Jen Christiansen’s career is shaped like a Venn diagram. As the senior graphics editor of Scientific American, she straddles the equally complex worlds of art, science, infographics, and data.
Growing up, Christiansen loved to draw, but she was also deeply interested in science. It wasn’t until after college that she realized it was possible to bring her two passions together. Now, she routinely works with both scientists and artists, conceptualizing and commissioning infographics and illustrations for the monthly science magazine.
We talked with Christiansen about her long career in science illustration—how she got started, what she looks for in new talent, and how a good illustration can make science more accessible.
For many people, science and art feel like two distinctly different paths. How did you get started in the field of scientific illustration?
In high school I took a lot of art classes, but I was intrigued by my science classes. I thought that [science] was a more, I don’t know if I should say practical, but maybe a more realistic way forward as a pragmatic career decision. So in college I started to lean a little bit more towards the sciences. I thought that I would take art classes, but I would eventually follow the science path because it seemed to me, at that point anyway, that there was a clear path forward—like you take these steps, and you become a scientist. Art was a little more nebulous to me; it was something I enjoyed, but I was a little nervous about moving forward in that field.
Then in college I started to realize that I couldn’t let go of art. I was using art and illustration more and more in my science classes to take notes, and I began to realize that there was maybe a way to keep a foot in both of those worlds and also to remain in the part of the art world that I was most comfortable with, which was a little bit more about processes and depicting things realistically.
As I was trying to figure out my next steps [after undergrad], I found a one year science illustration graduate program at the University of California Santa Cruz. So for about a year I took classes and built up my portfolio and started to meet people in the field. The art director of Scientific American, Ed Bell, came out to visit the program. Chris Sloan, the art director at National Geographic came out to speak to the program and do portfolio reviews, as well as other artists and art directors. I started to realize that I could continue forward on that path and keep one foot in science and one in the design and illustration world.
As the senior graphics editor, what do you do at Scientific American?
There are two of us that are graphics editors at Scientific American. There’s me, I’m the senior graphics editor, and Amanda Montañez. I focus mostly on print and the large features, and she focuses more on the news cycle, so fast turnover things and a lot of our online graphics. On a day-to-day basis I’ll take the unedited manuscript for any given issue and read through them and try to figure out if any of the content would be better communicated with a visual than words. And generally my litmus test for that is, as I’m reading through the manuscript, do I find myself sketching in the margin to help myself understand it? Do I find myself finding parallels? For instance, if an article talks about two competing hypotheses, and I find myself highlighting those sections and saying, “okay, it’s A or B,” I start to think maybe we should visualize a hypothesis A and hypothesis B next to each other so people can immediately see what’s different about them.
“I try to figure out if any of the content would be better communicated with a visual than words”
I also review any ideas that were presented by the text editor or the author as things that they think were valuable to illustrate. It’s great when we agree on that because then the process goes more smoothly. But sometimes I’ll push back on something that an editor or an author wants to illustrate and say, “I don’t really think our resources are best put there. I actually think we should be illustrating this other concept.” Because we have limited resources in terms of time and money, you have to check that box of: Would a graphic be useful here?
You make the distinction between an editorial illustration—something that might cover the title page of a feature—and graphics, which are a little more fact-based and realistic. Can an illustrator do both?
Sometimes the same artists will do the opening spread, the editorial illustration, and the information graphic. Some artists that come to mind who do that really well are Bryan Christie and Ron Miller, a space artist. Someone like Bryan Christie is really great at being able to put on that editorial illustrator hat and think about an article in terms of metaphor and drawing a reader in and then switching hats and thinking about, okay, now how do I explain a particular process in a more literal way? I love it when that happens because then we have a very consistent aesthetic throughout a particular article.
When that can’t happen or when we’re doing, say, a photo opener, I’ll keep an eye on how the rest of the layout is evolving and try to at least give the information graphics artists some palette guidance. Or if the illustration or photograph has already been commissioned, I’ll try to hire an illustrator with that kind of aesthetic in mind when possible. The whole art department meets weekly to talk about articles. The stories are up on the wall, and they’re on the server for us to constantly keep tabs on what each other is doing in terms of how the aesthetics of the full article are building.
What does the illustration editing process look like at Scientific American?
Generally we aim for a three step process, just because otherwise things can kind of spiral out of control and take a lot more time than we have. We’ll go for a concept sketch, then a tight sketch, and final art. What I tell the text editors, authors, or the scientists who are helping us out, is that at the concept stage it’s all fair game. If they tell us “no, you completely have this concept wrong,” we can start over and iterate a lot. Because at that point, we’re taking pencil to paper and doing very rough compositions. But then once that concept sketch is approved, it starts to really kind of lock in. At the tight sketch stage we’re starting to flesh out the details. And that’s where I’m relying more and more on an artist that I would hire.
So the artist is the artist already engaged at the rough sketch phase?
