This post discusses the process behind designing the edible (food) science illustrations (Viscosity, Emulsion, Elasticity, Maillard Reaction and Acidity) that were featured in the Top Chef Masters “Blinded Me With Science” Episode. (Shots with the art: Video 1, Video 2, Video 3, Video 4, Photos 15-26). Basically, I was in charge of the whole design (like being my own client), with a team of scientists for research and advice. The show only informed me of the topics and the 2:3 landscape proportion. I guess they were featured because they liked how they came out.
The schedule for designing these was one of unparalleled speed. The educational science concepts illustrations I have worked on in the past typically involve me conducting a lot of research on my own. On this project, there was only a small amount of time for independent learning, though I figured out how to squeeze more and more in on each additional illustration. Before starting, I was as familiar with the topics as any average non-scientist would be.
Since the act of drawing is very time consuming, I literally had only a few hours in which to understand the concepts at micro-scale (atomic details/laws/forces), something that is inconceivably crazy! Even though some of the topics were familiar sounding (Viscosity, Elasticity, Acidity), I still didn’t know the detailed scientific basis behind them or what scientists would consider important to know.
To help, Tara Chklovski assembled a talented group of scientists to feed me the research at a rapid rate. The initial group consisted of Stanford graduate students Kevin Miklaz, who was also the group leader and with whom I had worked before on other science illustration projects, Julia Stewart, and Carolyn Tepolt (the Acidity scientist on the show). A second group of scientists were added a bit later, consisting of UC Irvine graduate researcher Michael Klopfer (the Maillard Reaction scientists on the show), Air Force physicist Augustine Urbas (the Emulsion scientist on the show), UCLA graduate student Carlin Hsueh (the Elasticity scientist on the show), and Heidi Bednar (the Viscosity scientist on the show).
They had a good energy, excited about the project, curious themselves to learn more and see how one might visually represent something scientific. For this reason I decided to thank them by putting quotes from their comments on the designs, as best they fit.
As the actual act of drawing takes a lot of time, my main interaction with the science mentors spanned two brief entry sessions – research digestion and content decision – followed by questions on the detail development and terms/wording to make sure it was correct. In order for this to go at the speed required, the science mentors really had to be able to respond to my questions right away, which they did and for which I am extremely grateful. On “normal paced” projects, this Q&A session can be prolonged extensively, dependent on the availability of the scientist to respond.
For the research, knowing from past projects that the discussion could unfold to the length of romantic Russian novels, I asked each one of the mentors to write a ONE paragraph description of the concepts and attach some visual references, preferably diagrams. Naturally, the one paragraph ended up being quite a long one, or two or three or four! From that I did a bit of research myself and a brief Q&A period commenced which opened into step 2, the content decision, a long discussion based on the sketches I provided.
My main concern in creating these information graphics, as in the other science illustrations I have created, was related to attention span and educational experience. I wanted them to be scientifically correct AND educational AND viewable/understood without much mental effort or scientific background. My personal interest is to translate abstract concepts (scientific, historical, philosophical, linguistic, etc.) into digestible bits for general audiences.
For this reason, the designs concentrate on depicting only the main idea, and leaving out more advanced explanations, or squashing those advanced explanations in, in simple, visually pleasing diagrams. Some topics lent themselves more easily to this quick glance perspective (Viscosity) than others (Maillard Reaction).
simple, flexible formatting
Since time was tight, once an illustration was finished, it was done. For this reason, you may notice a difference between them as they go from Viscosity (1), to Emulsion (2), to Elasticity (3), to the Maillard Reaction (4), to Acidity (5). Even though they are a series, the formatting decisions made in the beginning had to continue through on all of them: font styles, font sizes, title location, margins.
For lack of revision time, I chose Helvetica as the typeface: a reliable classic that exists in a variety of proportions (wide, regular, thin) and weights (light, book, bold), allowing for flexibility and use in both titles and text.
I designed them in a standard 2:3 proportion, and because I use Illustrator for drawing, they can be printed at any size in that ratio.
on the set
The print-ready files went from me straight to the show’s printer. When I saw them on the set, super-colorful, gigantic, and framed, I felt a sigh of relief, particularly about the color quality. In matte finish, they looked exactly like the ones you see here (they appear darker in the videos).
1. I also designed the T-shirts that some of the “science fair” audience members wear on the show.
2. A parallel post appears on ScienceFare.org.