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The term scientific graphic design can be used to describe those images that scientists use to visually communicate their ideas and theories to their peer group. Typically, this type of graphic design is used in scientific journals and within presentations at scientific conferences, and forms an essential part of a scientist’s attempt to persuade others of the validity of their ideas. Individual pieces of scientific graphic design draw on well-established visual languages which, in the case of the life and earth sciences, have developed over several centuries. These languages are based on a strong tradition of observational drawing and are also influenced by the visual thinking employed by some scientists to aid their own work. Thomas Kuhn stated that scientific knowledge advances in a series of paradigms and the longer a paradigm persists, the more specialised its scientific language becomes. It can be argued that this is also true for visual paradigms, examples of graphic design that are the visual embodiment of a scientific theory. The significant amount of background knowledge required to understand scientific images means that few, if any, graphic designers are involved in their production. It is routinely left to scientists themselves to generate their own images, using whatever visualisation software and graphic design skills they have at their disposal. This is despite the shared sensibilities of precision, simplicity and clarity, which exist within both fields. Much insight and understanding could be gained by those graphic designers, or scientists, who are willing to learn new visual languages and to investigate what is a fascinating area of graphic design.
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Article © HARTS & Minds
The Paradigmatic Evolution of Scientific Graphic Design
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Image © Wellcome Images
The Paradigmatic Evolution of Scientific
Graphic Design
Gill Brown
HARTS & Minds: The Journal of
Humanities and Arts
Vol.3, No.1 (Issue 8, 2016)
www.harts-minds.co.uk/
THE PARADIGMATIC EVOLUTION OF SCIENTIFIC GRAPHIC DESIGN
Gill Brown
Abstract
The term scientific graphic design can be used to describe those images that scientists use to
visually communicate their ideas and theories to their peer group. Typically, this type of graphic
design is used in scientific journals and within presentations at scientific conferences, and forms
an essential part of a scientist’s attempt to persuade others of the validity of their ideas.
Individual pieces of scientific graphic design draw on well-established visual languages which,
in the case of the life and earth sciences, have developed over several centuries. These
languages are based on a strong tradition of observational drawing and are also influenced by
the visual thinking employed by some scientists to aid their own work. Thomas Kuhn stated
that scientific knowledge advances in a series of paradigms and the longer a paradigm persists,
the more specialised its scientific language becomes. It can be argued that this is also true for
visual paradigms, examples of graphic design that are the visual embodiment of a scientific
theory.
The significant amount of background knowledge required to understand scientific images
means that few, if any, graphic designers are involved in their production. It is routinely left to
scientists themselves to generate their own images, using whatever visualisation software and
graphic design skills they have at their disposal. This is despite the shared sensibilities of
precision, simplicity and clarity, which exist within both fields. Much insight and understanding
could be gained by those graphic designers, or scientists, who are willing to learn new visual
languages and to investigate what is a fascinating area of graphic design.
Key Words: graphic design, science, visual representation, paradigm, visual language
*****
Introduction
In his 1965 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn
stated that science progresses in a series of paradigms.1 A scientific theory is developed that
best fits the known facts and observations made at that time. This theory gradually gains
acceptance amongst scientists until it is the predominant paradigm in that particular scientific
field. All earlier theories are then discarded and forgotten whilst the chosen paradigm reigns
supreme. At least it reigns until a new theory, which better fits the latest observations, comes
along in turn and displaces it.
Kuhn cites the sixteenth-century cleric and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, and his theory
of a heliocentric solar system, as a prime example of a scientific paradigm.2 Before Copernicus,
the widely-accepted theory was that of a geocentric solar system, with the Earth firmly at the
centre of the known universe. In 1543, Copernicus published his ground-breaking book De
revolutionibus orbium coelestium, which included a single diagram, shown in figure 1, to
accompany its many pages of astronomical calculations.3 This diagram perfectly encapsulated
the heliocentric solar system, in one deceptively simple image, and is essentially what anyone
would attempt to draw if they were asked to describe the solar system today. It is therefore
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arguable that this diagram is a visual scientific paradigm, inextricably linked with Copernicus
and destined to persist for as long as his theory.
Fig. 1: Nicolas Copernicus, Heliocentric solar system, 1543, woodcut print.
Source: NASA Earth Observatory,
<http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/OrbitsHistory/images/copernicus/>
[accessed 23 February 2016]
Philosopher of science Tim Lewens suggests that there are very few scientific paradigms as
monumental as that of Copernicus.4 Instead, science progresses by many more, much smaller,
steps, with a theory more often being added to, or modified, rather than being discarded
completely. In tandem with this progression, the visual representations of those theories are
often developed and modified. However, a visual paradigm can, on occasion, appear fully-
formed from the mind of a scientist and subsequently be adopted wholly by the scientific
community as the visual embodiment of a scientific fact or theory. This is particularly true in
the earth and life sciences, which are predominantly based on visual representations, rather than
on mathematical equations or formulae.
The development and acceptance of a scientific fact can be a lengthy process, as described
by physician Ludwik Fleck in his book Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact.5 Fleck
used a diagram, reproduced in figure 2, to describe how a scientific fact is generated within a
relatively small community of scientists, defined by Fleck as the hard core, who communicate
their ideas primarily via scientific journals.6 These facts then percolate out to a slightly wider
circle, via the medium of scientific atlases and reference texts, or vademecum, as Fleck
describes them. At the next stage, the facts are included in scientific textbooks for students and
school pupils before finally appearing in the public domain. A scientific visual representation
essentially follows the same course as the scientific fact it embodies, originating initially within
the hard core before gradually permeating the outer circles and, occasionally, finding its way
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into the mainstream. Copernicus’ diagram of the heliocentric solar system, although produced
prior to the age of formal scientific publications, is one clear example of an image that has
reached beyond scientific communities and attained general use.
Fig. 2: Fleck’s diagram of the development of a scientific fact.
