Journal Cover Artwork: Ten tips for great illustrations


Find the most important concept

What is your paper about?

Why is it important?

What’s something really cool that you found?

It’s not about the five different genes you analysed or the particular settings that you used for PCR. You need to distill your paper down into a single concept or idea that’s going to be your cover art. You may be able to get away with two if you’re lucky. You may have to settle for more if you’re doing a review. But it’s always best to try for one. This is harder than it seems. You’ve spent months chiselling away at that manuscript, polishing and perfecting it. Now you have to blur your vision a bit and try and see the overall silhouette of the paper without being distracted by the detail. The famous advertising company M&C Saatchi live by the philosophy of ‘brutal simplicity of thought’. Simple is better. Start your ideas from one starting point rather than trying to find those that tick three or four boxes at once.


Do your research on journal covers

First things first, how much space the cover art actually take up?

Some papers do a full page illustration, others do a small image that fits in with the rest of their branding. Check the dimensions and make sure you’re designing for them. You’re going to be really annoyed if you create a piece of artwork in portrait and 50% has to be cropped out a the journal wanted landscape. Secondly, take a look at what kind of cover art has made it to the front page previously. The decision as to what goes on the cover is probably a decision shared by the editor and the art director. The editor is fighting for scientific impact, the art director is fighting for what will actually look good. If the journal you’re publishing in has a habit of putting cartoon or caricature work on the front, you should bear that in mind. I’m not saying that you have to let past examples dictate what your cover art will look like. If the editor/art director combo does have a penchant for humorous drawings though, try a few. It’s definitely worth taking a few minutes to come up with some ideas that fit the mould, even if you don’t follow them through. Even better, drop the art director a message and ask what kind of artwork tends to get selected. Even if they tell you that it’s 100% on the science and little to do with the aesthetics, you’ve got the art director on your side if it comes down to a difficult decision. Plus you might be able to get some useful advice off them.


Brainstorm. Lots.

Quantity, not quality, is key here.

You need to have lots of ideas. Even if you think that the first idea you have is the best one, keep going. Why’s that? Because chances are that if that was your first idea, it was a pretty obvious one. If it’s an obvious one, other people have probably come up with it before you. It may even be a visual cliche in the field now. Think DNA made out of lego bricks to show ‘the building blocks of life’ or brains made out of water to represent ‘fluidity in brain structure’. Keep the cliches to hand as they can be fun to subvert later on, but focus on coming up with new ideas first.


Analyse what's come before

You may have what you think is the best idea in the world, but if someone else has already done it, you may be better off trying something else.

You’re not just creating a piece of journal cover artwork, you’re visually communicating the contents of your paper, and creating a visual identity that people will remember it by. If your prized idea is already on a stock website, that image will already be associated with hundreds of other articles, brands, medical websites, and possibly journals. Your content is original, so be original. If someone got there first, scrap that idea unless you can think of a way to make it look significantly different. This is why we came up with lots of ideas in tip number 2.


Let the ideas ferment

You’ve got some ideas. Great. Now sit with them in your head for a day without doing any more work on them. You can’t rush creativity and now that you’ve clearly defined the problem and some potential solutions, your brain can subconsciously mull them over. If you’re the kind of person who has their best ideas in the shower or out running, you’ll know what I’m talking about. I’m not saying that you can’t use the ideas as they are, but it’s worth leaving them for a day just to see if anything else pops up. Plus by delaying moving onto the next step you’ll be super excited when you finally get to start drawing. This is useful as it’s unlikely all your ideas will work when committed to paper. It’s important not to lose motivation if something doesn’t work out, so pace yourself.


