Inform, Engage and Inspire: an Interview with Jen Christiansen
Visual art is an important communication tool. To drive home the point, think of all the magazines you know of that have no photographs or illustrations. Short list, right? That’s because reading unbroken blocks of text simply doesn’t have the same appeal as reading stories and articles that are highlighted, broken up, complemented or entirely driven by images.
But I’m a words guy, not an images guy. To get some insight into how science publications marry words and images, I reached out to Jen Christiansen. Jen is an accomplished artist and art director at Scientific American. You can find more of her work at JenChristiansen.com.
Communication Breakdown: Your title at Scientific American is “art director of information graphics.” Can you explain the job, and how information graphics are different from other art that appears in Scientific American?
Jen Christiansen: As the art director of information graphics at Scientific American, I produce all of the information-driven illustrations for the magazine. That usually entails coordinating with text editors to develop a content plan, working up preliminary concept sketches, hiring and managing the artists that breathe life into those rough concepts, and working with the whole article team to make sure things are accurate and ready for press (and iPad publication).
The other art that appears in the magazine is more conceptual in nature. Those illustrations are meant to engage the reader, but don’t necessarily intend to walk folks through a specific process or story. Although not a strict rule by any means, I often tell folks that I work on the illustrations and graphics that include labels.
CB: You previously worked as an assistant art director for both Scientific American and National Geographic. How were those positions different – from each other and from your current position?
JC: That’s an interesting question, as job titles mean different things at different publications. Indeed, they even change over time within publications, as was the case when the art department was re-organized in 2010 at Scientific American.
Back in 1996 at Scientific American as an assistant art director, I was assigned a few articles a month, and was responsible for all of the visual content and overall design of those articles (working with a photo editor as needed). I’d commission both the information graphics and conceptual illustrations for those articles, work up a layout, and walk the whole article through the production process.
As an assistant art director at National Geographic, I was essentially half art director, and half art researcher. I’d research the topic to be illustrated, identify expert consultants, develop and pitch a content plan, and work with artists to produce final illustrations. At the time, the art department was separate from design. So I’d coordinate with an article designer, and essentially deliver a piece of informational art as one of the components ultimately packaged into an article by someone else. I worked exclusively on information graphics at National Geographic – items that were built on a foundation of research, and existed primarily to convey information.
In that way, my former job at National Geographic isn’t too far removed from my current position at Scientific American. I do a bit less research legwork now (many of our authors are scientists/experts in the field, so I can generally rely on them — and my editor colleagues — for solid source materials to kick things off). But now I’m working on more articles at a time, and within a much shorter production cycle.
CB: What is your training or background?
JC: I’ve been practicing art ever since I can remember. Formal training started in high school, when I took classes and worked in a studio, cleaning palettes while watching the pros that leased studio space. Later in high school, my interests in science and art began to converge, thanks to figure drawing classes at Otis Art Institute of Parsons School of Design in Los Angeles, and a volunteer position at the Natural History Museum, where I spent hours drawing crustacea larvae for scientific papers. In college, I kept a foot in each world, and completed a double major in geology and studio art. I was determined to avoid choosing one field at the expense of the other for as long as possible, and was therefore thrilled to find the perfect graduate program for me at the time: Science Communication/Natural Science Illustration at the University of California, Santa Cruz (the program is now located at CSU, Monterey Bay).
CB: What challenges do artists who focus on scientific subjects face?
JC: Sometimes the sheer range of topics can be overwhelming. Some artists specialize in a certain beat (i.e., dinosaur reconstructions or astronomical art). But those of us trying to keep a wider scope (by choice or necessity) often need to sink a lot of energy into getting up to speed with a working knowledge of unfamiliar or less intuitive topics.
CB: What sort of research do science artists have to do for their work? Do you often work with scientists?
JC: I’m lucky to be working with (or only one step away from) scientists on many of my projects. That’s an immense help, as I have a near-direct line to the primary source. But I’d say that the type of research that science artists need to do is quite varied, depending upon the genre of science art, and context of the final illustration.