The images produced by the hard core of scientists are the visual representations that they
use to communicate ideas to their peers and, as such, they are specifically designed to be read,
and understood, by a very select group. It therefore seems appropriate to think of these images
as examples of scientific graphic design, rather than simply as scientific graphics, although
there exists no definitive term to describe them. They form a very particular subset of the much
broader category of information design but this still leaves room for confusion when it comes
to precise definitions. The information designer Sheila Pontis notes that the terms information
design, information visualisation and data visualisation are all used by designers, often
interchangeably.7 To distinguish between the three, we can say that data visualisation involves
the visual analysis of a dataset, typically using high-powered computer graphics, and does not
aim to present any information, as such. Information visualisation is also associated with the
use of computer graphics and typically allows the viewer to interact with information via a
computer interface. Information design concerns itself with the communication of information,
rather than just data, in ways understandable to a wider audience; for example, in signs for way-
finding systems and in instruction manuals.
Given these definitions, the examples of scientific graphic design described in this article
can be seen to best fit within the remit of information design, even though they are
communicating information to a small and highly specialised audience. At this point it may be
useful to briefly describe two additional categories of scientific images that are not the subject
of this article.
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The field of scientific visualisation is a subset of data visualisation and is an area where
scientists rely heavily on design specialists for their help in visualising large volumes of
scientific data.8 The resulting visualisations are often colourful and rendered in 3D, a typical
example being shown in figure 3, and provide new ways for scientists to analyse their datasets.
Fig. 3: View of Hurricane Katrina revealing some of the internal structure as seen by the
TRIMM satellite, 2005, digital image. Source: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific
Visualization Studio,
<http://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/vis/a000000/a003700/a003745/katright_v8.0150.jpg> [accessed
29August 2016]
Scientific illustration is a separate discipline in its own right, encompassing botanical and
anatomical drawing. It has its roots firmly in the tradition of observational drawing and is
typically undertaken by professional artists and illustrators, specifically trained to perform this
task.9
Both of these fields involve a significant amount of collaboration between scientists and the
designers and illustrators who are generating the images. By contrast, pieces of scientific
graphic design are typically generated by the scientists themselves. In the prestigious science
journal Nature, for example, there exists a strict divide between those images used in the News
section of the journal, produced by Nature’s in-house graphic design team, and those images
included in the peer-reviewed articles in the Research section, all of which are provided by the
authors of those articles. These are not edited in any way by the in-house designers, so as to
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avoid inadvertently changing the specialised visual languages that are being employed.10 Any
graphic designer working on these kinds of images would be required to learn these languages,
which come as second nature to a scientist. In addition, a lack of time and resources on the part
of a scientist inevitably come into play when preparing images for articles and presentations,
limiting their opportunities to collaborate with a graphic designer.
Yet, on the face of it, graphic designers should have much to contribute to this aspect of
scientific visual communication. While the art historian James Elkins notes, with regard to
scientific images, that, ‘Lynch and Edgerton agree with Leo Steinberg, Thomas Kuhn and
others that not much is to be gained by comparing the scientists’ criteria of elegance, clarity
and simplicity with artistic criteria’, these scientific criteria chime much more with graphic
design sensibilities.11 Copernicus’ diagram was recently lauded by Eye magazine, as one of
eight striking examples of information design, the author praising the diagram’s ‘austerity and
precision’, the very attributes that make it such successful science.12 Given this common
ground, surely graphic designers are perfectly placed to work with scientists in both analysing
and producing these visual paradigms of scientific graphic design.
Historical development of scientific graphic design
In order to understand how examples of scientific graphic design arose in their present form,
and why graphic designers are so rarely involved in their generation, it is instructive to consider
the historical development of these visual representations. In their 2007 book, Objectivity,
Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison consider the development of scientific images via the
production of scientific atlases, the vademecum that form the second circle of Fleck’s diagram.13
Daston and Galison propose three stages of scientific images, which follow on from, but do not
necessarily replace, each other. These will be briefly described here but we will return to these
three stages in more detail throughout this article. Stage one is named by Daston and Galison
as ‘truth-to-nature’, and can be summarised as drawing from observation; producing an accurate
and life-like representation of what is before us.14 Stage two is ‘mechanical objectivity’, using
photography, for example, as an objective observer, rather than relying on the more subjective
human artist. Stage three is ‘trained judgement’, where scientists are trained to read scientific
images that may bear no obvious relation to the object or phenomenon which they represent.
1. ‘Truth-to-Nature’
To return to stage one of Daston and Galison’s classification, drawing from observation has
been a part of human learning for millennia but producing a truly accurate image, which could
then be reproduced and distributed, is a relatively recent achievement. In his book Prints and
Visual Communication, William Ivins argues that, in order to achieve this type of image, three
conditions were required: the development of printing, thereby giving the ability to produce
exactly repeatable images; the mastery of linear perspective,!thereby giving the ability to
accurately render 3D objects in 2D; and the continuity of knowledge, as in the ability to publish
scientific work, rather than retaining this knowledge in private notebooks.15 Two scientific
texts, both coincidently published in the same year, 1543, as Copernicus’ De revolutionibus
orbium coelestium, embody these developments.
In Germany, the physician and botanist Leonhart Fuchs published an English translation of
his work De Historia Stirpum Commentarii Insignes, or, in English, The Great Herbal.16 This
was by no means the first herbal, or botanical book, to be published but it was the most
comprehensive and boasted the most accurate woodcut prints of the plants themselves, as Fuchs
insisted that all the illustrations should be made from life. As he himself wrote in a covering
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letter to the volume, ‘We have not allowed the craftsmen so to indulge their whims as to cause
the drawing not to correspond accurately to the truth.’17 Previous to The Great Herbal, many
images in books were copied from earlier prints or drawings, rather than being drawn from
direct observation, and inevitable inaccuracies crept into these replicated images. Fuchs also
took the trouble to name the three men who produced the illustrations for The Great Herbal,
even including portraits of them on the final pages of the book. This was the first time that the
people responsible for the images had been identified in a scientific book of this kind.18
At the same time, the Italian anatomist Andreas Vesalius published his ground-breaking
book De Humani Corporis Fabrica. Vesalius went to a great deal of trouble to ensure that the
book was printed to his exacting specifications.19 The volume included numerous detailed
prints, showing dissected bodies and organs.!The people behind the illustrations are not named,
but the quality of the images indicates the work of very accomplished artists whose identity has
been the subject of much speculation.20 The style of many of the prints, particularly the images
of flayed muscle men in volume two of the book, were frequently copied, although never to the
same high standard, as can be seen in figure 4. !