Probably about 50% of the time. It depends on how much time we have in the deadline schedule and what kind of project it is and the artist. Some of the artists that I work with a lot, I’ll throw just a few paragraphs at them and the text manuscript and say, “Okay, we know we definitely want to illustrate this concept, can we develop the concept sketch?” Sometimes if I’m working with a new artist or it’s a particularly complicated piece and I know we’ll have limited interactions with a scientist expert, I’ll try to pin things down in the concept stage.
“The artists should know that some of the feedback that’s going to come their way is going to be quite literal.”
What’s the feedback process like?
The artists should know that some of the feedback that’s going to come their way is going to be quite literal. It needs to be an artist who’s okay with going back and forth on some tweaks that seem inconsequential but are actually kind of major. One of my favorite examples is the way that the structure of DNA twists in a particular way. A lot of artists twist it backwards if they don’t know, and so you’ll have to go to an artist and say, “You’ll actually have to turn your DNA so it’s twisted the other way.” [We look for] artists who understand that that’s not just a flighty request, but that it’s really critical to do that even though it might mean reconstructing part of their illustration.
It sounds like the work can be pretty technical. How firm of a grasp on the actual science does an illustrator need to have?
It really depends on the project and the kind of work they want to end up doing. If I have a lot of great reference material or if I’m really comfortable with the topic, then I tend to hire an artist whose style is exciting to me or I think would be a good the match for the project in the context of the full article. But if it’s a topic that I’m a little nervous about or I’m not sure how much expert feedback we’re going to be able to get before the press date, then I’ll focus much more on an artist who I know is really comfortable with that subject matter.
How do you find new talent?
I definitely keep an eye on other publications. But I actually do like getting a portfolio links via email. I like it when an artist sends at least one attachment with the email that shows some sort of an information graphic or science illustration, but it can be an information graphic even if it’s not rooted in scientific content. Basically anything that might have few labels on it or show a process or a concept.
I get a lot of portfolios that are filled with just editorial illustration, and then often I’ll send those forward to my colleagues who commission those kinds of pieces. It’ll definitely catch my eye if there’s actually information graphics in the portfolio. To have one attachment that someone thinks might be relevant increases the odds that I’ll look at it right then and not just set it aside and try to remember to look at it later.
Do science illustrators need to go to school? And is it possible to be a generalist or do you have to hone-in on a sub-discipline?
Gosh, that’s a good question. I know folks across the board—some that have and some that haven’t. I think a lot of it depends on kind of what kind of sub-discipline you want to enter because you can learn a lot on your own, too. I do know that medical illustration is a field where going to graduate school is a pretty major step. I think there’s a certification process. You essentially go pre-med and then I believe it’s two years of pretty intense training. In some cases a lot of their classes are with med school students. But then I also know folks who become experts in dinosaur reconstructions and that sort of thing where they have a passion for that topic: they’re not completely self-taught, but they might not have gone to school for palaeontology.
I’m trying to remain generalist, and I think a lot of art directors generally tend to be, because we need to be able to work with data visualizers and illustrators and people who aren’t used to doing information graphics. It’s possible to be a generalist, but when I’m thinking about which artists I want to hire for a particular project, I’ll go to a bird specialist to create a bird illustration because I know they’re out there, and I won’t have to find a lot of references for them. I know that they probably already have a lot of material to draw upon and a lot of scientists that they can reach out to if they don’t have the information.
Is there a way for artists without a background in science illustration to break in?
Yeah, definitely. Sometimes if I know the content really well and I’m very comfortable in making sure that the science is sound, that’s when I take an opportunity to work with artists who might be more well known for their editorial work because I think it can often bring an interesting aesthetic that could work well within the context of a larger article. And then I can walk them through what really needs to be correct.
When I think: “Okay, that’s an artist I want to take a chance on, even though I know science isn’t their whole gig,” the kinds of things that pop to mind are the composition of their pieces in general. I generally will hire artists who have some example of some kind of information graphic in their portfolio. It doesn’t need to be a science content content at all. But I do like to make sure that at least they understand when a piece needs to have a particular composition that reinforces a certain kind of storyline or a step-by-step process.
Why does science need illustrators?
Visuals in the world of science communication have a bunch of different roles. First, it’s a great way to capture the imagination as a public. When you think the murals and displays you see at museums, like a dinosaur painted at life-size, it captures your imagination and pulls you in. A lot of those illustrations are done very photo-realistically because you can’t take photographs of [dinosaurs] and you’re trying to transport somebody into a different time and place. But then you get down to the microscopic world, and you can’t take photos of that either; so part of it is making these ideas real to the broader public. Bringing people down to the microscopic level to see things that you can’t see even with microscopes makes the science behind it more relatable.
A lot of the topics [we cover] are quite abstract. Things like quantum physics can get very overwhelming, especially for a non-specialist, but when you start to use visual language and imagery, I think it breaks down a lot of those barriers and makes it a little easier to get beyond the first stages and try to figure it out.