Scientific journal covers are a lot like magazine covers.
Sure, a picture of the most complex and context-dependent scientific concept may look drastically different from the glamorous cover shots of Vogue, Observer, or The New York Times Style Magazine…
But they still function in a similar way!
Stunning scientific journal covers draw your attention by being bold and thought-provoking. Much in the same way that a model or celebrity posing for that perfect shot would catch your attention within the print itself! 📸
And I’m sure you would agree that the latest scientific advances can be equally attention-grabbing.
In 2022, we’ve had some fantastic science that’s been very deserving of a cover art feature. So, today we’re giving them the spotlight.
In this article, the team at Animate Your Science browsed through hundreds of scientific journal covers published in 2022, and voted for our top 5 favourites.
But it definitely wasn’t an easy pick, as there were so many high quality ones out there!
To narrow down our choices, we’ve specifically picked out illustrated covers, inclusive of both traditional and digital art (as not all scientific fields can be photographed even with the world’s best microscopes). Though we totally believe there’s some fantastic photo covers out there as well.
In this article, you’ll discover:
What messages or possible analogies these covers evoke.
How these illustrations were likely to have been made.
What colour scheme has been implemented.
Let’s take you through our top picks!
Health Care Science
Volume 1, Number 1, June 2022
Illustration: Tsinghua University Press
The scientific message
Fresh off the press of Health Care Science’s very first issue of their first volume comes a beautiful illustration of…
… a really fancy pig?
Wait, what’s the science behind the image, you may be asking? Well, it’s literally about the heart 🫀 behind the pig. 🐖
That’s right! This cover represents a feature article written by organ xenotransplantation authorities at the China Organ Transplantation Development Foundation Symposium. Together, these experts came to a consensus opinion that China should continue to promote and improve the organ donation and transplantation scene in the country. Advancing the ethics and research into genetically modified pigs, is one such way they suggest to further this field of research.
At the center of the pig is a bright red carnation (Dianthus caryophyllus) which in Chinese is called kāng nǎi xīn (康乃馨). In China, the carnation is the most frequently used flower in weddings, and symbolises kindness, deep love, and admiration — sharing its symbology with that of a heart ❤️. The DNA ‘stems’ around the carnation represent the need for genetic modification in pigs ensure that their organs are more compatible for human transplantation. And if you look closely, there’s a silhouette of a person in the background, who now embodies the new heart granted to them.
A truly beautiful cover for a major feat in medical science!
While Tsinghua University Press hasn’t provided any official profiles on the artist, we believe that this cover artwork used two different digital illustration techniques.
The background, stems, and the flower inside of the pig for example was likely painted in Adobe Photoshop or another raster-based drawing software like Procreate. This can be inferred from the highly textured brush strokes towards the head of the pig, and from the very organic or “naturally painted” qualities of the overall composition itself.
Creating painting inside the shape of a pig however, would require another technique called a mask. A mask effectively allows you to crop an existing image inside of another shape, which can be easily performed in Adobe Photoshop or another advanced design software.
The artwork primarily uses various shades of blue as its main motif, and then makes use of a small number of accent colours. Red is used specifically for the centrepiece images: the heart and carnation, as a way to “colour code” the two together and to link their symbolism. Yellow and green are used for the other visual elements that aren’t the main attraction while still maintaining a good level of contrast.
Volume 185, Number 20, September 29 2022
Illustration: Marzia Munafò
The scientific message
You might be well-versed with the idea of the human body’s microbiome. This refers to the community of microorganisms which live in particular parts of the body, such as your intestines, or even on the surface of your skin.
But did you know that diverse microbiomes could also be found in human cancers?
In fact, the microbiome of tumours is SO diverse that it hosts far more than just your run-of-the-mill bacteria… but also a wide assortment of fungal species! We call this the cancer mycobiome. 🍄
Narunsky-Haziza et al. discovered that mycobiomes are present in over 35 cancer types. In addition, different cancer types have been found to have very different fungal communities. To add yet another layer, specific species of fungi are found to also co-exist with very specific species of bacteria. It’s like a complex neighbourhood inside each and every type of cancer!
