Gill Brown

‘Flying pelican’ Etienne-Jules Marey (1882) chronophotograph
‘Flying pelican’ Etienne-Jules Marey (1882) chronophotograph

An analysis of the visual languages, tropes and conventions of scientific graphic design

London College of Communication

Gill Brown’s work researches and investigates conceptual scientific graphic design; those images that scientists use to explain their ideas and theories to a relatively small group of their peers. Scientific graphic design is not scientific illustration or data visualisation, which are specialist disciplines in their own right. Nor is it straightforward information design, as it utilises specific visual languages that demand a great deal of background knowledge from the viewer in order to be understood.

Having worked as a geophysicist for 25 years, Gill is very familiar with this type of graphic design, but had given little thought to its appearance. The aim of the research is therefore to understand why scientific graphic design appears as it does, using examples from the earth and life sciences. Gill’s background as a working scientist, coupled with her experience as a graphic designer, puts her in a unique position from which to approach this research area.

The research analyses the historical development of scientific graphic design in western Europe, from the Enlightenment to the present day, and defines the evolution of the associated scientific visual languages. From this analysis, taxonomies of scientific graphic design, based on both graphic elements and visual rhetoric, are derived. Gill uses graphic design to organise, understand and communicate the results of this work.

Historical changes in graphic design practice, together with the development of contemporary visualisation software, have had a considerable effect on visual communication between scientists. By presenting the results of her research to working scientists, Gill intends to both elicit their response to the research and to discover how they themselves use graphic design in their own scientific discourse. This information will then feed back into the research project.


Russ Bestley

Ian Horton

Paul McNeil