Fig. 4: Illustration from Vesalius’ De Humani, 1543, print (left); Juan Hamusco, anatomical
illustration, 1556, print (centre); Jacques Guillemeau, anatomical illustration, 1594, print (right).
Source for all images: Wellcome Image Library, <http://wellcomeimages.org/> [accessed 21 February
2016]
Both The Great Herbal and De Humani Corporis Fabrica were influential texts and would
certainly be described today as scientific atlases, or vademecum, to use Fleck’s term. The way
in which both of these books used images in their visual communication of science would also
prove to have a lasting effect. However, although all of the requirements were in place in the
sixteenth century for scientific ideas to be propagated, it was not until the seventeenth century,
and the Age of the Enlightenment in Western Europe, that the scientific community as it is
known today began to develop.21 The sixteenth century obsession for collecting bizarre and
exotic objects to fill cabinets of curiosity, or Wunderkammer, transformed into a seventeenth
century obsession for classification and cataloguing.22 The collection of John Tradescant
became the Ashmolean Museum, opened in 1683, and the extensive collections of John Hunter
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and Hans Sloane became the foundations of the Hunterian and British Museums respectively.
But rather than simply accumulating a mass of objects, the urge was to understand both the
object itself and where it sat in the great scheme of things. Drawing from observation became
a large part of both understanding and cataloguing the world around us.
The Royal Society was founded in London in 1660, the first ‘learned society’, where
gentlemen of science and philosophy could exchange ideas.23 Christopher Wren and Robert
Boyle were two of the founding members and in 1665 the society published Robert Hooke’s
book Micrographia.24 This contained what were astonishing images of everyday objects seen
under Hooke’s microscope, a new invention at the time. The drawings were made by Hooke
himself, obviously a very talented draftsman, and were printed from copper plates, allowing a
level of detail that was difficult to achieve with woodcut prints.25 As with Vesalius’ work,
Hooke’s prints were copied and plagiarised, with an inevitable loss of accuracy, as can be seen
in figure 5. Micrographia is generally considered to be the first true science textbook, but this
did not prevent it from also becoming a best-seller amongst the general population.26
Fig. 5: Robert Hooke, Flea from Micrographia, 1665, copperplate print (left).
Source: The University of Chicago Library
<http://www.lib.uchicago.edu/e/webexhibits/bookusebooktheory/images/>;
Filippo Buonanni, copy of Hooke’s flea, 1681, print (right). Source: Wikimedia Commons
<https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/> [both accessed 20 February 2016]
Hooke’s work could not have been achieved without the invention of the microscope. The
use of lenses, mirrors and camera obscura allowed accurate and detailed images to be made,
all of which was to the advantage of the propagation of scientific knowledge and the ‘truth to
nature’ approach to scientific visual representation.27 An accurately pictured object can be
correctly identified, classified and catalogued in its appropriate place. In order for objects or
phenomena to be classified they have to be named, and each field of science therefore began to
develop its own language. As well as a verbal language, agreement had to be reached on an
associated visual language, which could then be used to visually communicate with the growing
scientific community within a particular field. The existence of specialised organising bodies,
which would both define and propagate a visual language, became increasingly important.28
The Royal College of Surgeons, founded in 1800, was quickly joined by The Geological
Society in 1807.29 Each held meetings and published journals for their own specialised area of
science, as opposed to the broader remit of The Royal Society.
The science of geology, having emerged as an essential part of the economics of mining,
flourished in its own right during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Martin
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Rudwick’s seminal 1976 paper describes in detail the development of the distinctive visual
language of geology, in terms of maps, cross-sections and conceptual diagrams, that developed
during this time.30 William Smith published the first geological map of Britain in 1815 and this
was followed by the publication of Charles Lyell’s influential book The Elements of Geology
in 1838.31 Unlike James Hutton’s 1799 book The Theory of the Earth, which was sadly lacking
in images, Lyell’s book was full of simple woodcut prints, including an image that formed the
frontispiece, shown in figure 6.32 These prints were used not only to illustrate observable
geological phenomena but also to represent geological concepts, and would set a standard for
visual communication familiar to students of geology today.
Fig. 6: Frontispiece from Charles Lyell’s Elements of Geology, 1838, woodcut print. Source:
Wikimedia Commons <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/> [accessed 20 March 2016].
Some of the visual representations Lyell used in later books and editions were inspired by a
set of wooden models, produced in 1841 by Thomas Sopwith.33 These models showed
geological phenomena, such as folds and faults, and could be dismantled by the viewer, in order
to better understand the underlying structures, as shown in figure 7. The use of scientific
models, particularly in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was a key part of the
dissemination of scientific knowledge. Examining a 3D model could provide insights that were
just not contained within a 2D visual representation. This was particularly true in the case of
anatomy, where the lack of bodies available for dissection had been an issue for centuries. Even
Andreas Vesalius had to bargain with law courts to ensure executions were carried out at a time
convenient for him to collect the resulting corpse.34 Louis Auzoux, a French medical student in
the mid-1800s, circumvented this problem by producing his own anatomical models, as shown
in figure 8. These were made primarily from papier-mâché, mixed with cork and clay for added
robustness, and could be repeatedly handled and disassembled by students.35 The influence of
models such as Auzoux’s can be seen in the present-day 3D digital representations of the human
body, which can also be ‘handled’ and disassembled by the viewer.36
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Fig. 7: Thomas Sopwith, wooden geological models, 1841. Sources: Natural History Museum <!