The cover art aims to evoke how incredibly complex the mycobiome is in the greater context of the microbiome in the EVEN GREATER context of human cancers.
Layers. Just a lot of layers.
But what the heck are these fungi doing inside of these tumours? Well, perhaps only future research can tell. 😉
Marzia Munafò has been drawing ever since she was a child, and now even into her post-doc she calls on these skills she’s been cultivating her entire life. She cites that a lot of her style was inspired by watercolour molecular artist David Goodsell, who we previously featured as one of the most prominent scientific artists on Twitter. As such, Marzia employs the use of watercolour-style brushes in her digital paintings, likely through Adobe Photoshop or Procreate.
The watercolour style can definitely be seen in the cancer cells towards the bottom of the image, while thicker inked brushes would have been used to draw the fungi above them.
True to the colour of most mushrooms, earthy colours are used to colour all of the fungi. To work with the idea that the mycobiome is incredibly diverse, different shades of brown through to peach are used for each type of fungus showed to make them distinct from each other. The cells of the tumour underneath can also be easily differentiated using a teal colour for high contrast. The background features a simple gradient of red-hot pink, perhaps to evoke the idea of being inside of an organ or tissue.
Volume 375, Number 6585, March 11 2022
Illustration: Stephan Schmitz (Folio Art)
The scientific message
I’m sure the general idea behind this cover clicked in your minds the moment you saw COVID-19 right smack bang in the middle of the page. 🦠
But while talk of COVID-19 is often fraught with fear and uncertainty, this cover instead actually aims to evoke a sense of celebration.
On March 11th 2020, COVID-19 was recognised by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a worldwide pandemic, caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). This cover, published exactly two years later on March 11th 2022, marks the two year anniversary of the international scientific community’s efforts and achievements since the pandemic began.
In fact, the artwork is all about our gratitude to the wider scientific community! 🌏
As we continue to fend against the virus, depicted in the boundless waters on the lower half of the cover, scientists all over the world are continuing to:
build bridges to ensure that we as a human race cross safely into the future (seen as the construction workers)
guide others on the path ahead (seen as the ones leading the masses on the left of the bridge)
In other words, the human race can definitely stay one step ahead as long as we build on what we’ve all duly learnt!
But what does “simple” refer to?
Simple refers to the cel-shading used in this piece which involves using flat colours, simple shapes, negative space, and minimalistic textures to communicate light and dark. This is contrast to more textured shading, which “blurs” the highlights and shadows.
Many 2D cel-shaded illustrations are drawn as a vector graphic in a software like Adobe Illustrator, given that vector illustration involves making very clean shapes.
Back to the journal cover, you can see that very stark cel-shading has been implemented in:
The people on the bridge — drawn with black hard-edged shapes for shadow.
The pitch black shadow in front of the bridge.
The shadows cast by the viruses in the water.
However, the viruses themselves are drawn with a combination of gradients and cel-shading, perhaps as a way to visually contrast them against the human characters.
The two main colours featured in this piece are red and black, where black is used exclusively for shadows and silhouettes, or some backlit elements like the bridge. A slate blue is used for the upper reaches of the sky and is used as part of a gradient down to peach, to evoke the image of a sunset sky.
Journal of the American Chemical Society Gold (JACS Au)
Volume 2, Number 2, February 2022
Illustration: Ella Marushchenko (Ella Maru Studio)
The scientific message
In chemistry, a catalyst increases the rate by which a chemical reaction occurs, without itself actually being consumed in the process. You can think of a catalyst like a minister during a wedding ceremony — the minister is involved in the union between two individuals, and by the power vested in them, they bond the two people together. Happily ever after! 💕
Similarly, this image depicts two enzymes (biological catalysts) as two friends meeting on a bridge. The ribbon diagram structure of each enzyme is also shown as a T-shirt design for each character. Each enzyme has brought an assortment of chemical compounds with them, in the form of either yellow or blue balloons, which then form a bond of friendship in the middle, shown by the pink/purple balloons.
But why is there a bridge, and why does it look like it’s held up by DNA? 🧬
Kahn et al. discovered that enzymes function particularly well in the presence of DNA “bridges” which work as a physical scaffold that packs enzymes close together. Or in other words, DNA just works as a really convenient meeting spot! 👋
To think that there’s all these nanoscale meet-ups and gatherings happening in us all the time!
