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Deepfryer Cow Cow, Wahoo Zipzang

So it turns out that the credit cards issued by the NIH Federal Credit Union have chemical structures all over them. Isn’t that a good thing, recognizing their scientific roots and all? Don’t you find these chemical structures meaningful and inspiring? Don’t they make you want to kick something?


The graphic designers strike again. The problem seems to be that they don’t recognize that these things aren’t art – they’re a language. In an artistic work, there’s no right or wrong place to put a line or a dot or a letter, and the choice between them is purely an aesthetic one. But chemical structures have grammar and rules, and there are most definitely right and wrong ways to draw them.

When they use chemistry this way, designers are treating it exactly the way a cheap tattoo parlor treats Chinese characters, at the “yeah, cool” level. That tattoo on your shoulder that the dude told you meant “Hard life rebel” actually says “horse bang waffleiron”, which means that what it actually says is “I’m an idiot”. And those chemical structures that are supposed to say “cool science” end up saying the same damn thing. Hey graphic designers: those chemistry drawings aren’t pictures. They’re a language that you don’t yet read, and it wouldn’t hurt you
to ask someone who does.

63 comments on “Deepfryer Cow Cow, Wahoo Zipzang”

  1. Peter Kenny says:

    Thermodynamics gets used in an analogous manner in drug discovery to make IC50s more ‘physical’ and to endow compound quality metrics (e.g. Ligand Efficiency) with a reassuring hard science feel. It is somewhat ironic that many of those who use Ligand Efficiency seem to be of the view that dividing deltaG by number of heavy atoms relieves them of the responsibility to report units. I’ve linked a post on Voodoo Thermodynamics at the URL for this comment.

  2. Hugo says:

    It’s not like they have any respect for graphical design either. The structures are clearly drawn by hand and without skill: the hexagons are not regular, most of the stuff isn’t completely aligned and the kerning within the molecules are wrong.

    Probably not designed by some chemically incompetent graphical designer, but by a completely incompetent intern (without supervision).

    1. whatever says:

      I think it’s just that the graphic designers have never heard of Chemdraw.

      1. Old Timer says:

        If they did use ChemDraw, they did a great job of ignoring all those red circles!

        1. Slurpy says:

          Since my students do as well, I can’t say it would surprise me.

  3. Wolf-D. Ihlenfeldt says:

    Don’t forget the new AMD computer graphics card line named “capsaicin”.
    Wrong structure (phenyl ring, missing hetero hydrogens) in every piece of marketing material I could find. Already wrong at the launch event with huge background graphics and in the official trademark logo.

    1. anonao says:

      Ouch! That one is impressive

    2. b says:

      Capsaicin isn’t the name of the new AMD line, it was just that one conference event. Their new line will be code-named Polaris followed by Vega which is supposed to fully utilize the new HBM2 memory technology.

      It’s not excusable, but it at least won’t (or shouldn’t!) be all over their branding for the next few months.

  4. Dr. Manhattan says:

    I mean, this card has the NIH name on it. The least they could have done is convene a study section, review applications, and rank them according to scientific merit.

    NIH Special Study Section ZRG1 BBBP-T 2059 Preclinical Chemical Structures on Credit Cards

    1. Philip Lukeman says:

      I actually LOLed at that one.

  5. Curious Wavefunction says:

    The first time I saw the title I read it as “Deep Fried Cow”, but that’s probably just in anticipation of the brisket I am having for lunch today.

  6. JAB says:

    Shame on them. I used to be a member of the NIH Credit Union, but switched to another closer to home. It is not affiliated with the federal government, though it has branches in several government buildings on the NIH campus. The real irony is that NIH has had a pretty substantial erosion in numbers of chemists over the years.

  7. Thermo says:

    add this example to the mix:

    1. Old Timer says:

      You have something against benzynes!?

      1. Thermo says:

        benzynes are fine… look further up

    2. eyesoars says:

      Yay for Texas Carbon!

      1. Phil says:

        Carbons with 6 bonds are Alaska carbons. At 7 bonds, I think you have to call them Antarctica carbons.

  8. Rule (of 5) Breaker says:

    I know the credit union is an independent entity, but it does pretty much some up what I think of the NIH.

  9. ksr15 says:

    Geez, how hard can it be to wiki some common chemical structures and copy them? (scifinder could do as well)
    really, most any organic structure with a couple of rings would do. I

  10. Vader says:

    C’mon. You have to admit that triply bonded hydrogen would be way cool.

    1. Am I Lloyd says:

      And what is tritium if not triply-bonded hydrogen?

  11. Matthew says:

    Triply bonded hydrogen would go straight onto the “things I won’t work with” list.

  12. Ben says:

    I’m just going to keep doing this joke until it goes through… (Apologies to Derek – whom I’m pretty sure would not approve…).