http://www.nhm.ac.uk/natureplus/community/library/blog/2014/03/12/item-of-the-month-2014-a-
model-career-thomas-sopwith-1803-1879> and Data Is Nature
<http://www.dataisnature.com/?p=2183> [both accessed 20 March 2016]
Fig. 8: Louis Auzoux, papier-mâché anatomical models, 1848 (left), 1861 (right). Sources: Whipple
Museum <http://www.hps.cam.ac.uk/whipple/explore/models/drauzouxsmodels/> and Macleay
Museum <http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/review/man-made-a-work-of-art-by-medical-student-
louis-auzoux/story-fn9n8gph-1226645449345> [both accessed 21 February 2016]
Other areas of life science, such as zoology and comparative anatomy, also used models,
often in place of delicate specimens that could not be easily preserved. The Ziegler family in
Germany produced detailed wax models of zoological specimens, particularly showing the
stages of embryo development, from the mid-nineteenth century until the 1930s.37 The
Blaschka family, in eastern Europe, produced astonishingly life-like glass models of zoological
specimens in the second half of the nineteenth century.38 These incredibly realistic models can
be seen as a natural extension of the ‘truth-to-nature’ observational drawing that underpins the
visual communication of the life and earth sciences. However, the development of photography
in the mid-nineteenth century raised the prospect of a much more objective observer than the
human artist.
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2. Mechanical Objectivity
Early scientific photography was regarded as the perfect mechanical observer, unaffected by
artistic temperament or biased judgement, as it simply recorded what was in front of it. This
‘mechanical objectivity’, the term that Daston and Galison use to describe the second stage of
scientific visual representation, was regarded by both scientists and photographers at the time
as the perfect solution to recording science.39 The ability of photography to both freeze and
speed-up time revealed aspects of science never before observed or recorded.40 In France,
Etienne-Jules Marey produced chronophotographs, revealing the movement of humans and
animals in successive images on a single photographic plate.41 His contemporary in Britain,
Eadweard Muybridge, produced a similar effect using a succession of plates.42 Examples of
both of these approaches are compared in figure 9. Today, this type of scientific image would
be more familiar in diagram form, where it provides a standard method of showing changes in
movement with time.
Fig. 9: Etienne-Jules Marey, 1887, chronophotograph (top);
Eadweard Muybridge, 1887, photograph series (bottom). Source for both images: Bridgeman
education images <https://www.bridgemaneducation.com/en/> [accessed 18 March 2016].
Marey, in particular, was convinced that using mechanical observation was the best way to
record science. In his books, La Methode Graphique, published in 1885 and Movement,
published a decade later, he described experiments that not only used photography to capture
movement but also transcribed movements directly, via sensors attached to the subject, using
graphic traces.43 The resulting lines traced on paper would be familiar to any present-day
seismologist or cardiologist.
However, by the beginning of the twentieth century it had become apparent that only using
photography to visually record science had some significant disadvantages. Photographs
captured everything, not just what the scientist needed to show in order to communicate an idea,
whereas a diagram could be specifically drawn to show only what needed to be shown and to
remove the remainder. While unedited photographs do have a place in visualising science,
particularly when setting a scene in the earth sciences, for example, or when depicting
experimental apparatus, they are more often used in conjunction with other visual
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representations.44 The visual sociologist Michael Lynch talks specifically about the use of
photographs and diagrams in complementary pairs in visual representations of the life
sciences.45 He considers that the images support each other, the photograph lending real-world
realism to the diagram, which in turn defines and highlights the important aspects of the
photograph. However, this type of image is rarely a compelling visual paradigm, akin to
Copernicus’ diagram. Instead they simply form part of a scientist’s visual repertoire, one of
many images used to persuade a viewer of the strength of a scientific idea.46
3. Trained Judgement
The use of a drawn image, rather than a photograph, allowed scientists to further develop a
specific visual language that best illustrated their work. However, it also required the viewer to
be well-versed in that language in order to be able to interpret the image. This is the third stage
of scientific visual communication, according to Daston and Galison, that of ‘trained
judgement’, where scientists are taught to think about and interpret the models and images that
are routinely used in their field of science.47 It also requires that the person who generates the
scientific visual representations understands the specific visual language that the image is using,
which goes some way to explaining the current demarcation between scientists and graphic
designers in the journal Nature.
Relatively few scientists are capable of producing original visual representations of their
own ideas and concepts, the early twentieth century neuroscientist Santiago Ramon y Cajal
being a notable exception, with an example of his work shown in figure 10.48 Therefore, a
scientist may have to turn to an illustrator for help. As Leonhart Fuchs pointed out in 1543,
giving artists free-rein can result in images that do not represent the true science, so close
collaboration is essential. Successful collaborations between scientists and illustrators, in order
to produce conceptual scientific images, are infrequent but they do exist. An oft-cited example
is the long, and occasionally fractious, relationship between the Nobel-prize winning chemist
Linus Pauling and the artist Roger Hayward, as they worked together on illustrations for
Pauling’s work in the mid-twentieth century.49 Pauling was a visual thinker, but not an artist,
and he employed Hayward to convert his rough working sketches into finished illustrations, as
shown in figure 11. Hayward took the trouble to educate himself about the chemistry that he
worked on and, rather than just blindly following Pauling’s instructions, their correspondence
shows that he contributed fully to the production of the images.50
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Fig. 10: Santiago Ramon y Cajal, Neurolgia of the grey central region, 1904,
hand-drawn!illustration.!Source:!Wellcome!Image!Library!<http://wellcomeimages.org>!
[accessed!20!March!2016]!
Fig. 11: Linus Pauling, hand-drawn sketch of keratin structure, 1951 (top); Roger Hayward,
illustration representing a proposed structure for feather rachis keratin, 1951 (bottom). Source: L2
molecule <http://www.l2molecule.com/inspirations/2015/1/24/roger-hayward-and-the-architecture-of-
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molecules> [accessed 10 November 2015].
Collaborations with graphic designers to produce conceptual images within scientific peer
groups are even rarer. Will Burtin worked for Scope magazine, the publication of the Upjohn
pharmaceutical company, in the United States during the mid-twentieth century.51 Together
with follow graphic designer Lester Beale, Burtin produced some eye-catching magazine
covers and spreads. But perhaps his greatest scientific achievement were large-scale, walk-
through 3D models of, for example, the cell, in 1958, and the brain, in 1960, which he produced
for Upjohn to use at trade shows.52 Burtin went to considerable trouble to consult with experts
in the fields of cytology and neuroscience, in order to ensure that the colours and shapes he
used to represent the various biological elements made scientific, as well as design, sense. As
a result, the models were admired by physicians and public alike.
