Find the most important concept
What is your paper about? Why is it important? What’s something really cool that you found? It’s not about the five different genes you analysed or the particular settings that you used for PCR. You need to distill your paper down into a single concept or idea that’s going to be your cover art. You may be able to get away with two if you’re lucky. You may have to settle for more if you’re doing a review. But it’s always best to try for one. This is harder than it seems. You’ve spent months chiselling away at that manuscript, polishing and perfecting it. Now you have to blur your vision a bit and try and see the overall silhouette of the paper without being distracted by the detail. The famous advertising company M&C Saatchi live by the philosophy of ‘brutal simplicity of thought’. Simple is better. Start your ideas from one starting point rather than trying to find those that tick three or four boxes at once.
Do your research
First things first, how much space the cover art actually take up? Some papers do a full page illustration, others do a small image that fits in with the rest of their branding. Check the dimensions and make sure you’re designing for them. You’re going to be really annoyed if you create a piece of artwork in portrait and 50% has to be cropped out a the journal wanted landscape. Secondly, take a look at what kind of cover art has made it to the front page previously. The decision as to what goes on the cover is probably a decision shared by the editor and the art director. The editor is fighting for scientific impact, the art director is fighting for what will actually look good. If the journal you’re publishing in has a habit of putting cartoon or caricature work on the front, you should bear that in mind. I’m not saying that you have to let past examples dictate what your cover art will look like. If the editor/art director combo does have a penchant for humorous drawings though, try a few. It’s definitely worth taking a few minutes to come up with some ideas that fit the mould, even if you don’t follow them through. Even better, drop the art director a message and ask what kind of artwork tends to get selected. Even if they tell you that it’s 100% on the science and little to do with the aesthetics, you’ve got the art director on your side if it comes down to a difficult decision. Plus you might be able to get some useful advice off them.
Quantity not quality is key here, you need to have lots of ideas. Even if you think that the first idea you have is the best one, keep going. Why’s that? Because chances are that if that was your first idea, it was a pretty obvious one. If it’s an obvious one, other people have probably come up with it before you. It may even be a visual cliche in the field now. Think DNA made out of lego bricks to show ‘the building blocks of life’ or brains made out of water to represent ‘fluidity in brain structure’. Keep the cliches to hand as they can be fun to subvert later on, but focus on coming up with new ideas first.
Analyse the competition
You’re not just creating a piece of journal cover artwork, you’re visually communicating the contents of your paper (whether you like it or not). People judge books by their covers and it’s the same with journal covers. You may have what you think is the best idea in the world, but if someone else has already done it, you may be better off trying something else. If your prized idea is already on a stock website, that image will already be associated with hundreds of other articles, brands, medical websites, and possibly journals. Your content is original, so be original. If someone got there first, scrap that idea unless you can think of a way to make it look significantly different. This is why we came up with lots of ideas in tip number 2.
Let the ideas ferment
You’ve got some ideas. Great. Now sit with them in your head for a day without doing any more work on them. You can’t rush creativity and now that you’ve clearly defined the problem and some potential solutions, your brain can subconsciously mull them over. If you’re the kind of person who has their best ideas in the shower or out running, you’ll know what I’m talking about. I’m not saying that you can’t use the ideas as they are, but it’s worth leaving them for a day just to see if anything else pops up. Plus by delaying moving onto the next step you’ll be super excited when you finally get to start drawing. This is useful as it’s unlikely all your ideas will work when committed to paper. It’s important not to lose motivation if something doesn’t work out, so pace yourself.
Get out the paper and pencil
Time to get those ideas down on paper. This step is to sort out the cover art ideas that work and the ones that sounded great, but don’t. Composition is king, and if you don’t sort it out now it’s going to get very expensive in the future. If you decide half way through the project that, actually, it doesn’t make sense to have that DNA strand next to that protein, you’re going to have to start again. Whether that means a freelancer has to start a 3D mesh from scratch or your PhD student has to clear the next three days of her calendar, it’s going to cost you. Do at least six preliminary sketches to check that everything visually fits together, or get someone else to do them for you if you lack talent in the pencil department.
One of the first things you’re taught when you learn photography is to try and take pictures that people wouldn’t normally see. You’ve found something interesting to photograph, now try and take a photograph from an unusual angle. Lie on the floor. Get really close up. Take a photo from up high. You can immensely improve how interesting an illustration is to look at by adding devices such as unusual perspectives, foreshortening, or even just odd angles. Try three point perspective to make things look much bigger than they are. Make some elements of the composition really close to the viewer and some really far away. Rotate your image slightly so that the main lines of the drawing deviate from the horizontal and vertical axes.
Plan your use of colour selectively
There are probably elements of your illustration that you want to stand out, particular residues that need to be highlighted because they’re important to the mechanism. To make them stand out you have to let other things fade into the background. Work out a hierarchy of what the most important pieces of information you want to show are. For an enzyme, perhaps cysteine residues, then all active site residues, then overall molecule shape. Number one should probably be a really bright colour that pops out, number two should be a similar hue but a little duller, and number three should only just be distinguishable from the background. You haven’t left any key information our here, you’ve just selected the most important information and organised it visually.
