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A coconut

The coconut collaboration

Transforming an idea for a Science cover from rough concept to finished design is seldom a straight path. For the November 2 cover on new uses of biological materials, Design Director Beth Rakouskas and Managing Photography Editor Bill Douthitt collaborated with Cary Wolinsky, a highly skilled commercial photographer, and his wife, Barbara, an artist and designer. Here, working on a very tight deadline, is how the cover evolved.

Bill: The initial idea was to do something on new materials. Discussion with the editors focused our approach on biological materials. Possibilities included shells and starfish teeth. But another material, coconut fiber, was being used for composites in automobiles. We talked about the parts and looked at pictures, but they were pretty pedestrian—floor panels, side panels, trunk floors … not exciting stuff.

Ford Motor Company

We thought about a more illustrative approach. I bought a coconut and photographed it in the trunk of a neighbor’s car, which got everybody wondering what I was doing, but didn’t seem like it would lead to a very interesting photograph. We would have needed about 200 of them!

Beth: At that point we started thinking let’s not be quite so straightforward, because showing the actual composite isn’t going to be great to look at. We started thinking about what we could do with cars made from coconuts. Could we have a little fun with it?

Bill: I think a lightbulb went off in your head then, Beth.

Beth: The lightbulb was Cary. I regaled Bill with stories about fun photo illustration projects we had collaborated on in the past. Cary was perfect for this project.

Bill: So I reached out to you. By then, we only had about a week to get this done.

Cary: It was fun to get the call. We usually have the luxury of time with other clients. We’d get these really difficult obtuse concepts from scientists, then there’s this push and pull between literal and conceptual approaches to illustration. We came to realize that humor is a great tool for getting an audience’s attention. But this was a rush. Barbara went out and got coconuts …

Barbara: Immediately! We ended up with 10. We started playing with which way to present them. We’d turn them around, and we determined they looked like hedgehogs. With the points of them you’d have a little nose.

Cary and Barbara Wolinsky

Barbara: We had to cut the coconuts. We had a friend with a band saw. Cary drilled three holes on the side we wouldn’t photograph to get the liquid out. Oh my God, that is VERY hard material. But the biggest problem was not cutting the coconut—it was clamping it. Each one was clamped in three different places with big wooden clamps.

Cary and Barbara Wolinsky

Bill: One thing you did that was inspired was elevate the cut side into a roof. That look of a cabin amplified the whimsy of it. You started with the flat side down. How did you decide to turn it around and raise the roof?

Barbara: We just played with it. We had the flat side on wheels, and at one point we just turned it over and picked up a lid, and all of a sudden it created that windshield and windows.

Cary: There’s a phase where you need to get the object in front of the camera and see what the light is going to look like. We took some little supports and lifted the lid. Having that light come through the back suddenly created a believable space. But the height of the lid was critical. We tested various heights. Too high and it looked like something that would arrive at a resort hotel and serve you drinks. We’d run it by you and get another set of opinions. That’s when it’s the most fun—when it becomes a highly collaborative process.

Beth: The back and forth in real time was really fun on this. I enjoyed getting actual phone calls, working on the layout in tandem with the photo shoot—tweaking the details of both to get it just right. The bigger lid from another coconut, once we got it raised up higher, but not too high, changed the proportions and made the illusion that this was the natural top to this car. The strand on top really felt like a detail on a car to me. At the end we had a couple of options with how the strand curled, so we could play with what worked best in the layout.

Cary and Barbara Wolinsky

Cary: One idea was adding car parts to make it look more like a car. But what we found was that every time we applied a noncoconut material to the surface of the coconut it was competing—it wasn’t working. The other materials were incompatible. We tried making headlights for the car from the round heads of an old electric razor. Model car headlights were too small.It looked thrown together.

Beth: Everything we added to it made it worse. Coming back to the simplest form was the best solution.

Cary and Barbara Wolinsky

Cary: A lot of times we get a project and there’s no ideas attached to it. In this case you had an idea you could describe. It seemed fairly easy to visualize—although as it turned out, we couldn’t. But we were all sketching as we went along. That’s a lot of fun if you can make it happen, because then you can work with the designer and the type in ways you couldn’t imagine.  With photo illustrations I’ve begun to realize the real power of working together on visuals to get to the best possible page, and how much fun that can be.

Cary and Barbara Wolinsky