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Pixels or Perish

The art of scientific illustration will have to adapt to the new age of online publishing

Brian Hayes

Drawings and pictures are more than mere ornaments in scientific discourse. Blackboard sketches, geological maps, diagrams of molecular structure, astronomical photographs, MRI images, the many varieties of statistical charts and graphs: These pictorial devices are indispensable tools for presenting evidence, for explaining a theory, for telling a story. And, on top of all that, they are ornaments; they entice and intrigue and sometimes delight. A magazine like American Scientist would be impoverished without them.

Methods for producing scientific illustrations—and for reproducing them in publications—have been changing. Printing plates for figures were once engraved by hand, then made by a photographic process, and in recent years have been created by digital techniques. Now we are about to turn the page—if not close the book—on yet another chapter in publishing history. After centuries of reading and writing on paper, we seem to be headed for a world where most documents will be distributed online and viewed on a display screen of some kind. How will this transition to a new medium affect the practice of scientific illustration?

Print publishing has a centuries-long tradition and a rich culture. Generations of illustrators have developed technical knowledge, artistic sensibility and a highly refined toolkit. There’s a huge body of existing work to serve as example and inspiration. In digital publishing, this kind of intellectual infrastructure is only beginning to emerge.

Yet the new computational media offer new opportunities for the exercise of creativity, especially in quantitative graphics, where illustrations are closely tied to data or mathematical functions. On the computer screen, graphs and diagrams can become animated or interactive, inviting the reader or viewer to become an explorer. I find this prospect exciting. But I’m also mindful that we don’t yet have deep experience with the new graphical methods.

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