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Reexamining “re” in the creative process

Creative professionals like myself become well acquainted with a single, two-letter prefix: “re.” While it is casually strewn in conversation and liberally placed in front of nouns and verbs, the power that this tiny prefix possesses can challenge, frustrate, and on occasion, elate me.

Developing a visual begins with rethinking how to depict a topic or concept. Often, I begin by reviewing sketches, photos, supplemental images, and the manuscript or article, to help me understand how to tell a visually coherent story.


Here is the initial sketch for a news feature published in Science in November that explains how one of the coronavirus vaccine candidates is produced. This is a great starting point because it is literally a visual road map: Each drawing represents a step in the process and is accompanied by explanatory text. The creator of the sketch also color-codes the information to further convey the concept to me. A+!

My first challenge is to revise this sketch.

Beginning with the last step of a person receiving the vaccine I thought, can I add more context?

S. Kitterman

The left photo shows a person getting vaccinated. But if both models were wearing masks (photo on the right is the retake), this would connect to the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. With this small detail, I’ve added context. Clever me!

Now what happens to the vaccinated individual? Thanks to the internet and social media, the public has had unprecedented access to information on vaccine production. Therefore, even though this graphic was not supposed to explain how this vaccine works, I wanted to at least hint at it, so I added a panel indicating its mechanism.

Here is my first attempt at the graphic:

A. Kitterman/Science

And here is my manager’s response (paraphrased):

A. Kitterman/SCIENCE

My reaction was, “No! I can’t emphasize certain steps over others in a stepwise process! And besides, the moth cell is not the main point of the story!” Slowly, I realized that indeed this graphic was missing a “Wah-POW!” factor. Ultimately, I reconsidered his suggestions, realizing that his critique was pointing me in the right direction.

Why is drama and excitement even important? Our graphics have to compete with a constant visual bombardment that the digital age affords us. Knowing I would have mere seconds to capture our viewer’s attention, I returned to the text to help me find this “Wah-POW!” factor and homed in on two points:

  1. Producing a stable version of the spike in quantity was a significant achievement toward designing this vaccine.
  2. The designs for two of the vaccine’s main components are unique to this vaccine.

Here is my second attempt that reflects my manager’s suggestion and my revisit of the text:

A. Kitterman/SCIENCE

In this version, I’ve redirected the viewer’s eye by resizing the moth cell. The vast quantity of spikes reflects the first point, while the prominent curvature of the cell’s edge allows the eye to flow through the remaining steps and adds much-needed dynamism to the layout. Point to manager!

Sadly, when reviewed by the experts, the giant moth cell feature was rejected, underscoring why the research component is so critical to ensuring the accuracy of a graphic. I now needed to reformat the layout in a way that maintained the focus on the spikes, but deemphasized the moth cell itself.

I remained optimistic, because with all the components already there, rebuilding the graphic was a matter of repurposing and reorganizing.

A. Kitterman/SCIENCE

Although the audience only sees the end result, all the reworkings are worth revisiting, if only to explain the care and attention we give to these visuals. The ability to continually reimagine what is possible allows us to overcome the challenges and create the visuals that succeed in attracting and informing Science’s audience.

Alice Kitterman is a Scientific Illustrator at Science.