If your cover art doesn’t have enough negative space, it could get butchered
Imagine you’re in the Art director’s shoes. You open up a piece of artwork and immediately groan. It’s beautiful sure, but where on earth are you going to fit the Journal title in this composition? It’s detailed all over, and there are at least six different bright colours in it. Each one of those is another colour that you can’t render the title in as it’ll be illegible. And what about those five different article titles that you’ve also got to get on there. The editor keeps pushing you to add another two, but even five is going to be a struggle. I suppose there’s a tiny crevice around the molecule in the bottom right? You sigh, open up photoshop, and proceed to dull all the colours in the beautiful artwork, dropping the luminosity into the dark greys. But hey, at least everyone will be able to work out which journal they’re reading from the cover now that your title is white on grey. Look at a few past journal covers and get a feel for how much text the art director needs to put around your image. Ideally when you’re creating the image, you want to limit the number of colours you use (see point 8) and keep all the detail in the middle. Ideally you should create your image with plenty of negative space around it and let the art director elegantly crop it depending on what suits. The easiest way to do this is just to extend the background. If that’s not possible, consider blurring out the outermost edges of the illustration to make it easier to read text on top of them. For instance by using depth of field, which makes things far away very blurry, or using a tilt shift filter, which makes the top and bottom of an image blurry. Your art editor will thank you for it.
Find someone who can do it for you
Chances are you have better things to do than create some cover art for your paper. If it’s something you really enjoy and you have some artistic skill then by all means go ahead. If it sounds like a lot of work though it’s worth getting someone else in. You’ve already got a clear idea of what you need drawn and what it should look like, you just need a designer or talented staff member who can realise it. Ask to see some portfolios and examples of previous artwork to help you decide who’s the best fit for what you have in mind. Ideally find someone with a bit of a scientific background. They’re more likely to understand which details are OK to have some flexibility with and which ones will just make the science wrong. If you get a talented colleague to do it, make sure there’s something in it for them. They’re more likely to take it as seriously as you do if there’s a fee or return favour involved. Whilst things might seem rosy at the start if someone offers to do it for free, they’ll quickly sour when you start requesting edits. If you go down the freelancer route, make sure you’ve negotiated the rights and fees properly. If you later decide that you want to use the illustration for other purposes than just a journal cover, you may get charged extra. That said freelancers will probably jump at the opportunity of having a client who knows exactly what they want, as opposed to one who says ‘I’ll know it when I see it’.
Here at Vivid Biology, we love finding ways to turn quite complicated science into great visuals. Recently we created a data visualisation that illustrates the periodic table of elements in terms of electronic configurations. We created it as a teaching aid for chemistry teachers, who typically cover the topic at A-level. We've created two versions, one with text and one without. We're doing art prints of the infographic version, and large school-sized posters for the version with text.
We've written a write-up below explaining a bit about the periodic table, and some of our design reasoning.
The infographic was designed by Claudia Stocker at Vivid Biology. Krit Sitathani assisted with corrections and general feedback.
About the periodic table
The first version of the modern periodic table was created in 1869 by Dimitri Mendeleev. Previous periodic table had attempted to order the elements by atomic mass. Whilst arranging the elements in order of increasing atomic mass, in the same way many scientists before him had, Mendeleev spotted that patterns of certain chemical properties kept repeating themselves. Previous scientists had organised the elements into groups with similar chemical properties. Mendeleev arranged the elements into rows and columns according to similar properties, occasionally swapping elements out of their atomic mass sequence to fit the properties better. Crucially, Mendeleev left gaps in the periodic table where he could not identify an element with the appropriate mass and properties for the spot. Over the years after publication, several of the elements were discovered, many of them matching Mendeleev's predictions.
What does this have to do with electrons?
Without realising it, Mendeleev had arranged the elements in order of increasing atomic number. This was confirmed by experiments by Henry Moseley several years after his death. This means that as you move across and down the periodic table, each element increases its number of protons and electrons by one.
Electrons are the key to understanding most chemistry. They are the parts of atoms that are shared, swapped, and lost during reactions.
By understanding how the electrons are arranged in an atom, you can understand how it might behave in a reaction.
In fact, the position of an element in the periodic table tells you a lot about its electrons. The patterns of chemical properties that Mendeleev observed were down to similar elements having the same number of electrons in their outermost shell. These form the groups or columns of the periodic table.
The rows of the periodic table tell you how many shells, or layers of electrons, there are between the outermost electrons (that take part in reactions) and the nucleus (which tries to hold on to them).
In a reaction, atoms are nearly always trying to achieve a full outer shell, either by losing electrons, gaining electrons, or sharing electrons. A full outer shell either means the shell is completed (filled up) or completely emptied, leaving the full shell underneath.
An electronic configuration is a code that shows you how the electrons are arranged in an atom.
At the most basic level, this will show you how many electrons there are in each major shell. You may recognise some of these from GCSE.
The general rule is that you fill your current shell before you move on to the next one. The first shell holds two electrons, the second eight, the third eight, and no-one mentions the later ones until you start doing A-level. That's when electron configurations get a little more exotic.
1s2 2s2 2p5
1s1 2s2 2p2
1s2 2s2 2p6 3s2 3p4
1s2 2s2 2p6 3s2 3p6 4s1
Why add the letters?
This new configuration acknowledges that shells are not just empty rings on atoms that hold a certain number of electrons. Shells are made up of constituent orbitals, which can hold two electrons each, and these orbitals aren't all the same. Different orbitals have different shapes. S orbitals are shaped like spheres and P orbitals are shaped like dumbells. It's important to know what type of orbitals you have available to put electrons in and where your electrons are, as these can affect the properties of elements.
Why do the D orbitals come before S orbitals?
If you ever wondered why there was such a big gap between group 2 and group 3, it's because in order for the groups of the periodic table to make sense, you have to position elements based on which orbitals the electrons are going to fill up first. In lighter elements, the S orbitals (containing two electrons) are filled first, followed by the P orbitals. However once you get to heavier elements, you also have a choice of D orbitals. These take priority over P orbitals, meaning you have to get through another 10 elements before you can go back to the P orbitals. The periodic table can be divided up into S, P, D and F blocks depending on which type of orbital is being filled up.
These electronic configurations can get a bit unwieldy and repetitive, so chemists usually shorten them. Since it's only really the electrons in the outer shells that are of interest, the contents of all the filled shells are abbreviated to the element they correspond to. This will always be a Noble gas, or group 0 element.