    Anyhoo – Surely this is a joint account? Between ‘CU Cardholder’.

    & ‘NT Cardholder’…

  13. Julien says:

    Come on, Derek, with these people (not talking about NIH in particular) open displaying their contempt toward science in general, and nerds in particular, I have no problem letting them print “I am a moron” in big hexagons and fancy structures.

  14. NJBiologist says:

    If I was still a NIHFCU member, I’d probably be more irked that they’d missed the chance to commemorate some of the molecules that we understand better because of NIH scientists… maybe a catecholamine for Julie Axelrod? a prion for Carlton Gajdusek?

    1. Olandese Volante says:

      -C-O-O-OH3 is impressive indeed. What would the IUPAC name be for stuff like that?
      “-supercarboperoxylic acid” ?

      1. tangent says:

        I was going to say, the COOOH is a peroxyacid, that’s a real thing… but then I read to the H3, and I got nothin’.

        (It actually looks like the CO-O-OH3 is not just dangling, it’s hydrogen-bridging over to that ring on the right. Maybe it’s representing the hydrogen analog of a molozonide.)

        1. Gordonjcp says:

          I can remember enough highschool chemistry to spot exactly what’s wrong with -OH3 but even without that I’m damn sure you wouldn’t want to get any on you.

    2. Nick K says:

      That one is truly shameful. Didn’t anyone from ACS notice?

      1. Slurpy says:

        No, they were too busy saying we have a STEM shortage, B.S. chemists make $65K a year the day after graduating, and pushing for more H1B visas.

  15. Anon says:

    It’s not like they couldn’t quickly grab a chemical structure from Wikipedia. Problem with graphic designers is that they are all so worried about copyright enfringement that they would never dare to copy a real chemical formula from somewhere for fear of a lawsuit. Or most likely, yes, they are just ignorant of the subjects they choose to draw, and too lazy to quickly check.

    1. Kevin J. Rice says:

      I would really, really like to trademark some chemical structures. Where do I apply again? (lol)

  16. Anon says:

    It’s probably just the perspective, as the apparent triply bonded hydrogen is actually sticking out above the ring, and hiding the carbon atom below it during mid vibration. Nothing wrong with that structure.

  17. Anon2 says:

    PS. For all we know, these structures could all exist for half picosecond as the earth crashes into the sun. So let’s keep an open mind. 🙂

  18. Philip Skinner says:

    Should have used ChemDraw

  19. tesseract says:

    Triumph Brewing Company in Princeton used to have this doozy on their coasters:

    Mercifully, they’ve since replaced it with C6H12O6 –> 2(C2H5OH) + 2CO2

    1. In Vivo Veritas says:

      Yea, but the oatmeal stout makes up for it. 🙂
      BTW, is that you, Tim?

  20. qvxb says:

    The time of operatic aria graphic design is past. Welcome to the Surfin’ Bird era. Poppa poppa ooo mow mow!

  21. Kriggy says:

    Well, that credit card is not good but its a credit card. What is worse, is promotional poster of college of chemical technology in Prague 😀 Someone realy messed up

  22. Anonymous Researcher snaw says:

    Andrei Codrescu in one of his NPR commentaries some years ago described slogans on signs and shirts in various countries that “are supposed to be English but they make no sense.”

    When I showed this thread to my wife just now she said when she and her mom were doing a sewing project when she was in high school they considered using the characters from an imported tea bag for the embroidery but were afraid it might mean something like “hot and sweet.”

    Seriously, I do wonder why designers can’t use structures from Wikipedia of actual molecules. Or how about a “design our new credit card” contest for the children of members to be judged by some volunteer researchers?

  23. Anonymous Researcher snaw says:

    I am also reminded of the restaurant sign in China that reads Translate Server Error.

    1. AcademicChemist says:

      My favorite one along those lines:

    1. anonymous says:

      One of the most annoying things to me is the use of a capital Sigma in place of E. I usually read it as an ‘S’ sound and get very confused!

  24. schinderhannes says:

    Hi Derek for a non native speaker, would you mind to explain the header of this blog entry to me? I get most of you humoristic word art, but this one leaves me clueless…

    Deepfryer Cow Cow, Wahoo Zipzang?

    1. Anonymous Researcher snaw says:

      Schinderhannes, that’s just Derek’s attempt to simulate what happens when an Occidental picks some random Chinese, Japanese, or Korean characters and creates gibberish. In like manner, when somebody who is utterly ignorant of chemistry attempts to make something resembling molecular structures with random lines, the result is gibberish to anybody who does know chemistry.

      I’ve also seen “mathematical equations” that mean nothing.

      These come from the same sorts of advertising people as all those pictures of people wearing lab coats and staring intently at test tubes full of food coloring.