Another graphic designer tasked with presenting science to the public was Gyorgy Kepes,
artist-in-residence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology after World War II.53 In his
1951 exhibition, and later book, The New Landscape in Art and Science, Kepes appropriated
scientific photography.54 However, unlike Burtin, Kepes discarded the science and presented
the photographs as artistic images in their own right. Stripped of their scientific context, these
photographs became participants in what historian of science Klaus Hentschel disparagingly
refers to as ‘beauty contests’ for scientific images.55 While everyone can admire the aesthetic
beauty of images such as those in Hooke’s Micrographia, they are still visual representations
of real science, supported by careful annotations and explanatory text. Without this support,
scientific images are simply images and can be admired only for their aesthetic, not their
scientific, qualities. This does not make them any less popular, as the present day Wellcome
Images competition for scientific images proves, with two winning entries from 2015 shown in
figure 12.56 However, in Fleck’s diagram of the development of a scientific fact, these images
would belong in the outer, exoteric, circle, suitable only for the popular press. Even Burtin’s
impressive models would be seen as primarily pedagogical, the 3D equivalent of textbook
diagrams and designed for novices.
Fig. 12: Daniel Kariko, Boll weevil, 2015, scanning electron microscope image (left);
Maurizio De Angelis, Pollen grains, 2015, digital image (right). Source for both images: Wellcome
Image Library, < http://wellcomeimages.org/> [accessed 23 February 2016].
To produce visual representations of scientific ideas and concepts, which are used, accepted
and subsequently disseminated by a scientific peer group, is a task left primarily to the scientists
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themselves to accomplish as best they can. This is particularly true of those images that require
‘trained judgement’ to both produce and to understand, the visual representations of things that
cannot be observed.
Visual Representations
While very many of the visual representations used in the life and earth sciences can be
traced back to an original observational drawing, there are an increasing number of examples
of scientific graphic design that represent things which cannot be directly observed, either
because they are physically too small or because the image represents an idea or concept rather
than a visible object. Visual representations of this kind can be contentious, as there are
inevitably subjective decisions to be made about how the representation should look and how
their appearance may influence the viewer. Tracing this type of image back to its origin is more
difficult, as it usually emanates from an individual or small group of scientists and gradually
disseminates through the wider scientific community as the image is shown at conferences or
included in journals. However, if such an image is adopted by the scientific community that
makes up the inner circle of Fleck’s diagram, then it can persist for many decades, if not
centuries, becoming the accepted, and expected, visual representation of a scientific theory.
An example of such an image was produced by the immunologist Paul Ehrlich. He gave a
presentation in 1905, where he put forward his theory for the existence of antibodies and how
they may function.57 The precise nature of an immune reaction was unknown at the time and
Ehrlich’s theory was by no means widely accepted. However, Ehrlich chose to illustrate his talk
with a series of eight diagrams, which he himself had produced, in order to show how antibodies
may work in conjunction with a virus. Ehrlich had been reluctant to use images of objects which
no one had ever seen, acknowledging the highly subjective nature of his drawings, but he found
that his colleagues could not understand his theory without his diagrams to aid the
explanation.58 Ehrlich’s ideas had a positive reception, due in no small part to his illustrated
presentation. This drew disparaging comments from his rival immunologists, one of whom
described Ehrlich’s diagrams as ‘puerile graphic representations’, but there was no denying that
having a visual representation of a theory could aid its understanding and subsequent
acceptance.59 Once the theory had been adopted and began to be disseminated to scientific
atlases and textbooks, the image would become irrevocably associated with that theory; the
visual equivalent of that scientific paradigm. Comparing Ehrlich’s original diagram with
current immunological diagrams, as shown in figure 13, demonstrates that the visual
representation of antibody function has changed remarkably little over the last century.
Fig. 13: Paul Ehrlich, Antibody activity (detail), 1905, hand-drawn illustration (left). Source:
Wikimedia Commons <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/> [accessed 20 March 2016].;
Nature Immunology, Antibody activity (detail), 2005, digital image (right). Source: Nature Reviews
Gill Brown
__________________________________________________________________
Immunology <http://www.nature.com/nri/journal/v2/n9/fig_tab/nri891_F2.html> [Accessed 20 March
2016].
A more recent example of this type of visual representation are ribbon diagrams, which are
routinely used in molecular biology to represent protein structures. These diagrams were
originally hand-drawn by biologist Jane Richardson in the early 1980s.60 While effectively
originating from one scientist, over the last thirty-five years these ribbon diagrams have become
ubiquitous in scientific journals, atlases and textbooks. For the artistically-challenged biologist,
software is available which will generate the desired diagram for use in a presentation or article,
as shown in figure 14.61
Fig. 14: Jane Richardson, Ribbon diagram, 1980, hand-drawn illustration (left). Source: Wikimedia
Commons <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/> [accessed 23 February 2016];
Ribbon diagram, 2015, computer-generated illustration (right). Source: Wellcome Image Library,
http://wellcomeimages.org/> [accessed 24 February 2016]
In an article she wrote for the journal Nature in 2000, Jane Richardson describes how she
produced almost one hundred different versions of these diagrams in an effort to find a suitable
visual representation of folded protein molecules.62 She also admits that she drew the ribbon
diagrams to be visually appealing, as well as to convey scientific information. If the same
diagram were generated by a computer, therefore, it would not look exactly like a hand-drawn
equivalent, which takes into account the visual aesthetic. Non-scientists may be surprised to
learn of the degree of subjectivity that exists in what is supposed to be a depiction of a scientific
fact. However, these images are simply representations of that fact and, as such, can bear little
or no relation to the real thing. From the beginning of their education, scientists are taught to
accept this and to read and understand the images accordingly.