Here are the shortened versions of our elements:
[He] 2s2 2p5
[He] 2s2 2p2
[Ne] 3s2 3p4
This data visualisation
We wanted to create a periodic table where it was easy to identify the number of electrons present in the outer shell of electrons, the orbital types that made up each of the shells, and the number of filled shells shielding the outer electrons from the nucleus. We thought that if these patterns were obvious then it would be easier for students to spot them.
We're not the first to create a periodic table based on electrons. The designer Alison Haigh created a minimalist electron periodic table in 2013. This periodic table represented elements as electron dots. We wanted to create something that was halfway between this design and a more traditional periodic table, that it was easier to work out electronic configurations from.
There are a few design principles that we followed when designing this periodic table.
If something is repeated in exactly the same way several times, find a way to simplify it.
If you're trying to say the same thing, do it in the same way. Less noise means better information quality.
Draw attention to the important things by removing or pushing back the things that are less important.
People are bad at counting objects quickly when they're grouped together in numbers greater than four. This is why you cross through lines of four in a tally.
TEXT WILL NOT SOLVE YOUR PROBLEMS
We tried to solve design problems using layout and colour rather than text. We find this usually results in better solutions, as you can't read text from a distance anyway.
(BUT DO A TEXT VERSION TOO)
We added text afterwards, for extra information.
Representing the major shells
Electrons are organised into major shells. These shells are energy levels that sit at different distances from the nucleus. Atoms will tend to do reactions that result in them achieving full major shells, as these are the most stable.
We wanted to distinguish between shells that were full and the outer shell in the process of being filled. To make this obvious shells were joined up into a continuous as soon as they were filled.
Major electron shells are situated at specific distances away from an atom. As you get further from the nucleus these get closer together and start to converge. Beyond this point the atom can't hold on to the electron as it's too far away from the nucleus.
Whilst not essential to reading electron configurations, we thought it would be a nice touch to represent this by having the filled shells getting thinner and thinner as they became further away.
Electrons in major shells can sit in different types of orbital. Each orbital holds two electrons. It's important to know what type of orbital electrons are sitting in as they have different shapes. S orbitals are shaped like spheres, P orbitals are like dumbbells, and D orbitals look like four-leaf clovers. Which orbitals you're using influences the shapes and properities of molecules.
We decided to use different colours to represent different orbitals. That way students could see when different orbital types popped up and how they related to the structure of the periodic table, but they didn't get distracted by the different shape types (which probably needs another table of its own).
- S orbitals are yellow
- P orbitals are red
- D orbitals are blue
- F orbitals are green
Each orbital fits two electrons. The fact that these electrons pair up is very important. Lone pairs of electrons are responsible for the shapes of molecules such as water an ammonia. This also influences their physical properties like boiling and melting points. Unpaired electrons are rare and atoms with unpaired electrons are called free radicals. They tend to be very reactive. The hole in the ozone layer was caused by free radicals formed from the breakdown of CFCs.
We paired up our electrons in the design so that they overlap to create a different style of shape. This not only makes it obvious that the electrons are paired, but also makes it easier to count how many of them there are. It's still a bit of a challenge to count the f orbital electrons as seven pairs is still a number greater than four.
Most periodic tables have two rows at the bottom that seem to float detached from the main design. This is the F block. It's full of very heavy elements that are mostly radioactive.
The standard representation
You'll probably have noticed it, but never done any chemistry with any of the elements on it, and so mostly ignore it.
The actual layout
Several people I spoke to about the periodic table were not aware that the F-block slots into the rest of the periodic table.
A case for extending the table?
Because books and posters tend to have a 2:3 page size ratio, it's easier to fit the table in if you slot the block under. The floating F block is a design fix that stops the periodic table being too wide and narrow.
Whilst it's a neat solution, the fact that this rearrangement has been made is something that's really hard to make obvious. You need to show where the 28 elements go in relation to the other elements, without taking up too much space or suggesting that they exist in another dimension.
How things should be arranged
We decided that since we were already providing an unfamiliar format of representing each element in the periodic table, it was important to keep the layout of the table as familiar as possible so that students had an easier time spotting patterns, comparing and contrasting.
We decided to stick with the floating F-block. We had to work out how to make it obvious where it slotted in though.
How to make it obvious where the F block goes
Because books and posters tend to have a 2:3 page size ratio, it's easier to fit the table in if you slot the block under. The floating F block is a design fix that stops the periodic table being too wide and narrow.
Whilst it's a neat solution, the fact that this rearrangement has been made is something that's really hard to make obvious. You need to show where the 28 elements go in relation to the other elements, without taking up too much space or suggesting that they exist in another dimension.
To show that something was meant to go in a specific location on the periodic table we tried greying out the image and removing the outermost electrons (since the inner shells were all the same). This worked quite well but didn't tell you how many elements fitted in there, or tell you where to look for them.
To solve the quantity indicator, we tried overlapping 14 instances of the inner electron shells (adding the outer electrons just looked too complicated). This gave us a good idea of quantity, although didn't really tell you where to look for the missing elements without you having to repeat the same image lower down (which now made it look like there were actually 14+14 missing ones).
Another option that we looked at was making the elements much smaller. This allowed you to count them easily, but made it much harder to see the inner electrons, so there was no real difference between the Lanthanides and Actinides. This solution didn't give the impression that there were twice as many elements.
Another option that we tried was to link the overlapping inner shells to the F block. This meant we didn't have to duplicate the overlapping 14, but it looked pretty ugly.
Another solution that we tried was expanding sections. This idea was inspired by bookends, which sometimes are done in shapes of animals so that it looks like the animal runs the whole way through the books.
