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Graphic Design Meets Science: Making the Abstract Tangible


While science is fascinating, it’s not always easy to understand. These designers take up visualization - making discoveries more accessible

Design and science have a special connection that goes way back. Graphic visualization can be a powerful tool in simplifying complex and often abstract ideas, and design methods used by scientists to get their point across is a tale as old as time. Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei, for example, documented his many nocturnal observations of the moon in a series of drawings, boasting both beautiful line work and astonishingly accurate scientific findings about the moon’s topography. People who excel in both the arts and sciences, as in the days of Galileo Galilei or Leonardo Da Vinci, have become a rare commodity in an age in which even microscopes have become digital and can take their own photos. Most scientists today have very basic expertise in the field of design, if any, and the same holds true when it comes to designers’ knowledge of the sciences. Can this be changed?

Eleanor Lutz fruit bat flight
Egyptian fruit bat flight, by Eleanor Lutz

Nurit Bar-Shai is an artist, educator and co-founder of Genspace, the world’s first community lab based in Brooklyn. Nurit is a strong advocate of making scientific knowledge accessible to the general public. “Scientific knowledge has a vast impact on all of our daily lives, that goes beyond the food and medicine we consume – it’s in everything we do,” she explains. “We should all have access to the amazing technologies and advancements that humanity is capable of achieving. Information needs to be, and can be, accessible in more than just the theoretical sense.” It is Nurit’s mission to make science less detached and abstract, and more within reach. For this, she suggests visualization. “The best way to understand a phenomenon, I believe, is to see it for yourself,” Nurit says. And that’s exactly what we decided to do. We chatted with some talented creatives who enjoy the best of both worlds, to see what happens when graphic design meets science.

Reimagining biology

While Katie Scott illustrates for medical journals and publications, and has published a series of three encyclopedias about fauna, flora and the story of evolution (Animalium, Botanicum and Story of Life: Evolution, all by Big Picture Press), she is not a botanical illustrator per se. The London-based illustrator extends her theme of nature exploration onto projects that are much less scholarly, including a kids’ clothing collection for H&M and ads for mega-brands like Nike. “Even though my work looks scientific, it isn’t really, in the true sense,” Katie tells High on Design. For her, nature is a fantastical realm which provides endless inspiration. “You only need to look at what really exists to feel in awe of the creativity and curiosity of the natural world,” she elaborates.

Left: ‘Carnivorous Plants’ by Katie Scott. From ‘Botanicum’, published by Big Picture Press Right: ‘Amphibians’ by Katie Scott. From ‘Animalium’, published by Big Picture Press

Katie is intrigued by the human endeavor of understanding the natural world around us through research and analysis, dating back to very early times. “My favorite scientific art is from an age of antiquity, when cultures were just about getting to grips with the world around them and often making up bizarre theories of how things worked,” she says. Early biology and anatomy, dating back to the Middle Ages for example, was largely a mix of factual observations with myths and fantasy. This unique and imaginative approach to biology, with its “very creative interpretations,” as Katie calls it, is carried on in her own body of work. She nods to great scientific illustrators of the pre-Victorian era such as Ernst Haeckel and Albertus Seba, while shedding a new, contemporary light of her own. Her mix of hand-drawn and digital techniques contributes to a very modern feel. So does her take on composition, as she playfully rearranges her plants and animals on the page, sometimes at the cost of stretching and bending their figures.

We asked Katie if she feels a certain responsibility when portraying living organisms or geological structures. “Certainly,” she replied. “I want to show the wonders of plants, animals, and fungi that I see when I look at them, and hopefully introduce you to some species you’d never before seen. There isn’t a big agenda attached, but I hope to engage with people – particularly children, and ignite a further curiosity about nature.”

Visual experimentation

Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya is a creative director and graphic designer, with a very interdisciplinary professional path. Her years of dancing as a ballerina were followed by a neuroscience degree from Columbia. As she was conducting Alzheimer’s research at Columbia Medical Center, she was disheartened by how little attention her lab’s valuable research was getting. Fueled by a passion to better communicate scientific knowledge to others, Amanda turned to graphic design. “Designers can shine a light on science by helping make science more visual,” she tells us. “Design simplifies, delights, communicates and compels – if successful, and leaves the audience full of curiosity and with a new nugget of knowledge. I also think that when science and design come together, they can solve some of the most pressing challenges of our time.”

Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya’s portrait of Youyou Tu, pharmacologist and Nobel laureate, as part of her ‘Beyond Curie’ project

Guided by this strong belief, Amanda has launched several projects in the aim to help science reach wider audiences. One such project is The Leading Strand, bringing together researchers and creatives from different fields to collaborate in translating scientific findings into visual works. Her teams came up with a wide range of products, ranging from a machine that represents neuronal activity, to a computer game about antibiotics. Another initiative led by Amanda is Beyond Curie, a project of posters celebrating “badass women in science, technology, engineering + mathematics” with free, downloadable posters, as well as an AR experience that brings the printed images to life.

An early prototype for Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya’s upcoming P-17 project, dealing with quantum field theory

She is currently working on ‘Particle 17’, a project which bravely confronts a topic as complex and unfathomable as quantum physics and subatomic particles. “I’m still early in the development of the project. The concept of quantum field theory is difficult to visualize and runs up against the limits of our imagination,” she shares with us. “It says that instead of seeing particles as physical objects, like a chair or a marble, it’s better to think of them as excitations of a three-dimensional field. And each of the 17 fields are layered right next to the other, sometimes interacting with each other.” It’s a concept Amanda appropriately labels as “mind-boggling”, but she’s determined to find a visual representation that will make it comprehensible.

Amanda envisions ‘Particle 17’ as an interactive, immersive installation that involves digital AR, animation and large-scale physical assemblies. Her intent is to create a piece that is visually compelling as well as intelligent, an experience that both educates and awes. True, Amanda’s background in science might make it easier for her to approach a topic as perplexing as quantum physics. But if you ask this scientist-turned-designer, the two fields have more in common than you might think. And be it poster design or subatomic particles that you work on, it’s Amanda’s advice to just have fun with it. “The point is to play,” she notes happily, “everyone needs more of that.”

Elizabeth Blackburn by Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya
Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya’s portrait of Elizabeth Blackburn, biologist and Nobel laureate, as part of her ‘Beyond Curie’ project

Complex data, simplified

Apart from a few art classes in her college years, Eleanor Lutz is a self-taught designer. As a biology Ph.D. student, she researches mosquito neurobiology in the University of Washington. Her passion for interpreting complex data extends from her lab work to her designs. She creates science-themed infographics and animated illustrations, that use compelling visuals to illuminate biological topics. “I think that almost anyone can appreciate a photo of a newly discovered animal or galaxy,” she tells us, “you don’t need a complicated scientific vocabulary or a deep understanding of math for it.” And good design, Eleanor believes, can help kindle this kind of enthusiasm. “Good visualizations are essential in helping explain scientific discoveries to more people,” she says.

‘Living with Fire’ gifs by Eleanor Lutz, depicting California forest fires

Eleanor Lutz flight videos
Animal flight videos deconstructed, by Eleanor Lutz

Eleanor has created a series of animated gifs that map out the wingbeat of different species (from fruit bat to dragonfly), using different colored gradients to signify either upstroke or downstroke. She’s made extraterrestrial maps of Venus and Mars, and gifs showing rotating 3D models of viruses. She’s handcrafted plant species out of paper only to bring them up in flames, to highlight the principles of forest wildfires. Her aesthetic works seem to burst with her extensive understanding of the sciences, adding textual data and snippets of additional explanations to her visuals. From her special position as both scientist and designer, Eleanor not only wishes to share scientific discoveries with the general public but also cares deeply about improving design within the scientific community itself. She believes in “helping scientists design better charts,” to better explain their research. Whether incorporating design into science, or the other way around, Eleanor articulates her point clearly and beautifully. And in both instances, the results are not only well designed but also make us fall just that tiny bit in love with science.

‘Living with Fire’ gifs by Eleanor Lutz, depicting California forest fires



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