When you have a paper accepted by a scientific journal, you might think about submitting an image to compete for the cover. Or you might be contacted by the editor and asked to provide a cover art. Having a cover story would potentially bring a lot of attention to your research, especially when it comes to famous journals like Nature and Science. But the big question many researchers face is: how to make engaging cover art that would win the competition?
The first and probably the most important step is to study the existing covers of the journal of interest and decide what kind of cover art you want to create. However, this step is often ignored by researchers, which reduce the chance of getting the cover.
When you browse through the published covers, you will see that cover art usually falls in several categories discussed below in detail. (We will skip editorial covers and astronomy pictures here. A nice astronomy picture usually makes the cover automatically.) The essential task in this step is to choose a categories that suits best for your research.
1. Photos. Examples: photos of a new species, a recently discovered fossil, a flexible electronic device, a newly invented instrument, and an interesting phenomenon frozen in time, etc. A nice photo is not only visually compelling, but it also serves as a visual evidence of your research. To take a good photo, it requires a lot of practice and creative thinking. If you are interested in taking photos yourself, I highly recommend Envisioning Science: The Design and Craft of the Science Image by Felice Frankel. You might also want to work with a professional photographer if necessary.
2. Microscopic Photos and Images. Examples: images taken with light microscopes, fluorescent microscopes, scanning electron microscopes (SEM), transmission electron microscopes (TEM), atomic force microscopes (AFM), and scanning tunneling microscopes (STM), etc. Traditional photos show us the beauty of the world around us, microscopic photos and images reveal the beauty of the world invisible to our naked eyes. Some microscopic images can be as stunning as traditional photos. In addition, microscopic images are visual evidence as well. If you want to submit microscopic images as cover art, it is worth spending some extra time and effort to make the image visually compelling. Pay attention to the composition and colors (if you want to add artificial colors to SEM or TEM images), and reduce defects and artifacts as much as possible (which might require careful sample preparation). One more thing to consider is to use a microscope that can generates enough pixels for high-quality printing.
3. Molecular visualizations. Examples: protein structures, crystal structures, supramolecular structures, etc. Some molecular structures can by very beautiful. However, visualizations of these structures are often limited by rendering ability of computer software. Currently, there are alternative tools that allow you to import proteins and other molecular structures into professional 3D applications (such as Maya, Cinema 4D and Blender) and create high-quality renderings. If you are interested in this approach, you can check out Molecular Maya, ePMV and Bioblender. Colors are very important for molecular visualizations. For examples of good color usage, check out Dr. David Goodsell’s Molecule of the Month on PDB website.
4. Visualizations with artistic interpretation. Examples: illustrations showing extinct species, protein functions in a living cell, device properties and functions, and nanostructure self-assembly, etc. This type of illustrations can include more information than photos and microscopic images. They are good for showing functions, mechanisms, dynamic processes, and structures that cannot be visualized by imaging instruments. When working with these images, you need to pay attention to the balance between the artistic interpretation and the scientific concepts within the image. Too much artistic interpretation might bury the scientific concepts or cause misconception for viewers.
5. Illustrations and photos using metaphors and analogies. Metaphors and analogies are powerful tools to make complicated scientific concepts understandable to a broader audience. The key here is to distill the essential scientific concepts that are only known to scientists and transform them into objects, characters, phenomena, and stories that are familiar to everyone else. You can be very creative in this category. Since your image might include real world objects and characters, you might want to work with an good artist to bring your idea to life.
6. Visualizations of data and models. Sometimes, visualizations of data and models can look like abstract modern art. Meaningful data + beautiful visualization is a winning formula.
After you study the existing covers, you probably have an idea of what might be the best option for your cover art submission. You also have an idea what would NOT be good for the cover. Science covers, for example, have few schematic style images with blow-up insets. In addition, except editorial covers, most Science covers do not use metaphors or analogies.
Finally, many journals encourage you to submit multiple images for cover art suggestion. You can create images in multiple categories if you have enough time and resources. This will increase the chance that one of your images would be selected as the final cover.
Next, we will focus on a few case studies to continue the discussion on how to create cover art.