Unfortunately the lines for the bookend interfered with the electrons within the F block. It looked a bit crowded and the attention was taken away from the bits we wanted people to look at.
We tried another version with the lines chopped, but now the bookends looked too bulky in comparison. If we were putting text on this design it might still work as the graphic created a plan enough background to lay text on top of.
We tried paring back the brackets, opting for really simple square brackets. These complemented the design much better, but the right-angles looked a bit jarring next to all the overlapping circles.
We switched the square brackets for curved lines that matched the curvature of the inner shell circles.
The best solution?
I sat on the brackets idea for a while, but it still didn't fit right. The minimalist version was meant to be text-free, and here I was relying on a piece of typography.
Inspired by the alternative periodic table layouts (see bonus section below) I decided to try and make the background behave like a 3D object, to show where the f block was meant to go. This had to be subtle as otherwise we'd end up with the same problem as the labelled lines solutions.
Ribbons are really hard to get right
Ones that don't fold back on themselves generally look very wrong.
Shifting the F block
In the end the best solution was to shift the block along a bit to allow the ribbon to fold over at both ends. Since the F block columns don't share properties with the D block columns, this isn't a big problem.
We decided to make two versions of the poster, one designed to include text and one designed not to. The text on the image had to be relevant and minimal.
We decided that the name and symbol of the elements was important. To fit the symbols onto the design we made a slight tweak to the layout of the orbitals so that it could be fitted in.
When lining up the full list of abbreviated electron configurations on the table, you start to notice an awful lot of repeated [Ar] and [Xe] letters.
We really wanted to remove these to show only the electrons in the outermost shell, however as pointed out, this wouldn't be a full electronic configuration.
Reading the columns
We came up with some solutions that indicated the start of the configuration based on the row, however unless you know you're meant to read the table that way, it's not immediately obvious, and it results in a more complicated diagram.
Keeping the square brackets
The fact that the major shells are the same for the row is also pretty obvious from the electron diagrams. We also figured that most students would be looking up the full electron configuration and wouldn't have time to read the row/columns, so we bit the bullet and included the square brackets section, although we pushed them back using grey.
Clarifying suborbital naming
It's not all that clear.
Whilst the order that the orbitals are filled in seems fairly intuitive, the choice of names for each of the orbitals is not. This causes problems when you have to write them out. The first 'd' orbitals (3d) are actually part of shell 4.
Number as position
We toyed with the idea of using this representation to show the names of the orbitals that were filled, hoping that students would work out which order they were filled in by looking across the table. In the end the layouts were too confusing though (the Noble gases didn't have full outer shells for one). We opted for correct position with confusing naming acknowledged, rather than incorrect position.
To help students see the full electronic configuration (with the correct names included) we decided on two solutions, a larger figure in the corner, or full configurations down the side of the chart.
This was our first version of the figure. Whilst the colour and positioning matches the other figures in the table, it's quite hard to read.
This one is easier to read and also helps students match the square brackets shorthand to the actual configuration.
Square bracket end-stop
Whilst I'm not usually a fan of right-justified text, it makes more sense to use it in this case. Students read the electronic configuration until they get to the square bracket sign that they're looking for.
This one puts the full electron configuration on the left hand side of the table. Whilst it lines up the types of suborbital nicely, it's a bit difficult to read, and there's a lot of repetition between rows.
Summarised inner orbital
This is a much simpler solution. The inner orbital contents are summarised according to what changes per row. You read down the left hand side column, and then across. It doesn't quite work for the floating F-block though.
Leaving colour until last
Unless there is a colour style guide or brand guideline, I tend to leave colour choices to last. Provided you've coded your illustration correctly so that the same colours are linked, it doesn't matter too much which colours you pick in the end.
For this diagram, we started out with a navy background (because that's a soothing, academic colour). It's also quite a good one to pick if you're not that fond of black, but want something dark for brighter colours to push back against.
It was important for the sub-orbital types to be visibly different. So I picked bright colours that were fairly far apart on the colour wheel but not too grating. Depending on how you value usability against aesthetics, other colour choices might be preferable (I was definitely asked for something a bit less primary school).
We tried to do a greyscale version to be more accessible. However it wasn't obvious enough that there were four different orbital types using just black and white.
We could just about make it work with one colour provided you picked a mid tone for the background. The downside of this was that half the text was lighter than the background, and half darker, which made it look like there was an extra level of information encoded.
The modern periodic table is pretty familiar to anyone who has studied chemistry, however there are a few design decisions that are baked in to the most commonly used version that most people aren't aware of. There are also alternative layouts proposed by other scientists that solve them in other ways
Avoiding cliff edges
To avoid the hard cliff edges of the periodic table, not just with the F block, researchers have created circular periodic tables that spiral outwards. Loops and folds added in allow elements in similar groups to be aligned without wasting as much space. It also gets rid of the large gap between the s and p blocks in the earlier rows which can give the impression that this is a big jump in properties.
The one here was created by Theodore Benfey in 1964.
This one was created by J. F. Hyde in 1975.
Organising elements according to electron orbitals
The Left-step periodic table (Charles Janet, 1928) is another way of organising elements in the periodic table. This tells you which order the suborbitals are filled in, and gets around the issue of f and d being sandwiched between s and p by taking the focus off the major electron shells (a new row here doesn't mean a new major electron shell).
The ADOMAH periodic table (Valery Tsimmerman, 2006) rotates the periodic table 90 degrees to better align the elements with their principal quantum numbers.
About the animation
We created this animation to answer the most common questions that students have for us at careers fairs. Claudia has been attending the University of Cambridge's careers fair since 2015 to answer students' questions about freelancing, creative careers, and science illustration specifically. Due to COVID-19, we're not able to attend the 2021 fair in person, so we made this animation instead.
What is a Science Illustrator?