      1. Pennpenn says:

        It’s also funny seeing it happen to English words. I mean, you can find sites out there showing things with all kinds of nonsense on them. Things like shirts that have bright and colourful patterns and words like “ENTROPY” or “MILK SUBSTITUTE” emblazoned across them.

      2. Anonymous Researcher snaw:
        “I’ve also seen “mathematical equations” that mean nothing.”

        Now you can see what happens when you ask a math-nerd to write a limerick… At the very least it should amuse the cow-orkers…

  25. Hugh says:

    That’s the beauty of the marketing/advertising/sales world. One can be ignorant and in complete bliss because it’s all about how the words/pictures make you feel, rather than what they actually mean. The most difficult part for me is these guys win high praise for being stupid since their successes show up on the positive side of a companies’ balance sheets.

  26. AOK says:

    This is the background image of the web page of central association of Finnish Chemical Societies. My heart weeps.

  27. David Young says:

    It’s like advertisements that have music written in the background and the staves have six lines rather than five. Yep, I’ve seen that one.

  28. newnickname says:

    A BA in Art and Design costs just as much as a BS in Chemistry and those artistes need to pay off their loans, too! Right? I hold that these designers will not copy structures from wikipedia or a chemistry book because they think it is a restraint of their creativity. They are not copyists, they are ar-TEESTS!

    I find some comfort in the philosophy of the great Kehlog Albran who penned The Profit:

    Then an eccentric looking man said,
    Speak to us of Art.
    And he said:
    It might as easily be said that man could live without Art as that man could live without water.
    Look upon the innocent scribblings of little children.
    Doubt not that each of us emerged from the womb an artist.
    Art is freedom.
    That which is called Art, yet is made subservient to commerce is not Art.
    That which is called Art, yet is made subservient to a Nation or State is not Art.
    That which is called Art, yet is hanging in the Museum of Modern Art is not Art.
    That crap my six year old son could do, the Master explained.

  29. Tim Harris says:

    I understand where you are coming from, but it seems like you are taking it a bit too literally. Who ever said language needs to be fully understood? Perhaps the artist didn’t want to have a specific chemical but wanted a chemical nature to it, or a chemical impression? Your requirement of strict adherence removes artistic license to allow room to be left for interpretation. How do you know he didn’t make the structures mean something to him?

    Body Language is an entirely unwritten and underappreciated mode of communication and is ENTIRELY interpretative. Your very existence requires you to interpret various facial expressions. Would you discredit someone for having feelings other than your own, expressing themselves differently? Of course not! So how can you say that one form of interpretive communication is acceptable while another is not?

    If this were an academic issue then I would agree with you wholeheartedly. But this is a background on a credit card. If you rely on your credit card to give you ANYTHING but an effective method to spend fiat, then you are giving it too much credit. Pun intended.

    1. Derek Lowe says:

      Problem is, when you draw something with chemical structures, you are (perforce) drawing a specific chemical. It’s like math – there’s not much room for artistic license. So if you draw nonsense, it clangs with anyone who can read the language. There are no poems that can be written with chemical structures, no artful allusions, no room for interpretation whatsoever. It’s not really a form of interpretative communication at all, any more than computer code is: it’s right or it’s wrong, it works or it doesn’t.

      Point taken, though, about “all it is is a credit card”. But it’s a credit card used by a lot of scientists and their families and friends, and (although I’m sure the graphic designer didn’t intend this message), drawing silly, impossible, wrong structures on it makes it seem like that stuff isn’t important, not worth two minutes to make sure it won’t make someone burst out laughing, LOL nothing matters.

      1. Bagger Vance says:

        If the BLS statistic is correct that there are about 98,000 chemist jobs in the US, then the chance that the user is trained to notice a problem is roughly 100K/300M = 0.03%. If you just include the number that took organic chem it’s maybe 10x or 100x that, but really, how much due diligence are you expecting them to do here?

        I know, it’s an easy mark for the big-shot chemist to make fun of the anonymous graphic designer. Sounds like punching down to me though, I guess I don’t internalize every chem structure as if I’m one of those correct-every-typo-and-grammar people.

      2. loupgarous says:

        Welcome to doo-wop, Derek – a genre of music which offends me – English is a fine tool that shouldn’t be mangled for artistic purposes, either.

    2. Isidrore says:

      I think Derek’s comparison with Math is apt. It would be just as ridiculous to have random wrong equations like 5+3=65 or sin(x)=99. It reminds me of some Japanese ads or T-shirt logos, with random English words strung together in phrases that made absolutely no sense, but at least they could be considered poetry.

      1. Scott says:

        Actually, those usually make sense to a Japanese speaker. Speak like Yoda, Japanese do. (yes, that’s proper Japanese grammar, I do sorta speak the language).

  30. MillennialChemist says:

    Clearly that hydrogen is just in a three-center, six-electron bonding scheme don’tchaknow

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