Five Questions for Visual Designer Lauren Solomon

Ellen Clegg, August 10th, 2010 | Filed under

Broad Visual Designer Lauren Solomon worked with Associate Member John Rinn and postdoctoral scientist Maite Huarte on a cover concept to illustrate their paper in the August 6 issue of the journal Cell describing the critical role lincRNAs play in mediating the cellular response to DNA damage. Lauren arrived at the Broad earlier this year after 19 years as senior graphic designer at Millipore Corp. in Billerica, where she designed everything from t-shirts to building signs and everything between.

Q1: First, a question that is probably deceptively basic: how did you come up with a concept for a cover illustration for this important - but complex - scientific research?

Lauren: Concepts are frequently the product of a synergy between client and designer. In this case I was fortunate to have John Rinn as one of my collaborators. John had the original idea of an orchestral conductor, which was further embellished by Maite Huarte and myself in one of our energetic meetings. In fact, John had so many ideas, it was all I could do to rein them in. My job was to be selective about what I thought would work visually and what wouldn't, and then try to execute that subset with grace and elegance. (The image at the bottom of this post shows the evolution of this cover concept.)

Q2: When you sit down to tell a story visually, what are your first thoughts?

Lauren: That's a tough question, and a bit of a conundrum. Our brains are chock full of word-picture associations, and we're creatures of habit. If we start with the same thoughts about each project, our work can tend to get repetitive. One of the hardest daily challenges for a visual designer is not to fall into the visual rut of repeating oneself.

So, for me, observing and harnessing my own creative process has been very important. What I've learned is that I have to be very open and very patient. I first try to ask really good questions about the science, and to capture what is really at the heart of the story. Then, I might look at similar scientific images or informational graphics for ideas on content, information design or execution. After each of these steps, I sketch out the ideas I've gotten. Then, I make decisions about which ideas have enough merit to execute. Even then, many of the executions may fail and need to be abandoned, so knowing how to walk away and move on is important. Usually, when you see the finished result, that's after 90 percent of the work has been discarded.

Q3: Some scientific journals are now including graphical abstracts - visual snapshots that tell a bit about the research. What other trends do you see as all media move to richer visual storytellng?

Lauren: I won't pretend to be an expert in new media. But I suspect that we will see less storytelling and more interactivity with each passing year.

Q4: How did you get involved in this kind of work? What's your background?

Lauren: I arrived by a circuitous route. As a young person I was involved in many of the arts, but when I entered college I thought it more practical to focus on an academic area, and I followed my passion into molecular biology and biochemistry. Afterwards, however, I didn't feel suited to lab work, and drifted until I found myself drawn to visual communications, especially calligraphy and typography. I worked as a typesetter for three years and built a portfolio that helped me break into graphic design. So when I landed a job as a junior designer in a biotech company, I was thrilled. I was there many years and never imagined my career would evolve again. But this spring I started as a visual designer at the Broad and it has been an amazing experience, catching up on years of biology and having the opportunity to express it in type and images. I'm in heaven!

Q5: What's your favorite work of art?

Lauren: Rather than a single static piece or work, I find my inspiration in continually changing exposure to beautiful and elegant ways that designers find to craft the visual experience. I love modern calligraphy and type design, by such greats such as Hermann Zapf and Jovica Veljovic. But I am equally inspired by information design and new media that create engaging user experiences. A recent discovery is the stunning use of Flash animation by Paul Neave (www.neave.com).

The evolution of a cover concept.
 

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