A science illustrator helps scientists communicate. They do this by creating graphics, illustrations and other visuals. They tend to have a background in science, and training in graphic design, illustration, or animation.
What’s an average day like?
Like all creatives, illustrators don't spend all their time working on client projects. On top of drawing, and reading papers, you'll also need to spend time working on marketing, finances, and pitching new work. Often you'll work on multiple projects at once, so having a system to keep track of tasks is important. Design work is usually done remotely, so you can work from home if you want to, although quite a few prefer to rent an office.
Who are your clients?
As well as making images for scientists, science illustrators can work with biotech startups, medical communications, publishing, education, and public engagement. You might be creating artwork for an advertising campaign one day, and figures for a journal manuscript the next. You can choose which areas to specialise in, if you have a preference.
Are there any qualifications you need?
You don't need a specialist course to be a science illustrator, just a really good portfolio, and a good understanding of science. That said, courses can definitely help. Particularly any that help you with design software, sketching ideas, or business skills.
If you're interested in creating 3D medical art, the University of Glasgow runs a masters degree in Medical Visualisation and Human Anatomy. There is also the London-based postgraduate diploma in medical art, run by the medical artists Education trust.
For a broader understanding of science communication in general, there are masters degrees in science communication. Imperial college London, and the University of the West of England, run taught masters degrees in the subject, amongst other universities.
Is there any software I should learn?
If you're still at University, see if the computer department offers training courses in how to use the Adobe Suite. The main applications to learn are Illustrator and Photoshop. You can usually get student discounts on the software if your college doesn't already have access. If you're interested in 3D and animation, Blender is a good place to start – It's also free.
Do I need any equipment?
You'll need a decent computer for 3D illustration, animation, and large illustration files. You'll want around 16GB of memory for large illustrations, and a fast processor for rendering animation or 3D. This doesn't have to be expensive. You can pick up 8 year old Macbook Pros for around £500 * which will work fine for illustration, you just might have to wait a while when rendering. You also might want to get a tablet for sketching ideas as it saves you from scanning **. The ReMarkable tablet is a good choice if you don't like the feeling of drawing on glass screens.
* Alternatively, refurbished 2013 Mac mini computers can be bought for around £200 and manually upgraded to 16GB for around £60.
** Wacom or XP-PEN tablets are recommended.
Should I take drawing classes
Life drawing classes are really useful to improve your sketching skills. They're essential if you want to become a Medical artist, although you'll probably do them as part of a training programme. If you're creating technical figures and 3D modelling, drawing is definitely helpful for sketching concepts.
Is there anything else I should read up about?
It's also important to learn a bit about the business side of things. Most science illustrators either freelance or run their own companies. Business skills are a must as you'll need to do your own accounting. Natwest run a free business accelerator that you can apply to if you're starting out. There are also several books that are worth reading for business accounting basics.
What can I do to build a portfolio now?
The point of a portfolio is to show potential clients that you have design skills. If you're at university, see if there are any societies that need design or illustration work doing. Theatres always need posters, and student papers always need pictures to break up the text of articles. If you want to work in science illustration, it helps to have science illustration projects in your portfolio, but it's not essential if you have a good grasp of the science.
What's it like starting out as a freelancer?
Starting out as a freelancer can be tough on your finances. Make sure you have savings in place as a buffer *. Some people prefer to start out by doing it on the side of their main job before committing full time. You can always add in other flexible income streams if you need to. For instance if you have a science degree, you can probably private tutor in sciences and maths. You'll need to register for self-assessment and pay your taxes direct to HMRC at the end of the year. Make sure to save up for your tax bill, the first one always catches people out.
* You can get startup loans from the government if you don't have easy access to savings
First, start your website and portfolio now. This is the main thing you'll be showing potential clients, so it's good to get started early. It doesn't need to be fancy, but good images and your own domain name go a long way.
Second, join the Association of Illustrators. If you come from a science background, you might not know a lot about the business of illustration. The Association of Illustrators, or AOI, is a very useful source of advice on contracts, pricing, and copyright.
Finally, don't be afraid to try out new things. There's no set path to being a science illustrator, and it's good to have your own projects to see you through the natural ups and downs of businesses *.
* When I'm not illustrating for researchers I'm designing science posters to sell online, tutoring chemistry, and creating new patterns of neurons to print onto dresses.
Do you take interns?
So far Vivid Biology has hosted four PhD interns on PIPs placements. We've also had a few undergraduate summer interns who were part-funded by the University of Bristol and the Santander internship scheme. We're also interested in taking on students for a day a week during term time, particularly if they're studying science communication.
How we made this video
This video was created using the whiteboard animation software Doodly. The illustrations were all drawn by us. The script was written by Claudia Stocker and converted into speech using the text-to-speech software Play.ht. We used the voice Mia, who is neural-network trained, and therefore sounds more like a real person.
This post is based on a talk I gave at Imperial College London in 2013 for Artifact, a society run jointly with the Royal College of Art.
What is science illustration?
I frequently get asked the question 'so you're a science illustrator, what do you do?'. Most people think of science illustration as designing illustrations for science textbooks. This is one of the things we do. We also try to represent research in a visually appealing way, either as info graphics or illustrations of things that aren't visible. Finally there's editorial illustrations where you have a lot of creative flexibility but don't need as much understanding of the technical details of the science.
At its heart all illustration is problem solving, trying to find the best visual solution to a set of constraints, called the brief. Some briefs requite absolute attention to technical detail, others allow for much more creative flexibility. Most illustration briefs can be placed somewhere along a sliding scale between technical and creative.
The illustration spectrum
At the technical end would be illustrations such as the engineering drawings in car manuals. There is no room for creative flexibility here because the primary purpose of them is to look exactly like the engine being worked on, perhaps in a cut-away form to help people navigate around them.
