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Best scientific journal covers from 2021

It’s no secret that 2021 was full of amazing scientific breakthroughs that deserved to be featured on the front page of your local newspaper. Or better yet, featured as a scientific journal cover — right there on PAGE ONE 📰👈

But before we turn a new leaf for the year, let’s take a step back to appreciate the incredible scientific feats from the Nobel Prize winners of 2021.

  • The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine: For discovering the precise molecular mechanisms by which the body senses hot or cold touch. David Julius & Ardem Patapoutian

  • The Nobel Prize in Physics: For massive contributions to the modelling of Earth’s evolving climate and reliably predicting the progression of global warming. Syukuro Manabe, Klaus Hasselmann & Giorgio Parisi

  • The Nobel Prize in Chemistry: For developing a new tool for constructing molecules, called ‘organocatalysis’, which now hugely benefits the pharmaceutical industry. Benjamin List & David MacMillan

Of course, there are only but a limited number of Nobel Prizes to go around. But does that mean that the rest of science is less deserving of the spotlight? Of course not!

There are different kinds of spotlights.

One of them is having your study featured on the front cover of a scientific journal. As much as we won’t want to admit it, a lot of people tend to judge a book by its cover. Who’s to say that a wonderfully illustrated journal cover doesn’t speak volumes about the quality of the science inside?

three scientific journal covers vector graphic isometric

In this blog, the team at Animate Your Science voted for our favourite scientific journal covers that were published in 2021. As we’re huge fans of illustration, we’ve excluded photographed covers but we totally agree there’s some amazing photo covers out there too. Our list is presented in no particular order, so enjoy them bias-free!

We’ll also be giving our thoughts on:

Great science needs powerful visuals. Let’s have a look at some, shall we?


Volume 184, Number 2, January 21 2021

Illustrator: Jason Ooi (Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University)

scientific journal cover cell volume 184 number 2 January 21 2021 baricitinib


There’s something truly mystifying about a lone hot air balloon making its way through a rainstorm.

But of course, there’s some context involved here.

You’ll see that the balloon is actually holding onto a pill for a drug called “baricitinib”, which is an experimental therapeutic for SARS-CoV-2 a.k.a. the virus which causes COVID-19. In a study published in this issue, researchers treated infected rhesus macaques (the ape in the basket!) with the drug and found it can help prevent lung damage by reducing inflammation. What’s super neat is that the balloon itself is made of alveoli, which are air sacs in your lungs, where the viruses are simply bouncing off of them since they can’t infect the lungs while the drug is around. There’s so much beauty (and science) packed into one image!


This illustration appears to have been drawn by hand either using traditional mediums on paper or canvas, or expertly rendered on a digital illustration software. Drawing that many detailed viruses definitely takes some time, so we’d think that this part would have been done digitally.


We’re all about preaching how a thought-out colour scheme really lends itself to an eye-catching graphic. Warm colours have been used for the balloon, giving it a softer and more positive tone. The storm and viruses around it have been dyed in cooler colours like blue and green for some top grade contrast! This simple colour palette is perfect for the children’s storybook feel of the artwork.

colour scheme scientific journal cover

Nature Neuroscience

Volume 24, Number 4, April 2021

Illustrator: Ella Marushchenko and Kate Zvorykina (Ella Maru Studio)

nature neurosciences scientific journal cover volume 24 number 4 april 2021


Remember going to Geography class at school and opening up an atlas? No? Me neither, to be honest, but this journal cover sure is reminiscent of one!

The “globe” in the centre is actually a cross-section of the spinal cord, which according to this featured study, is made up of many types of motor neurons. The authors specifically wanted to point out two types of motor neurons: skeletal (in blue) and autonomic (in green). On top of that, they even look like continents on the map.

Stemming out of the globe, we can see how the spinal cord and neurons are connected to many different tissues and organs, including muscles and even the heart! In reality, the spinal cord extends from the central nervous system towards different parts of the body. The metaphorical image of a map perfectly evokes this scientific concept. Metaphors are extremely handy for explaining complex ideas, which we’ve recently listened to a SciComm podcast about.


This journal cover appears to be hand-drawn either on traditional paper and canvas, though it was likely made on a digital canvas. Illustration software nowadays, like Photoshop, is powerful enough to completely mimic traditional art to the point we can barely tell the difference!


Books tend to get yellowed over time, giving them a classic or vintage aura. This cover in particular utilises a sepia colour tone, with multiple shades of brown and less saturated hues of red, blue and green. It truly captures the look of books you’d find in an old library.

scientific journal cover colour scheme

Science Advances

Volume 7, Number 21, May 21 2021

Illustrator: Ella Maru Studio

science advances scientific journal cover volume 7 number 21 may 21 2021


One look at this cover and your eyes just want to say “wow, it’s like the light’s popping out of the screen”. Well let me tell you, that’s exactly what it aims to show.

In the featured study, researchers combined two different types of photons to make a new kind of photon. This was done using extreme ultraviolet light at a wavelength of 33 nanometers (represented by the yellow and blue “waves” in the middle). We can’t see this sort of light with our own eyes (and neither would we want to), but the image perfectly represents this phenomenon. The techniques the researchers developed would then be used to study the physical properties of titanium, which is shown as a lattice in the image. Physical sciences are on a whole other level of mind blowing!