CB: What sort of feedback have you gotten from the scientific community about your work?
JC: I’ve found that a lot of scientists are excited to have their work visualized by professional artists. The scientists that realize that the goals and audience of our magazine articles are different from the goals and audience of their scientific publications seem to be the most pleased with the final product. But I certainly have also heard from scientists that feel that I’ve oversimplified in my efforts to clarify!
CB: You started working as a science artist in the mid-1990s. Have changes in art-related software changed the way science artists work?
JC: I entered the publishing scene when about 75 percent of the artwork submitted was traditional media. Everything was ultimately digitized for print, and occasional last-minute content updates were made on those digital files, but a final deadline was generally marked by the arrival of a painting at the office. Overnight delivery of a physical artwork is pretty darn rare today. Without that object transfer, and the time, energy and cost of moving that object, artists are now expected to be on call to make changes right up to press date – because the technology makes it possible and that results in more change requests. Which is good in some ways, as errors can be fixed up until the last minute. But I think that also results in more rounds of change requests than necessary. Perhaps due to less considered focus at certain benchmarks, since the whole process has become more fluid.
CB: The rise of social media has made it easier for artists to share their work. But I also see a lot of concern from artists about people taking online images and using their art without compensation – or even giving the artist credit for the work. How has the rise of social media changed the field of science art?
JC: Much of the work I produce is highly specific. I’ve most often seen it used online without permission in the context of educational materials (online lecture notes, etc.). Personally, I’m not too worried about that sort of use when it comes to my own art – although I certainly don’t sanction it.
But with the advent of image-centric blogs and services, such as Pinterest, I definitely see increasing cause for concern. Particularly for freelancers, who often rely on reprint fees as a percentage of their annual income or, at the very least, name recognition via proper credit lines that allows potential clients to trace back to the originator. It’s definitely a mixed bag. Increased visibility can be great — it’s exciting when a piece of art resonates with a lot of people, and ricochets through social media channels. But someone’s got to feed the artist at some point (figuratively and literally). If we don’t, we’ll be stuck recycling the same old stuff forever.
Within the science art community, I think that social media has really triggered some neat conversations and cross-fertilization of ideas. And those conversations are open to anyone who cares to engage.
CB: What role do you think visual art has in the field of science communication? For example, is the primary goal to draw attention to an article or to help explain scientific concepts? Both? Neither? Something else entirely?
JC: I think that the role of art in science communication is totally dependent upon context. But ultimately, it boils down to three goals: inform, engage, and inspire. I come out of a pretty classic “inform” tradition. But science art can also exist simply to engage. Or inspire. Or, more often than not, some combination of the three.
CB: What are some news outlets that you think do a great job of incorporating art into their work?
JC: I’ve always been partial to the mix of traditional and digital in National Geographic. Check out art director Juan Velasco’s blog National Infographic for some wonderful examples, along with the process details. Here’s how the November 2012 illustration on emperor penguins by Fernando Baptista came to be.
Another ubiquitous favorite is the New York Times. Crisp, clean, and elegant. Here’s a blog post by science graphics editor Jonathan Corum on the making of a graphic on sign language. I’ve also been enjoying the Washington Post graphics. Here’s a post from artist Alberto Cuadra about the making of his War Horse graphic.
Alas, I don’t read Spanish, but for those who do, or for those simply want to see some inspired use of art in newspapers, keep an eye on La Vanguardia, in particular for samples of Jaime Serra’s work. (Don’t miss the whale at the bottom of this page). Here’s a lovely written introduction to his work from Density Design.
CB: What advice do you have for anyone considering a career as a science artist?
JC: For those interested in working with information graphics, I’d say that artists that can demonstrate an ability to think across media will see more doors open for them. Does your static illustration lend itself to an animation or interactive, or vice versa? Story-board it, even if you don’t have the technical skills to execute it.
Never underestimate the value of an internship or volunteer work. I owe my career to it.