At the other end would be illustrations that required no scientific knowledge, just the appropriation of scientific imagery in a creative visual format. Examples would be ball and stick atom drawings or microscopes which were not there to illustrate the scientific content of an article, just to suggest that it fell into the science category. I have been informed that beauty products often do this in their advertising to appear to have more technical substance.
As is common with many fields, the interesting stuff happens somewhere in the middle of this scale. These are the illustrations that require knowledge of scientific topics in order to communicate the content accurately to the reader, yet still need to appear visually interesting. They will often appear in situations where they may be seen both by scientists and non-scientists. Scientifically literate readers will notice any scientific errors in the illustration, and treat associated material with increased scepticism. Equally they much appear visually appealing enough to draw the interest of non-scientists.
So if scientific illustration needs to visually appeal to non-scientist audiences, why does it often look so similar in style compared to traditional illustration?
A quick google images search gives you a pretty good idea of the different styles prevalent in scientific vs traditional illustration.
The majority of science illustration images are dominated by a highly detailed pencil sketch style.
There is a much greater variety of styles in a search for illustration.
A search for another topic similarly constrained such as fashion illustration still produces a greater variety of styles than science illustration.
A similar theme appears when comparing the websites of illustration agencies for science illustration and traditional illustration. A traditional illustration agency will ensure that their illustrators have extremely contrasting styles, and that the home page of the agency displays these styles prominently. Indeed many agencies will refuse to take on illustrators whose style is too similar to an illustrator they already represent.
Science illustration agencies often make no effort to place contrasting styles next to each other, and sometimes do not even show images, listing only a directory of names and addresses, as if finding a science illustrators were as interchangeable as plumbers or cleaners.
A lack of demand?
For those who haven't guessed, I work as a freelance science illustrator. Occasionally we publish blog posts (like this one) or do interviews to get more exposure. The main point of this is to get potential new clients to contact us rather than having to chase them down ourselves.
I once received an email from a science textbook editor who had seen my illustrations in a blog post that I had written for a website. It went something like the following (italics are my reaction.
I saw your work online
Yes! I knew there was a point to writing long articles
I really like your illustrations
They like the artwork!
Your style is very unusual
I knew finding a niche and developing a style was a good idea!
Do you have any examples of more traditional science illustration?
I sent over a link to the rest of the illustrations I had on my website, but never heard back. I wrote it off as just having a style that wasn't compatible with what they were looking for. Later on I thought about it a bit more. There were certainly examples of infographics work in my portfolio that showed I had the problem-solving skills for textbook diagrams, and with a science degree under my belt the academic side of things wasn't the issue.
Perhaps it was just that my illustration style wasn't what they were looking for. But if it answered the brief, why was that an issue?
How did we get here?
There may be a good reason that most science illustration looks similar. After all, if illustration is problem solving, there's no reason why the best solution to a single problem shouldn't be the best solution to multiple similar problems.
Science illustration was originally to replicate things that needed to be observationally verified. Before the days of photography, you wanted to make sure that the red bird that you saw in the jungle was the same red bird that had been described to you in a lecture back in University. The easiest way to objectively verify this was to make an illustration of said bird that you could check it against.
Equally, when a surgeon was learning how to slice up a patient in order not to sever an artery, it was useful to have a visual reference as to where these arteries were to consult before or during surger
y. There was a limited amount of time and dead bodies that students could practice on, and none of them had blood pumping through their arteries to give you immediate feedback that you'd just made a grave error.
In both of these cases the illustrations were being used to compare against something that was observable without any specialist machinery. It therefore makes sense for them to be as true to life and photographic as possible to avoid any ambiguity. In both fields, this type of illustration is still useful due to the constraints of photographing human remains, and the difficulty in getting animals to pose for the camera.
Science however, has since expanded beyond these disciplines. Most cutting-edge research is not in the structure of the various blood vessels of the body (we think we've cracked that one) but in things that cannot easily be seen, such as proteins and gene interactions. Most scientists working with these will be more familiar with their three letter acronyms than the structures of said proteins. Photorealism is now not necessarily the best solution.
Where are we going?
Another new trend in science illustration has been a shift towards 3D rendering rather than hand-drawn illustration. This reflects the increase in computer processing power that allows complex renders to be made. It also allows the same 3D object files to be reused many times, many of which are easily available online. This means illustrators already know that their images will be anatomically accurate, regardless of the render style, and can instead concentrate on how best to highlight the important information within the structure. 3D has become particularly popular as once the structure of an object is pinned down, it is very easy to manipulate it and create a new render should your client decide on a different direction. 3D structures are also very easy to animate, even if this just involves moving a camera around the structure to get a better view of the 3D detail.
3D renders are also easy for scientists working in cell biology to interpret. They often mimic the structures visible down a scanning electron microscope, which is often the only way that cell structures can be made visible at high resolution and in a way that easily distinguishes them from other cells.
The appeal of the familiar
When creating an illustration of a subject that the viewer has no prior knowledge of, it is best to stick to photorealism rather than to make stylistic interpretations. You viewer will by default interpret illustrations as whatever they resemble in their real life experience. If you create a photorealistic rendering of a cell, the size of the cell and other physical attributes may be ambiguous due to the lack of real-world things to compare it to in the illustration, but the general structure will be obvious.
With a stylised illustration, such as a line drawing or flat diagram, the identity of each of the elements in the illustration is more ambiguous. In a diagram of a eukaryotic cell could look very similar to a town map when shown to a child with no idea what cells are. In this case the analogy has been used to explain the different parts of the cell according to how a child would see the town functioning.
This is important when illustration for children or students. For those familiar with the subject matter in question, or at least a vague background in the area, this kind of explicit referencing is not essential.