Scientific graphic design
As the visual languages used by scientists become increasingly specialised, and the images used
to visualise their ideas move further from their origins in observational drawing, it is perhaps
not surprising that the production of examples of scientific graphic design is primarily left to
The Paradigmatic Evolution of Scientific Graphic Design
__________________________________________________________________
scientists. The perception amongst non-scientists is often that science is concerned purely with
facts, and simply portrays the truth, whereas scientists are very aware that they are dealing
primarily with possibilities; which of the possible solutions best fits the current observations.
Persuading their peers that a possible solution is, in fact, the most probable solution, requires
convincing arguments, backed up by equally convincing graphic design.
The visual sociologist Luc Pauwels has attempted to categorise images based on their role
in science, taking into account the type of image, their primary purpose and the intended
audience, although he also acknowledges that there is a lack of research in what is a complex
area of visual representation.63 Linguist Elizabeth Rowley-Jolivet has also classified scientific
visual communication as a whole, specifically the visual components of oral presentations at
scientific conferences.64 However, she categorises all scientific diagrams as simply ‘graphical’
and, perhaps understandably, does not try to analyse individual images.65 As she herself
stresses, a piece of scientific graphic design is produced in the knowledge that the viewing
audience is armed with a huge amount of background information.66 Consequently, not
everything has to be explicitly shown within the image, as it will be implied by the viewer,
making any analysis of the image by a non-specialist problematic, to say the least. The
individual elements of a piece of scientific graphic design; the lines, arrows, shapes and colours,
for example, can be individually analysed.67 However, once these elements are combined, and
then presented in conjunction with annotations, captions and other images, their overall
meaning is only decipherable to members of a select peer group. The linguist Jay Lemke
acknowledges this situation and describes scientific visual communication, as presented in
journal articles, as a semiotic hybrid, with visual, textual and numerical components combining
to construct the overall scientific argument.68 Semiotician Françoise Bastide does attempt a
detailed semiotic analysis of a range of images that are published in scientific journals.69
However, she acknowledges that the scientific meaning of the images, both that perceived by
the audience and that intended by the author, is outside the scope of this kind of analysis.70
Whilst any semiotic analysis of a piece of scientific graphic design can be seen to be
problematic, analysing the images using an art historical approach is also fraught with
difficulty, as was mentioned previously. In his 1999 book The Domain of Images, James Elkins
talks at length about images that are not art and states that ‘Some scientific and nonart [sic]
images approach the expressive values and forms of fine art, but many more are encased in the
technical conventions of their fields.’71 Elkins strongly suggests that scientific fields, such as
neurology and medical imaging, should be included as part of visual studies, but he still
acknowledges that non-scientists are effectively visually illiterate when it comes to reading
scientific images.72 Elkins’ fellow art historian W. J. T. Mitchell also bemoans the lack of
scientific focus on scientific images and asks whether there could be a science of images.73 He
relates this to the German word Bildwissenschaft, literally translated as ‘image science’, a term
used within visual studies to describe the analysis of a wide range of images.74 In contrast, Horst
Bredekamp, of Berlin’s Humboldt Institute, reclaims Bildwissenschaft for art history.75 He
proposes several methodologies for classifying and analysing what he refers to as ‘the technical
image’ by using art history techniques.76 However, Bredekamp does not attempt to address the
scientific meaning of these images and it again comes back to what do these visual
representations actually represent to the audience for which they were designed.
The philosopher Bruno Latour has written extensively about the ‘chains of representation’
associated with a scientific image, where, for example, an observational drawing in the field
may evolve into a 2D diagram, which in turn is transformed into a 3D model and which is then
finally converted into a digital animation.77 This can result in the final visual representation in
Gill Brown
__________________________________________________________________
the chain being far removed from the physical object or phenomena it is supposed to represent.
Latour is concerned with the effect of this chain on scientific objectivity and how the visual
representation is perceived by the final viewer in the chain.
While art historians, sociologists and philosophers consider the implications of scientific
representations, how much thought does the average working scientist give to the issues
surrounding the graphic design they use to communicate their ideas? Are they concerned by
thoughts of semiotic meaning and do they stop to consider what their images truly represent?
The renowned physicist Richard Feynman is alleged to have said that ‘philosophy of science is
about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds’, and there would be many scientists who
would agree with him.78 The influence exerted on the scientific community by the most
established scientific journals and conferences is considerable and imposes a conservatism on
scientific communication, including visual communication.79 Scientists will therefore follow
the conventions of their field without question, in order to ensure that their ideas may be
accepted by their peers. Any new visual representation of a scientific idea would have to
undertake the lengthy journey through at least three circles of Fleck’s diagram before reaching
general acceptance within the scientific community and the status of a visual paradigm. If an
established visual representation has already been disseminated widely, and would be instantly
recognised and interpreted by the audience, then surely it is easier, and safer, to simply adhere
to the accepted image.
Conclusion
Examples of scientific graphic design; that is, the images used by scientists to visually
communicate their ideas to their peer group, have developed over centuries, in tandem with the
development of specialised fields of science. Visual representations can become inextricably
linked to a scientific theory, the visual equivalent of Thomas Kuhn’s scientific paradigms, and
can persist for as long as the theory. As with scientific facts, the visual representation of that
fact is generated within a hard core of scientists, as described by Ludwik Fleck, before
disseminating out through scientific atlases, educational text books and occasionally, as with
Copernicus’ diagram of the solar system, continuing on to gain widespread recognition amongst
the general public.
The increasing specialisation of scientific disciplines has resulted in highly specialised
languages, both textual and visual, being employed in each field of science. A significant
amount of background knowledge is therefore required both to understand these languages and
to utilise them. Consequently, it is primarily scientists themselves who produce the visual
representations of their ideas and theories, particularly those images which do not originate
from observational drawing.
Although examples of scientific graphic design can be seen to fit within the broad category
of information design, and, as such, should be within the remit of graphic designers, the visual
languages used are so specialised that graphic designers are rarely, if ever, involved in its
production. Equally, there has been little detailed research into this specific area of visual
communication, with the efforts of historians and sociologists concentrating more on scientific
visual representation as a whole, rather than analysing individual pieces of scientific graphic
design.
