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How to make cover art for scientific journals: case studies

This is a following post of How to make cover art for scientific journals: study existing covers and make early decisions. In this post, we will discuss the creation processes of a Science cover, a PNAS cover, and a Nature Biotechnology cover.

1. Science cover (August 24, 2012)

Research paper: A Periciliary Brush Promotes the Lung Health by Separating the Mucus Layer from Airway Epithelia

The authors studied the airway epithelial cell surfaces in human lungs. They discovered that cilia and airway surface are covered by tethered biomacromolecules that form dense, brushlike structures. The image below was the authors’ attempt on the cover design (image courtesy of Liheng Cai and Aloha Sahl).


There were two problems with this design. 1. The main focus of the paper was the brushlike structures of the airway surface. However, the human lungs took a big portion of the image. 2. After studying the previous covers, we found that Science seldom used schematic drawings and blow-up insets for their covers. As a result, I proposed that we should make a new image that focuses on the airway surface and brushlike structures. Below is the first version.


The feedback I got from the authors was that the biomacromolecules attached to cilia were too rigid. They should look flexible. I then created the next version (below) with some color changes:


At this stage, the image was approved by the art director Yael Fitzpatrick at Science. However, the authors would like the shape of the biomacromolecules to be more random-looking. I made some adjustment and below is the final cover with color adjustment made by Yael Fitzpatrick.



2. PNAS cover (September 25, 2012)

This was a special PNAS issue focusing on artificial photosynthesis and solar fuels. The authors sent me some references images and they would like to have their nanoITO structure (below) to be represented in the cover (image courtesy of Energy Frontier Research Center at the University of North Carolina).


After having a basic understanding of their research, I made a text proposal below:

  1. We are going to use the nanoITO diagram, but I will build 3D model and it will be more realistic and three dimensional.
  2. The nanoITO will be on the bottom of the image.
  3. Now imagine shining a light beam on the nanoITO. The light beam will have some width (NOT like a laser beam), and the area outside the beam will be darker.
  4. The dye molecules shined by the light beam will be excited (glowing for example); and tiny O2 bubbles rise from these excited molecules and flow to the top of the image.

For a text proposal, the description needs to be clear and visual. The proposal above was quickly approved by the authors and below is the design I made, which was approved by the PNAS editors with very few revisions.



3. Nature Biotechnology cover (May 2013)

Research paper: Synthetic Circuits Integrating Logic and Memory in Living Cells

The paper was about the design of synthetic genetic circuits inside of living cells which behave as switches and can allow cells to perform logic and store memory. The authors wanted to emphasize logic and memory inside living cells. Since the synthetic genetic circuits are abstract and difficult to visualize, I proposed we made an image that would combine the a living cell (E. coli in this case) and a computer (image courtesy of David Goodsell and Apple Inc).


Below is a vector drawing of this concept, using computer CPU and RAMs to represent logic and memory in the cell.


The image, however, was not quite visually attractive. With the help of an 3D artist Liang Zong, we created another detailed 3D illustration (below) based on the same concept. This illustration was selected as the final cover without further revision.


2 comments… add one

  • Rune August 19, 2014, 9:13 am

    Brilliant examples! I would love even more details on how a scientific cover art came into existence, that is, the whole process of initial brainstorm, programs used, different layout versions and the eye for the final details etc. I know it is easy to just demand stuff like that, but I honestly think it would be quite interesting to see how other people go about similar tasks. If I ever get a cover approved I would love to contribute if you do such a thing here. Anyway it was interesting to read, cheers.

  • Yan Liang August 19, 2014, 9:18 am

    Thanks Rune! I will post more examples in the near future. Look forward to seeing your contribution as well!

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