Get out the paper and pencil

Time to get those ideas down on paper. This step is to sort out the cover art ideas that work, and the ones that sounded great, but make terrible images. Composition is king, and if you don’t sort it out now it’s going to get very expensive in the future. If you decide half way through the project that, actually, it doesn’t make sense to have that DNA strand next to that protein, you’re going to have to start again. Whether that means a freelancer has to start a 3D mesh from scratch or your PhD student has to clear the next three days of her calendar, it’s going to cost you. Do at least six preliminary sketches to check that everything visually fits together, or get someone else to do them for you if you lack talent in the pencil department.


Add drama

One of the first things you’re taught when you learn photography is to try and take pictures that people wouldn’t normally see. You’ve found something interesting to photograph, now try and take a photograph from an unusual angle. Lie on the floor. Get really close up. Take a photo from up high. You can immensely improve how interesting an illustration is to look at by adding devices such as unusual perspectives, foreshortening, or even just odd angles. Try three point perspective to make things look much bigger than they are. Make some elements of the composition really close to the viewer and some really far away. Rotate your image slightly so that the main lines of the drawing deviate from the horizontal and vertical axes.


Plan your use of colour selectively

There are probably elements of your illustration that you want to stand out, particular residues that need to be highlighted because they’re important to the mechanism. To make them stand out you have to let other things fade into the background. Work out a hierarchy of what the most important pieces of information you want to show are. For an enzyme, perhaps cysteine residues, then all active site residues, then overall molecule shape. Number one should probably be a really bright colour that pops out, number two should be a similar hue but a little duller, and number three should only just be distinguishable from the background. You haven’t left any key information our here, you’ve just selected the most important information and organised it visually.


Remember to leave negative space

If your cover art doesn’t have enough negative space, it could get butchered.

Imagine you’re in the Art director’s shoes. You open up a piece of artwork and immediately groan. It’s beautiful sure, but where on earth are you going to fit the Journal title in this composition? It’s detailed all over, and there are at least six different bright colours in it. Each one of those is another colour that you can’t render the title in as it’ll be illegible. And what about those five different article titles that you’ve also got to get on there. The editor keeps pushing you to add another two, but even five is going to be a struggle. I suppose there’s a tiny crevice around the molecule in the bottom right? You sigh, open up photoshop, and proceed to dull all the colours in the beautiful artwork, dropping the luminosity into the dark greys. But hey, at least everyone will be able to work out which journal they’re reading from the cover now that your title is white on grey. Look at a few past journal covers and get a feel for how much text the art director needs to put around your image. Ideally when you’re creating the image, you want to limit the number of colours you use (see point 8) and keep all the detail in the middle. Ideally you should create your image with plenty of negative space around it and let the art director elegantly crop it depending on what suits. The easiest way to do this is just to extend the background. If that’s not possible, consider blurring out the outermost edges of the illustration to make it easier to read text on top of them. For instance by using depth of field, which makes things far away very blurry, or using a tilt shift filter, which makes the top and bottom of an image blurry. Your art editor will thank you for it.


Find someone who can add polish to your sketches

Chances are you have better things to do than create some cover art for your paper. If it’s something you really enjoy and you have some artistic skill then by all means go ahead. If it sounds like a lot of work though it’s worth getting someone else in. You’ve already got a clear idea of what you need drawn and what it should look like, you just need a designer or talented staff member who can realise it. Ask to see some portfolios and examples of previous artwork to help you decide who’s the best fit for what you have in mind. Ideally find someone with a bit of a scientific background. They’re more likely to understand which details are OK to have some flexibility with and which ones will just make the science wrong. If you get a talented colleague to do it, make sure there’s something in it for them. They’re more likely to take it as seriously as you do if there’s a fee or return favour involved. Whilst things might seem rosy at the start if someone offers to do it for free, they’ll quickly sour when you start requesting edits. If you go down the freelancer route, make sure you’ve negotiated the rights and fees properly. If you later decide that you want to use the illustration for other purposes than just a journal cover, you may get charged extra. That said freelancers will probably jump at the opportunity of having a client who knows exactly what they want, as opposed to one who says ‘I’ll know it when I see it’.