There could be much to be gained, by both scientists and graphic designers, from an
investigation into the graphic design that is used every day within scientific communities in
their journals and conferences. It would require the learning of new visual languages, both
The Paradigmatic Evolution of Scientific Graphic Design
__________________________________________________________________
scientific and graphic, and, consequently, a degree of cooperation that is rarely seen in this very
particular area of graphic design. However, the resulting increase in insight and understanding
should more than repay the efforts made.
Notes
1!Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd edn (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).
2 Ibid., p. 68.
3 ‘Copernicus’, The Beauty of Diagrams, BBC4, 25 November 2010.
4 Lewens, Tim. The Meaning of Science. (London: Penguin Random House, 2015).
5 Fleck, Ludwik. Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, trans. by Fred Bradley and Thaddeus J. Trenn.
(Chicago: University of Chicago, 1979).
6 Rowley-Jolivet, Elizabeth. ‘The Pivotal Role of Conference Papers in the Network of Scientific Communication’.
ASp, 23-26, (1999), pp. 179-96 (p. 183).
7 Sheila Pontis, ‘Making Sense of Information (Visual) Practices’, Mapping Complex Information: Theory &
Practice (2012) <https://sheilapontis.wordpress.com/2012/12/21/making-sense-of-information-visual-practices/>
[accessed 27 March 2013].
8 Scientific Visualization Studio Group, (2016) < https://science.gsfc.nasa.gov/cisto/svs/ > [accessed 29 August
2016]. See also SciencesPo Medialab (2016) < http://www.medialab.sciences-po.fr/> [accessed 29 August 2016].
9 Guild of Natural Science Illustrators, (2016) < https://www.gnsi.org/ > [accessed 16 March 2016]. See also AXS
Studio, Where Art and Science Meet, (2016) < http://axs3d.com/> [accessed 20 February 2016].
10 ‘Visualising Science’, a talk by Kelly Krause, then art director of Nature, at the London School of Economics,
3 July 2013.
11 Elkins, James. The Domain of Images. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999), p. 11. Note that Elkins is
referring to sociologist Michael Lynch and art historian Samuel Edgerton.
12 Ecob, A. ‘The Graphic Power of Knowledge: A Circle That Moved the Earth’. Eye: The International Review
of Graphic Design. 21, 82, (2012), pp. 24-25.
13 Daston, Lorraine, and Peter Galison, Objectivity (New York: Zone Books, 2007).
14 Ibid., p. 55-114.
15 Ivins, William M. Prints and Visual Communication. (Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1969).
16 Glasgow University Library Special Collections Department, ‘Leonart Fuchs’, Book of the Month, (2002)
<http://special.lib.gla.ac.uk/exhibns/month/oct2002.html> [accessed 26 February 2016].
17 Ibid.
18 Ivins, p. 44.
19 Katherine Park, ‘About De Humani Corporis Fabrica’, Anatomia Italiana: Connecting Art and Anatomy (2013)
<https://anatomiaitaliana.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/About_Fabrica_Web2.pdf> [accessed 7 February
2016].
20 Kemp, Martin. ‘A Drawing for the Fabrica; and Some Thoughts Upon the Vesalius Muscle-Men’. Medical
History, 14, 3, 1970, 277-88.
21 ‘Age of Exploration’, Seven Ages of Science, BBC Radio 4, 14 August 2013.
22 Eco, Umberto. The Infinity of Lists. (London: Maclehose Press, 2009), pp. 200-215. See also ‘The Cabinet of
Curiosities’, Wondrous Obsessions, BBC4, 23 July 2015.
23 The Royal Society, History (2016) <https://royalsociety.org/about-us/history/> [accessed 13 January 2016].
24 ‘Hooke’s Micrographia’, Inside Science, BBC Radio 4, 30 July 2015.
25 Ivins, p. 49.
26 ‘Age of Ingenuity’, Seven Ages of Science, BBC Radio 4, 7 August 2013.
27 Alpers, Svetlana. The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century, (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1983).
28 Rudwick, Martin. ‘The Emergence of a Visual Language for Geological Science, 1760-1840’. History of
Science, 14, 3, (1976), p. 151.
29 Royal College of Surgeons, History of the College (2016) <https://www.rcseng.ac.uk/about/college-history>
[accessed 13 January 2016]. See also Geological Society, History (2016) <https://www.geolsoc.org.uk/history>
[accessed 13 January 2016].
30 Rudwick, pp. 159-77.
31 Rudwick, p. 162. See also Lyell, Charles. Elements of Geology, (London: Murray, 1838).
32 Hutton, James. Theory of the Earth: with proofs and illustrations, (Edinburgh: 1795).
33 Whipple Museum of the History of Science, ‘Thomas Sopwith’s geological teaching models’, Models (2015)
<http://www.hps.cam.ac.uk/whipple/explore/models/geologicalmodels/> [accessed 2 September 2015].
Gill Brown
__________________________________________________________________
34 Katherine Park, p. 6.
35 Whipple Museum of the History of Science, ‘Dr. Auzoux’s papier-mâché models’, Models (2015)
<http://www.hps.cam.ac.uk/whipple/explore/models/drauzouxsmodels/> [accessed 2 September 2015].
36 3D 4 Medical. ‘Essential Anatomy’, Apps (2016) < http://applications.3d4medical.com/essential_anatomy_5/>
[accessed 16 March 2016].
37 Hopwood, Nick. Embryos in Wax: Models from the Ziegler Studio. (Cambridge: Whipple Museum of the History
of Science, 2002).
38 University College London, ‘Blaschka glass models of invertebrates’, Grant Museum of Zoology (2015)
<http://www.ucl.ac.uk/museums/zoology/about/collections/objects/blaschka> [accessed 14 October 2015].
39 Daston and Galison, pp. 115-90.
40 Revelations: Experiments in Photography, ed. by Ben Burbridge (London: MACK, 2015), pp. 60-68.
41 Ibid., p. 61.
42 Ibid., p. 63.
43 Marey, Etienne-Jules. La méthode graphique dans les sciences expérimentales, (Paris: Masson, 1878). See also
Marey, Etienne-Jules. Movement, trans. by Eric Pritchard (Charleston SC: Nabu Press, 2012).