Interpretation of style
It is quite popular in the illustration world to draw a famous character in the style of several different illustrators. The point of this being that the essential visual cues that define a character are independent of the style used to represent them. This is a good method for illustrators and character designers to improve their skills as it helps them identify which features of a character are essential and should be kept, and which can be discarded. If a character is well known, viewers of the image will be able to recognise what they find familiar and draw parallels. These lego adverts are a great illustration of the idea.
This also works in science illustration. Linked are three different representations of eukaryotic cells created in the form of cake, cross-stitch, and crochet. In each of these cases a biologist familiar with the subject matter would probably able to identify the nucleus, the mitochondria and the endoplasmic reticulum.
Redefining the brief
If we were to start from the beginning, and ignore all preconceptions about what science illustration should and shouldn't look like, what would be the key elements that make up a good science illustration. In effect, what are the key constraints in our brief, and what elements can we have a little more artistic license with?
I can't answer this in an objective fashion as every brief will demand different things from both the illustrator and the viewer. I'm going to go through the key things that I think are important in science illustration, and therefore how these guide the work I produce. The relative important of different factors in an illustration will produce a slightly different brief, and therefore slightly different optimum styles. For instance I value simplicity over communicating volumes and textures. Someone who preferred the latter would probably represent science in a very different way to me. Neither of us are wrong, we just realise that in order to emphasise certain details of a physical system or structure, other details have to be omitted.
I think few would disagree with me that technical accuracy is extremely important in a science illustration. If you are asked to create an illustration to accompany a research paper, read the paper, and the accompanying material, then talk to the researcher about the material to make sure you understand it. Don't rush into creating an illustration based on what the author thinks would be the best way to represent the science. You will invariably make some kind of technical error in the way that you have depicted the science behind the illustration. If your illustration is published alongside the article in a journal, the readers may be confused as to why the illustration does not fit with the associated paper's description of a mechanism. You do not need to replicate every last technical detail, but you need to have a good reason for drawing something that is just plain wrong.
Examples include drawing the DNA helix spiralling the wrong way, which has a habit of annoying science illustrators in a similar way that misplaced apostrophes annoy writers. Yes we were able to understand the message, but the way it was presented implied that the person delivering it was a bit lazy. The structure of DNA is integral to the function of many DNA binding proteins, since they are specifically shaped to fit into the grooves. If you are going to draw DNA and can't be bothered to check which way around it spirals, at least draw it in a way that makes the direction of the spiral ambiguous so that your illustration doesn't deliberatel
y misinform thousands of students when it appears in a textbook.
In the above illustration I decided to make a structurally accurate drawing of the Influenza A virus. This is often depicted as something resembling a laundry ball in many pieces of science illustration. Most undergraduate medical students would immediately label this as incorrect since the projecting proteins on a flu virus are not uniform. The virus is coated in a mixture of four subunit neuraminidase and three subunit haemagglutinin proteins. This is important as different strains of flu virus are often classified based on which version of the haemagglutinin and neuraminidase proteins they display. For instance swine flu is H1N1 and the most notable form of avian flu was H5N1. These classifications are often mentioned in non-specialist media such as news reports and therefore the difference should be illustrated. This is before we consider the fact that these proteins are essential to the mechanism by which these viruses enter cells.
I'm now going to back track slightly on what I said earlier about accuracy. Whilst you should never deliberately represent something in the wrong way, drawing something exactly as it appears makes for a boring illustration. Many processes in biology are dynamic. A single snapshot in time will not fully represent the process, and unfortunately we do not have the luxury of moving images to show the entire thing. Often you will require a little bit of artistic license to display all the key players in a process, since they are probably never in the same cell compartment at the same time. Equally if all your drawings are to exact scale, such as a drawing of the solar system, you will do a very good job of showing just how much empty space there is between planets, but won't be able to say much about the planets because they're just so tiny.
This is also one of your key advantages over photography or motion graphics. You are able to put things together that a photographer would never be able to capture. If the illustration you have created could compositionally be recreated fairly easily using a microscope or a camera, you are wasting your time. Obviously you want your illustration to have some resemblance to the structure you are studying, but you probably need to use less than you think. This point ties in to what I said earlier about accuracy. It's OK to take artistic license with the science if and only if you have a good reason for doing so. Be smart, don't be lazy.
Above is an illustration I created for a seminar about centriole assembly. Centrioles have a distinctive 9-fold rotational symmetry. I was considering simply illustrating a cross-sectional view of this, but thought that this was inappropriate for a dynamic mechanism such as assembly. In order to make the illustration recognisable as a centriole, I left in just enough of the 9-fold symmetry skeleton as I could, whilst using each of the repeating segments to represent a separate step in the assembly. The mechanisms was fairly well detailed in the accompanying paper, although how the second and third microtubules attached was still an unknown.
Simplify the information
When I'm not drawing science I also work as a graphic designer, and one of the key principles to effective communication design is to not include anything that may distract the viewer from the things they're meant to be focusing on.
Back when I was a finalist at university and had no idea what to do with my life, I applied to one of the world-leading branding agencies to be an intern. The head of HR organised an interview for me with the Creative Director for Europe. I brought along my portfolio and went through it for half an hour whilst he listened without saying a word. Once I'd finished, he flicked back to a piece of graphic design that I'd produced for a student society and pointed out that I'd placed a colour change in the middle of the page at the same time as changing the font size. I had given my viewer two different pieces of information to signify a single change in hierarchy. Not only that, I had added a border around the letters in the title, this adding extra lines to the composition and distorting the letterforms. He then proceeded to point out similar flaws in the majority of the rest of the text-based work that I produced (not a great start if you're looking to work at a company that designs logos).
The general lesson I learnt that days has stuck though. Every extra line or colour change you add to a composition is extra information. If that information is not necessary, or does not signify something important, it is a distraction from the information that does. Do not add extra colours or lines unless they are absolutely necessary to understand the information correctly.
