The fine art of representing complex science in illustrations and images can often be tasking to the most adept artists and designers. First there is the brainstorming process, then the pages and pages of sketches and templates, and then the small matter of aligning those thoughts and ideas with those of the editor.
This is a situation very familiar to UK illustrator, Russell Cobb, whose work has been much coveted by national publications and featured across the world. Cobb, this month, took on the challenge of designing the front cover of the Nature Outlook on lung cancer working alongside supplement editor, Herb Brody and the Outlook team.
Here Cobb and Brody talk through how their initial designs and thoughts evolved into the final cover seen below. Read the full Outlook supported by Cancer Research UK and Boehringer Ingelheim here.
Brody: When we first started working with Russell on the cover, we just wanted to show the visual impact of lung cancer on a human. Russell’s early sketches showed a human in profile, with lungs that were filled with smoke.
However, much of the Outlook focuses on how horrible this disease is and the shocking impact it has even in non-smokers. We therefore tried to stray away from a cigarettes are bad for you poster. It was a brilliant suggestion from my Outlook colleague Michelle Grayson, who came up with the idea to show the lungs as a hot air balloon. The cancer would then be represented as a malfunction causing these lungs / balloons to lose their inflation and thus altitude.
The first sketches kept the lungs in situ, in a human torso, but we didn’t really think that worked. It was a little strange and incongruous. So we took a metaphorical jump beyond the body and asked Russell to move the balloons and lungs into the real world.
The initial attempts were cartoony, with balloonists desperately heaving ballast overboard to keep the balloon aloft. And the balloons didn’t look like lungs, so we weren’t sure how well the concept would come through. Also, the depiction of lung cancer as an acute emergency, like a stroke or a heart attack, wasn’t quite there. It’s certainly lethal but didn’t want to make the doom quite so near-term.
Cobb: After reading the article and discussing the brief I picked up my sketch book. The brain storming process with something like this can be quite a time consuming one, sometimes sitting with me for a few days. What follows are pages and pages of small sketches.
The pages are full of evolving ideas, drawings spinning off from various aspects of the feature. It’s kind of like a daisy chain of ideas. After discussing the various ideas with the editor and art director, I focused on an idea I thought best conveys the message. The sketch was then fine-tuned and finalised.
Brody: We decided to focus on making the lungs identifiable – one healthy and fully inflated, one diseased and deflating. With the balloons outdoors, we thought we could show them floating through an environment of lung cancer risks: chimney stacks emitting particulates, and of course cigarette smoking. And we removed the panic from the balloon passengers – they’re in a bad way, for sure, but it’s not something just happened in the last five minutes.
This, with many refinements, is essentially the concept that became the final cover—lung cancer as an affliction in which something beautiful has gone horribly and fatally wrong.
Cobb: The final sketch focused on the scenario of lungs slowly floating blissfully unaware into lung cancer. In the final sketch a lung shaped balloon is shown deflating, losing height in a world of dirty air. I wanted to convey an oppressive inhospitable landscape affected by various factors such as car fumes, tobacco and coal. There are a few visual pointers, a dead tree devoid of leaves, a slow moving car and heavy cloud. The lung balloon is slowly descending into a world where you would not want to be.
Interestingly the cover art, mirrored my working process, in that I slowly sailed into the outcome.