Every graphic is a new adventure. Some of our magazine articles involve abstract concepts that require lots of time and energy at the front-end, making decisions about what, exactly should be illustrated. For others, the crux is more obvious, and clearly illustratable. That was the case when it came to “Pain That Won’t Quit” in the December 2014 issue of Scientific American.

Author Stephani Sutherland got things started by providing detailed notes for a potential illustration. Her concept was clear and logical; feature the entire pain pathway, from sensory nerve at the source, over to the spinal cord, and up to the brain. We’d highlight two parts of the pathway that are of particular interest to researchers–potential targets for chronic pain treatment.

Author Stephani Sutherland's reference sketches

Sutherland and the editor, Claudia Wallis, provided a list of helpful additional references, so I was able to work up a rough layout right away, without spending too much time doing primary research for myself. I decided to ground the image in a clear point of pain, to provide immediate context for the nitty-gritty details. The information surrounding that pain point would be divided into two clear sections, each addressing a different treatment target. We had a single page for the graphic, and I figured that although we’d highlight both key areas, there would probably only be room show one in detail.

Preliminary layout by Jen Christiansen

The basic concept was approved by the article editors, so I reached out to freelance artist Emily Cooper, to see if she was available to flesh things out. I sent her the reference material and rough layout, and she returned a more fully realized sketch. At this point, the general tone of the illustration and content details for the inset circle started to crystallize.

Sketch by Emily Cooper

I was happy with how things were developing, but I was a bit worried that the bottom target point–the spinal cord–looked like an afterthought. I experimented with setting up a few key phrases in black circles in an attempt to make it clear that these were two equally critical zones, even if we weren’t showing cellular-level detail for both entries.

Sketch by Emily Cooper

The article team agreed that this solution wasn’t enough, and it would really make sense to include a more detailed view of the spinal cord, so Cooper added another illustrated inset circle.

Sketch by Emily Cooper

The new inset included content details that helped to convey the whole story, but the challenge would now lie in keeping the page from feeling overcrowded and overwhelming. Cooper and I worked together to fine-tune the composition, and then she built the image out in 3D. At every step along the way (many not shown here), captions and labels and content details were nudged and edited and tweaked and deleted and reintroduced and edited again.

Here’s the final information graphic, as it appeared in the print magazine.

Illustration by Emily Cooper

For more on the making of Scientific American information graphics, see Gamma-Ray Flashes, A Monkey’s Blueprint, and 4 Ways to Venus: An Artist’s Assignment.