yourself through the appearance of your thesis is not a part of the exam.' Consequently it is common for covers to be rejected. 'The secretarial office picks out most of them. I'm called in if there are any doubts. That's the vice dean's job: giving unwelcome messages, saying something's not allowed. It is not a very thankful role, but someone has to do it and I don't lose any sleep over it.'
Incidentally, until recently there was no official list of rules governing covers. 'For a long time there has been a rather informal set of rules. Everyone kept to them - that's just the way things were. But people were increasingly inclined to challenge the rules. That led to a greater need for a more stringent policy.'
Struik thinks that the new PhD regulations make things clearer. 'It is also much easier to enforce. You will always get problems if you create a grey area. Enforcing rules is a job that can easily give rise to a lot of discussion. That was why we wanted our regulations to be lean and mean -  as concise and explicit as possible.'
 
Bumble
Conflicts about covers can sometimes get quite out of hand. Wieger Wamelink at Alterra even got an official reprimand when he threw down the gauntlet to the Doctorate Board two years ago. Wamelink is a big fan of comic strips, in particular those by Marten Toonder. 'There is always a picture of the cartoon bear Oliver B. Bumble on the back of the Bumble books published by the Bezige Bij. He gives a kind of commentary on the book, but always in his own, Bumble-like manner, i.e. nonsense that still has some meaning. I thought I would like to do that too.' The PhD student requested permission from the Toonder estate to use one such picture - and got it. What is more, Eiso Toonder, Marten Toonder's son, even supplied an appropriate text. But it was not to be. Paul Struik of the doctorate committee put a stop to it. His reason: you are not allowed any text on the back cover. 'But that is rubbish,' says Wamelink, 'there are plenty of theses with text on the back cover.' He put up a fight but eventually decided to give in. 'I got called in by my PhD supervisor. It was made clear to me that if I continued to stick to my plans there would be no PhD.' Wamelink got his revenge in a creative manner. The ill-famed illustration was added to the thesis as an insert in the form of a sticker. 

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