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A Defense of Artistic License in Illustrations of Scientific Concepts

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The other day, my own hypocrisy slapped me in the face. I was looking at a quantum illustration. One for which I had just encouraged an artist to develop a dimensional and detailed representation of a particle, that—by the author’s own admission—may or may not exist. And if it does exist, we certainly know nothing of its form, texture, or color. Yet I asked the artist to imbue it with all of those qualities. How can I justify those instructions when just weeks ago I was nodding emphatically while reading this passage in The Functional Art: An Introduction to Information Graphics and Visualization by Alberto Cairo?

“…One illustration shows how [something] looks, while the others show how something works…The drawing styles are matched to their goals. If the goal is to explain machines, mechanisms, and processes, a very realistic style is not appropriate because, as Ramachandran[*] points out…, ‘Your attention is distracted by the clutter of texture and other details.’ Better to use a sketch-like display, so attention is focused on what really matters.”

*Referring to: V.S. Ramachandran’s The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientists’s Quest for What Makes Us Human, New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 2011

I had encouraged the artist to introduce extraneous and—arguably fanciful—visual details for an information graphic that did not revolve around how the particle looks. How can I justify the disconnect between form and function?

May I humbly suggest the Quantum Clause (inspired by the incomparable Nigel Holmes’ Artistic License).

First—in case the excerpt above suggests otherwise—I should note that in The Functional Art, Cairo does not set forth blindly hard and fast rules for information graphics. He acknowledges that there’s a natural tension between a variety of variables (such as abstraction-figuration, originality-familiarity, etc): The audience and goal of the information graphic will help inform the approach. And that making an information graphic beautiful is great, as long as it first and foremost presents the information in a clear manner. As he says in a video introducing the book, “…graphics should be visually appealing, but must explain the data first.” (I highly recommend the book for novices and pros alike).

With that in mind, I’d like to propose that wildly abstract topics should come along with permission to render things out in a more realistic style than normally advisable. My version of the Quantum Clause may be invoked when a friendly and welcoming gesture is needed in order to engage the reader before you blow their mind with a completely counter-intuitive concept. A “come and sit awhile” glass of wine alongside a challenging plate of tripe.

Perhaps superfluous texture, detail, and color distract a bit of attention from communicating the core concept. But I’m beginning to think that the trade-off can be worth it. Beautifully detailed and somewhat fancifully figurative art can engage and hold on to a reader. Particularly when trying to illustrate concepts in cosmology and quantum physics to a popular audience.

Last year I tried a severely abstract and concept-driven style for a series of graphics on inflation of our universe. The original plan was to use flat and iconic vector art: I hoped to introduce a vocabulary with shape and color, then use that iconography to explain several concepts. Here’s one of the preliminary sketches (below, left). Although the content still needed to be vetted, I imagined the final illustrations to be very similar to this in style—flat shapes and limited color. Every color, shape, and line was to be imbued with critical information. Nothing extraneous.

The article team ultimately pushed for a richer style (below, right). The basic content plan remained more or less faithful to the original sketches, but the spare iconography shifted dramatically towards fully rendered dimensional and detailed shapes (courtesy of artist Malcolm Godwin). Intellectually, I resisted the shift in style at first. But in time I realized that the careful galaxy details and tangible spheres provided a familiar and comfortable visual hook, a welcoming counterpoint to the abstract concepts in the article.

Which stylistic approach do you prefer?

Preliminary sketch by Jen Christiansen (left). Final illustration by Malcolm Godwin, for "The Inflation Debate" by Paul J. Steinhardt, Scientific American, April 2011 (right).

About the Author: Jen Christiansen is the art director of information graphics at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @ChristiansenJen.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Russell Seitz 3:51 pm 10/4/2012

    It’s a slippery slope from the areopagetic to the apocalyptic when science and advertising make common cause.

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  2. 2. RSchmidt 9:44 pm 10/4/2012

    The goal of these illustrations is to communicate not to model reality. If they communicate their message effectively then they work. If they miscommunicate or deceive then they fail. One certainly has to take into account the intended audience. I very much believe the adage, perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to take away. If the embellishment is not on message take it out.

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