Skip to main content
V. Altounian/Science

The brain, alight: illustrating for a family of journals

Seven papers in Science, two in Science Translational Medicine, and two in Science Advances make up the culmination of work from the PsychENCODE Consortium. Using more than 2000 individual brains, 15 research institutes collaborated to provide an enhanced framework of regulatory genomic elements in individuals with neuropsychiatric disorders. As a Senior Scientific Illustrator at Science, I was tasked with creating two covers, three rotators, and an intro illustration to represent this tome of work—a lofty endeavor, by the numbers.

For such a large collection, it was necessary to stay very high level, and not get lost in any individual paper. This is much more difficult than when I have just a single paper to work with.

With the need for creativity to strike, I set myself up with notes from my research and conversations with editors and authors, relevant imagery, and some music. I then ruminated on connections that might be drawn between these things. In this case, inspiration struck when the Arcade Fire album Neon Bible came on. I was glancing at the album art, and the phrase “multiple levels of molecular data,” which one author mentioned in an email, jumped out. I thought to illustrate a human brain out of neon lights using onionlike concentric outlines. I thought this might allude to the idea of different levels, and that by varying levels of brightness, I’d hint at neuropsychiatric disorder.

The album artwork for Arcade Fire's Neon Bible inspired my first train of thought.Left to right: Merge Records; V. Altounian/Science

Left: the album cover art for Neon Bible by the artist Arcade Fire. Right: my first train of thought

I worried this might be too difficult to “get,” but I was happy with this theme of neon because it had good variation potential—exactly what we needed for this package. Next, I tried translating the idea to a more anatomical brain, in frontal and lateral views. I could take advantage of the intro illustration and rotators to more clearly transport readers to the molecular level. For that, the thought of applying the theme to a wall of neon nucleotide bases (A, C, T, G letters) came to mind. To my surprise, I hadn’t noticed that one of the cover art suggestions sent in by the researchers was another interpretation of the neon brain theme. That, at least, made me feel the researchers would not need much convincing about my idea.

Proof of concepts for anatomical brains and nucleotide lettersV. Altounian/Science

Proof of concepts for anatomical brains and nucleotide letters

With everyone on board, I started further developing the look of my neon in Cinema 4D. I watched videos of neon signs being made and did field research looking at signs around town. Seeing how signs look when areas have fallen out of their gaseous state gave me the idea to include that in addition to totally burnt out areas. Ultimately, though, I knew my audience was made up of a higher percentage of brain experts than neon experts, so I prioritized having landmark gyri and sulci over creating a sign that would function in the real world.

YouTube screenshots of neon makingLeft to right: YouTube/Stereokroma; YouTube/Neonetics Neon

Left: I noticed that signmakers use black paint to darken out segments of tube that light should not emit from. Right: This video offered great examples of dulled out neon.

Left: I saw a few different styles for how the ends of tubes look where they are connected to the power source, but this was the one I decided to reference for its simplicity. Right: An example of two separate neon pieces connected by a cable to a single power source. I would make use of this look on the intro.

The intro illustration’s success relied on having very strong typography. Luckily, I could collaborate with Design Director Beth Rakouskas. When Beth showed me the typeface she decided on, I could easily imagine it being made of neon. Its characters are of equal width, which not only suits our imaginary wall of letters, but because these letters represent nucleotides, it also pays tribute to the typewriter-style letters that gene sequences are often seen in. Beth suggested having all the letters be the same color as the brain as well. This further unifies the illustrations and avoids introducing another visual factor that could carry unnecessary information. Beth mocked up the page in Illustrator, which allowed me to exactly bring the design into Cinema 4D and apply the neon treatment. The finishing touch was to connect the letters by hanging cables, while keeping them very visually set back from the letters.

Sketches of the nucleotide lettersB. Rakouskas and V. Altounian/Science

Left: Beth’s Illustrator mockup. Right: printouts of the design to help me play with ways of stringing the letters together

In the end, the neon theme was a success at bridging together seven papers across three Science journals. Here is the complete collection:

All the visuals for the psychENCODE packageV. Altounian/Science

All the visuals for the psychENCODE package

Valerie Altounian is a Senior Scientific Illustrator at Science.