When you create a composition, you have to work out which piece of information is the most important piece to communicate. Your choice will influence how effectively you can communicate the rest of the information, so it is important to isolate the most important and concentrate on that, bringing it out with bright colours. If you genuinely have two different pieces of information that are equally important, do two drawings. It is better to communicate one thing well than two things poorly. Once you have worked out what the most important thing to communicate is, work out everything else that it is necessary to include in order to communicate the key thing well. You should still include this information, however it is of secondary importance, and therefore should use more muted colour schemes. Any information that does not fall into one of these two categories should be discarded.
In the above illustration I was trying to make a more effective diagram of how the nerves and arteries in the hand are arranged. Most anatomy textbooks feature illustrations which, whilst technically accurate, overwhelm the viewer with detail and require an extensive amount of time to decipher. The key things I wanted to illustrate were the nerves and arteries so I represented these in the highest contrast colours available. Originally I was going to simply feature the silhouette of the hand, however I felt that this lacked the context of how the veins and arteries were arranged with respect to the bones. In the hand the bones are the most obvious things to find, and the palm of the hand is quite deep. I felt that it was necessary to include the bones in a subtle way to show that the hand wa
s palm-up and that the majority of the arteries did lie on that side of the hand (which is obvious if you look at your wrist).
Below are links to some examples of science illustration that I think follows the key principles listed above, simplicity, technical accuracy, and looking different.Human Body by Clear as Mud at www.clear-as-mud.co.uk
This human body illustration by Clear as Mud provides a simple way to illustrate how the human body internal organs and skeletons are arranged. A few liberties have been taken with the intestines, which don't make the distinction between the small and large intestine, however this is an understandable compromise to make the shape of the pelvis more visible. I personally think that this illustration would be very well-suited to a KS2/KS3 science textbook as students at this level often have to draw the human body, and a simplified diagram such as this is much easier to replicate in the exam that the ones often shown in textbooks.
This illustration by Alison Haigh is a clever and very simple representation of the atoms in the periodic table looking at just the number of electrons in their orbitals. Haigh has clearly researched her subject matter carefully, correctly showing that certain D-block elements (such as Chromium and Copper) preferentially fill their 3d orbitals over the 4s orbital. My only criticism is that by separating electrons into the main energy levels, it makes it less clear when an atom has a full outer shell or an almost-filled one (see groups 7 and 8).
In conclusion, different styles of illustration suit different areas of science, due to the differing nature of their briefs. It is a mistake to assume that just because a certain style is seen as 'the norm', it should be used for everything. Branch out, try something new!
All illustrations (c) their respective artists
Science illustration can pose a challenge with its conflicting demands. On the one hand, illustration is about creating something visually memorable, which is easiest achieved by making it look different to what everyone else has done before. On the other hand, science is pretty specific about what is and is not accepted as true. Unless you've been granted some artistic license on the subject, you can't just change the science of your subject to make your illustration more interesting.
The first way you can make your illustration stand out from the crowd is to adopt a particular style. Typically in science illustration, a few styles make up the majority of science illustrations. These are black and white ink figures which reproduce well in journals, airbrush illustrations that are used in anatomy textbooks, and 3D renders, which are usually stills from animations. These styles all strive for accuracy. If you can take liberties with how accurate your depiction of a subject needs to be, avoid these styles and try something new that's less precise.
If you don't have the luxury of being creative with the truth, you'll probably have to adopt one of the aforementioned styles. To make your illustration stand out, you need to see what the competition is doing. Type your subject into google images and do some picture research.
In this example we're creating an illustration of the gastrulation stage of Drosophila development. The majority of the results on google are schematic cross-sections that all look quite similar. There are also some line-art illustrations of the drosophila embryo exterior to emphasis the furrows developed from in-foldings, and some photographs of the embryos from papers. These images are all useful for reference, however we should avoid making our illustration look like them. Save them for later and refer to them when you're drawing the make sure you don't do something stupid like draw the DNA helix spiralling the wrong way (Check Google – it's a common mistake).
An easy way to make your illustration stand out from the others is to translate the illustrations with the most important information into a different number of dimensions. If everyone else draws your subject in two dimensions, add a third. If everyone else requires three dimensions to illustrate a subject, see if you can do it in two (the latter is much harder).
Another approach, particularly useful when illustrating signalling pathways, is to replace all gene names in a pathway with the closest approximation to their protein structures. Ideally there should be no text in an illustration (otherwise it's an infographic).
In this case, the transverse cross-section of the Drosophila embryo gives us the best view of the gastrulation process. This doesn't always make it clear which orientation the embryo is in relative to the section though (I had to double-check using google). Including some detail of the 3D embryo would help the viewer work out which plane the section had been taken in.
So now we have a concept for our illustration, a transverse section but with a 3D angle. The easiest way to illustrate this is to look like we've sliced our embryo into two (a bit like a sushi roll).
Now we want to arrange these two sushi slices so that the key information of the graphic, is as visible as possible (the cross-section). Ideally we should put it in the middle of the image (for good composition). We could have the two pieces in line but spaced apart slightly, but this would result in some of the detail being obscured (in the sushi image above you can't see a complete cross-section of any of the sushi pieces). Instead a better view would be the two halves side-by-side, but still at an angle so we know it's 3D. This also centres the most important information in the illustration.
So here's our illustration. We've also added a little bit of detail on the two halves to make it obvious that it's a drosophila embryo, and at what stage and orientation its in. We don't want to add too much extra detail though, otherwise we risk distracting the viewers from the important information in the illustration. The same principle can be applied to the colour scheme. Use colour sparingly, mainly to highlight the important features of the diagram and to differentiate the foreground from the background.