44 Rowley-Jolivet, Elizabeth. ‘Different Visions, Different Visuals: A Social Semiotic Analysis of Field-specific
Visual Composition in Scientific Conference Presentations’. Visual communication, 3, 2, (2004), pp. 145-75 (p.
153).
45 Lynch, Michael. ‘Science in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: Moral and Epistemic Relations Between
Diagrams and Photographs’. Biology & Philosophy, 6, 2, (1991), 205-26.
46 Ibid., p. 219.
47 Daston and Gaston, pp. 309-57.
48 Kwint, Marius, and Richard Wingate. Brains: The Mind As Matter. (London: Wellcome Collection, 2012), pp.
86-89.
49 Hentschel, Klaus. Visual Cultures in Science and Technology, (Oxford: Oxford University, 2014), pp. 217-225.
See also Pauwels, Luc. Visual Cultures of Science: Rethinking Representational Practices in Knowledge Building
and Science Communication. (New Hampshire: Dartmouth College Press, 2005), pp. 153-94.
50 Hentschel, p. 223.
51 Remington, Roger, and Robert Fripp, Design and Science: The Life and Work of Will Burtin. (London: Lund
Humphries, 2007).
52 Sheila Pontis, ‘Will Burtin’s Legacy to Information Design’, Mapping Complex Information: Theory & Practice
(2014) <https://sheilapontis.wordpress.com/2014/06/06/will-burtins-legacy-to-information-design/> [accessed 19
January 2015].
53 Burbridge, Ben, ed, Revelations: Experiments in Photography. (London: MACK, 2015), pp. 129-39.
54 Kepes, Gyorgy, The New Landscape in Art and Science. (Chicago: Paul Theobald and Co., 1956).
55 Hentschel, p.368.
56 Wellcome Image Awards, (2016) <http://www.wellcomeimageawards.org/2016> [accessed 24 March 2016].
57 Cambrosio, Alberto., and others, ‘Ehrlich’s “Beautiful Pictures” and the Controversial Beginnings of
Immunological Imagery’, Isis, 84, (1994), pp. 662-99.
58 Cambrosio, p. 681.
59 Cambrosio, p. 682.
60 Richardson, Jane S. ‘The Anatomy and Taxonomy of Protein Structure’, Advances in Protein Chemistry, 34,
(1981), pp. 167-339.
61 For example, Ribbons software, <http://www.msg.ucsf.edu/local/programs/ribbons/ribbons.html> [accessed 2
March 2016]. See also Molscript software, <https://github.com/pekrau/MolScript> [accessed 2 March 2016].
62 Richardson, Jane. ‘Early Ribbon Drawings of Proteins’, Nature Structural Biology, 7, 8, (2000), pp. 624-25 (p.
624).
63 Pauwels, Luc. Visual Cultures of Science: Rethinking Representational Practices in Knowledge Building and
Science Communication. (New Hampshire: Dartmouth College Press, 2005), pp. 1-25.
64 Rowley-Jolivet, Elizabeth. ‘Different Visions, Different Visuals: A Social Semiotic Analysis of Field-specific
Visual Composition in Scientific Conference Presentations’. Visual communication, 3, 2, (2004), pp. 145-75.
65 Ibid., p. 150.
66 Rowley-Jolivet, Elizabeth. ‘Image as Text. Aspects of the Shared Visual Language of Scientific Conference
Participants’. Groupe d’Etude et de Recherche en Anglais de Spécialité, 27-30, (2000), pp. 133-54 (p. 135).
67 Bertin, Jacques. Semiology of Graphics: diagrams, networks, maps, trans. by William J. Berg. (London:
University of Wisconsin Press, 1983).
68 Lemke, Jay L. ‘Multiplying Meaning: Visual and Verbal Semiotics in Scientific Text’, in Reading Science, eds
Martin, J. R. and Robert Veel (London: Routledge, 1998).
69 Bastide, Françoise. ‘The Iconography of scientific texts: principles of analysis’, trans. by Greg Myers, in
Representation in Scientific Practice, eds Lynch, Michael and Steve Woolgar (Massachusetts: The MIT Press,
The Paradigmatic Evolution of Scientific Graphic Design
__________________________________________________________________
1990)
70 Ibid., p. 208.
71 Elkins, James. The Domain of Images. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999), p. 10.
72 Elkins, James. Visual Studies: A Skeptical Introduction. (New York: Routledge, 2003), p. 16. See also ibid.,
pp.159-76.
73 Mitchell, W.J.T. Image Science: Iconology, Visual Culture, and Media Aesthetics. (Chicago: The University of
Chicago Press, 2015), pp. 23-37.
74 Ibid., p. 13.
75 Bredekamp, Horst. ‘A Neglected Tradition? Art History as Bildwissenschaft’. Critical Inquiry, 29, 3, (2009),
pp. 418-28.
76 Bredekamp, Horst, and others, eds, The Technical Image: A History of Styles in Scientific Imagery. (Chicago
and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2015).
77 Coopmans, Catelijne, and others, eds, Representation in Scientific Practice Revisited. (Massachusetts: The MIT
Press, 2014), pp. 347-50.
78 Lewens, p. 4.
79 Rowley-Jolivet, Elizabeth. ‘The Pivotal Role of Conference Papers in the Network of Scientific
Communication’. ASp, 23-26, (1999), pp. 179-96. See also Rowley-Jolivet, Elizabeth. ‘Image as Text. Aspects of
the Shared Visual Language of Scientific Conference Participants’. Groupe d’Etude et de Recherche en Anglais
de Spécialité, 27-30, (2000), pp. 133-54.
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*****
Biography
Gill Brown is undertaking a PhD at the London College of Communication, part of University of the
Arts London, UK. Having worked for many years as a geophysicist, whilst gaining qualifications in
graphic design, her research centres on the use of visual communication within scientific peer groups,
specifically the graphic design used in journal articles to communicate scientific ideas and concepts.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
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