Science truly is a party.
Ella Marushchenko from Ella Maru Studio is a skilled user of Autodesk 3DS Max, which is a 3D modelling and rendering software. You can check out her post on Twitter to see how this cover transformed from an old-school Microsoft Paint concoction to the final published masterpiece.
Now there’s an incredible amount of detail in this cover, including:
the plastic wrap-like reflective sheen on the water
the clay-like appearance of the characters
and even the textured wood on the bridge!
While it’s definitely possible to model these visual attributes in painstaking detail, many artists instead resort to using textures to emulate these details. You can think of textures like wrapping paper, often in .JPEG or .PNG form.
You can also get a taste of some simple 3D sculpting in Adobe Illustrator which we recommend for beginners who want to try this out.
The choice of colours definitely gives the impression of children’s story book and uses mostly pastel colours throughout the graphic. The use of baby blue in the sky also indicates that the image is set during the day, giving the image a very happy and positive vibe. ☀️
Volume 185, Number 15, July 21 2022
Illustration: Naola Leconte
The scientific message
Unlike some of the other journal covers we have featured above, this cover of Cell is less abstract in its message. It communicates the entire contents of this special issue, which centrally revolves around the powerful partnership of technology and biology. This partnership is represented literally by a friendly robot and a little girl, lifting her high above the tree tops.
‘Tech lends a hand’.
What a powerful and fitting statement this is! Technology has propelled the fields of medicine, biology and agriculture further than we could have ever imagined a few decades ago.
Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning tools are now prevalent everywhere and have quickly become an integral part of research — allowing scientists to undertake investigations that were previously out of physical or conceptual reach. From multi-omic profiling, prediction of 3D protein structures, modelling of complex biology, and even sophisticated climate models.
The options are boundless.
The cover artwork demonstrates this beautifully and shows that the little girl can see far and wide, which is something she couldn’t previously do from the ground. She is moving faster and easier with the help of the robot, and she is extremely excited by all the avenues they could go together.
The future sure does looks bright with technology on our side!
Naola Leconte is an accomplished artist, with extensive experience in detailed medical illustrations. This special edition journal cover stands out against her other more anatomy based medical illustrations for its captivating colour scheme and use of watercolour techniques. To create this digital artwork, Naola would have likely used a combination of watercolour digital paint brushes and dry brushes, slowly layering each colour by hand with a software like Photoshop, Procreate or Fresco.
This layering technique allowed Naola to produce natural and organic highlights and lowlights. By layering the watercolours she was able to create a beautiful gradient which mimics the ambience of a sunset. The leaves on the trees on the other hand were drawn using a specific digital brush and layered to create a silhouette.
To really drive the message home, Naola drew the robot to look friendly, with warm facial expressions, like a kind smile and big eyes focusing solely on the little girl. On the other hand the little girl was drawn with an open mouth and gleaming eyes, depicting her excitement for the endless possibilities as she points to the future.
The artist has used hues of purple, pink and orange to depict a beautiful sunset, with the bright yellow sun putting the little girl as the focal point of the image. This bright focal point evokes the idea of a “bright future”, and is a subtle hint to the sun setting on today and rising to the future. The dark trees and ground provide good contrast, allowing your eyes to fall to the main feature of the graphic; the robot and little girl.
Looking to commission a stunning journal cover illustration?
Designing a scientific journal cover is a great way to show off the intrinsic beauty of science, no matter the discipline.
Though, it can definitely take a solid understanding of the science to come up with a design concept for a given topic. On top of that, a high level of artistic skill is needed to actually materialise the idea.
But who in the world shares an expertise in both science and art?
Our PhD-trained creative team at Animate Your Science leverages our scientific and artistic backgrounds to deliver jaw-dropping and affordable scientific journal cover designs to the world. So with our designs representing your work on the front cover of your favourite journal, you can be sure your research shines in the limelight.
Click here to learn more about our services.
Dr Juan Miguel Balbin
Dr Khatora Opperman
Dr Tullio Rossi