The evolution of a Scientific American information graphic: stellar life cycle

As the art director of information graphics at Scientific American, I’m charged with developing explanatory art for some pretty mind-blowing topics. Our team–text editor, expert author, artist, and me–often works toward illustrating a process or concept that has never been rendered before, or may have only been visualized for other specialists in the field in the form of a journal article or conference slide. In other cases, we’re adding new layers of information or tweaking more familiar topics, as recent discoveries change or build upon previous ideas. My job is to shake out the visual jargon, organize the information, and work with freelance illustrators to bring these concepts alive for specialists and non-specialists alike.

In an article by Donald Goldsmith in Scientific American‘s March 2012 issue, the illustration concept emerged quickly, but the details required a fair amount of back-and-forth to sort out. Upon reading an early draft of the manuscript, I thought it would be helpful to provide visual context for the concept of stellar evolution, particularly as it relates to mass: Stars of different masses die in different ways. Within this framework, we could introduce the new theoretical class of star discussed in the text–helium white dwarfs. We could use great primer information from Chandra as a point of inspiration, then update and customize to help illustrate our specific story.

The animation above shows the evolution of that art box, starting with how the information could fit into the larger story, then drilling down into the specifics of what, exactly, it would show. In the top right corner, we presented a basic star life cycle. In the chart below, we broke things down by mass, and showed variations on that theme, with a nod to relative time. The layout and general structure for the graphic remained pretty true to the original vision. But as you can see, the details were quite fluid as Scientific American‘s George Musser (the text editor) and I sorted out specifics with Goldsmith. Tiny and repeated shifts in the content and symbol position were required as we hashed out the content. And then, some final aesthetic tweaks developed as artist Malcolm Godwin refined his renderings and brought the box to life. We hope you enjoy the final product. Let us know what you think in the comments below.