This journal cover was made in Autodesk 3DS Max, which is Ella Maru Studio’s favourite 3D art rendering software. Given that lattices are three-dimensional in reality, making it in 3D is a no-brainer indeed. You’ll find that these kinds of renders are becoming increasingly popular for journal covers these days.


Would you believe me if I said there were only two main colours used in this illustration? That’s right, by manipulating the brightness and saturation of just blue and yellow, you can produce highlights and shadows to make things look metallic. On the flip side, keeping the colours subdued and pale provides some textural contrast between the subject of the image (the lattice) and the background to create depth of field.

scientific journal cover colour scheme blue yellow


Volume 372, Number 6546, June 4 2021

Illustrator: Unlisted

science transcription scientific journal cover volume 372 number 6546 june 4 2021


Did you know that we’ve got tiny machines in our cells called enzymes? Every cell in our body contains enzymes and there’s a special one, called a polymerase (the multi-coloured spaghetti situation you see above), that reads and copies our DNA (shown in yellow). And this is happening ALL the time.

But how does it begin?

You can read it straight off the journal (requires a Science subscription, boo-hoo), but as a molecular biologist I’ll summarise it in an… abridged nutshell:

In order to read DNA, you’ll first need DNA to open up to you. First date sort of situation 😉. An enzyme called helicase gives the DNA some much-needed TLC, causing DNA to unwind its double-helix to reveal the genetic code underneath. This change in shape means that polymerase can bind to the DNA and read its code and copy it. The polymerase “transcribes” this code, and makes messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA). You’ve likely heard this acronym uttered around in the recent COVID-19 vaccine rollouts, so it’s good to be informed!


This journal cover was most definitely made in a 3D rendering software, though it’s actually possible that it was actually made using a research tool. In molecular biology, researchers use modelling software (like this one) to predict how DNA and proteins interact. In this case, it shows how snug the polymerase fits onto the DNA.


In this particular illustration, different colours must be used for different molecules or components of larger molecules. This is common practice in the field, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to tell one strand of spaghetti from another! What’s consistent however is the use of warmer colours for the molecules, which contrasts with the blue background.

scientific journal cover colour scheme

Advanced Functional Materials

Volume 31, Number 45, November 3 2021

Illustrator: Ella Maru Studio

Advanced Functional Materials scientific journal cover volume 31 number 45 november 3 2021


Is this… a kitchen? Well, yes… but also no? It’s actually a depiction of a 3D printer!

In the featured article, researchers extracted a protein from peas that has very adhesive properties. Yes, you heard right, peas. This pea protein (seen in green specks) can then be used to glue oil droplets together (seen as yellow spheres). Who knew you could glue together oil?!

Put together, these pea-oil mixtures, called emulsions, can be used as a material for 3D printing. This material could then be used to make highly elastic products with a defined structure (seen as hexagons on the kitchen bench). It’s stretchy — kind of like the meshes used to package fruits and vegetables at the market. This is yet another brilliant metaphorical representation of science for communicating equally brilliant work!


The artists at Ella Maru Studio are experts of 3D rendering, likely through Autodesk 3DS Max, which produced this stunning journal cover. You can actually follow Ella’s process of making this particular journal cover on Twitter, where you can see her initial concept vs. the final product.


A contrast between bright colours for the subjects (yellow, green) and dull colours for the background (white, grey) ensure that your eyes go to where they need to go. Especially for the pea proteins and oil, having them be represented by their real-life colours helps the viewer to recognise what they are.

scientific journal cover colour scheme

ACS Catalysis

Volume 11, Number 12, June 18 2021

Illustrator: Hassan Tahini (ScienceBrush)

ACS catalysis scientific journal cover volume 11 number 12 june 18 2021


At first I thought I was looking at an epic-looking Christmas tree decoration, but I soon realised that I was mistaken! 🎄

What we see is iron, depicted as a metallic ball with the symbol Fe, undergoing two different types of chemical reactions. Iron reacts differently with chemicals called aldehydes to produce different products. This depends on the conditions in the reaction. The authors in the featured study call this a ‘divergent reaction pathway’, and is represented by the two coloured liquids (the aldehyde) splashing over the iron ball. On the left side, the reaction produces amides (in red), and on the right side the other reaction produces nitriles (in indigo blue). Iron sure is a versatile element! 🧪🤔


Hassan Tahini from ScienceBrush is a master of 3D rendering in Autodesk 3DS Max, and polishes his work in Adobe Photoshop. The splash effect over the iron ball is especially impressive, requiring some very precise modelling in order to mimic how liquids naturally glaze over objects.


Contrast between various elements of the image is achieved with effective colour and texture contrast. The red and the indigo serve as bright eye-catching colours, with a glossy texture, which “decorate” the otherwise pale grey, scratched-up, iron ball. The background echoes the same colour scheme of the iron ball to ensure that no attention is taken away from the main object.

Are you looking to outsource a great journal cover?

A stunning scientific journal cover will no doubt promote the readership of research articles. They do this by appealing to the human eye — just one look is enough to make a solid impression for new readers. This ultimately leads to increased research visibility, more generated citations and also expands readership from multiple demographics, both within and outside the scope of the journal’s area of study.

High-quality journal covers tell a compelling and thought-provoking story.

Our PhD-trained creative team at Animate Your Science designs scientific journal covers to tell the story of your groundbreaking research. Click here or the button below to explore your creative options!

Until next time!


Dr Juan Miguel Balbin

Dr Tullio Rossi


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