Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Reference and Writing, Science

Six Questions with Felice C. Frankel, author of the Visual Elements series

Felice C. Frankel is an award-winning photographer whose images have appeared everywhere from the New York Times to National Geographic, Newsweek, Science, and Nature. Uniquely, she is also a research scientist in chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her extraordinary, decades-long career, Frankel has combined these talents, becoming widely regarded as a master of scientific visual communication. Thankfully for researchers and science communicators everywhere, Frankel doesn’t want to keep this knowledge to herself, and in her new Visual Elements series, she distills thirty years of accumulated wisdom—and her celebrated books and courses—to the essentials.

Each handbook in the Visual Elements series focuses on a different crucial aspect of scientific visual communication—from photography to design and abstraction—but they share a unifying goal: to provide accessible guidance for scientists and engineers who must communicate their work visually with the public and for grant applications, journal submissions, conference or poster presentations, and funding agencies. But more than this, the series shows scientists and engineers the multifaceted importance of presenting their work in clear, concise, and appealing ways that also maintain scientific integrity. When Frankel helps researchers create beautiful images and graphics of scientific phenomena, she is interested in more than helping them reach their research community or gain public attention. Frankel shows that the right visual elements also offer the power of reflection—that the right images can help researchers look longer and understand more fully their own work.

Read on for Q & A with Frankel about her fascinating and important work.    

photo of both books in the Visual Elements series

How did you wind up in your field, and what do you love about it?

Right after Brooklyn College, I went straight into a Columbia University cancer research laboratory as a technician. That and the fact that in college I had majored in biology taking a ton of science courses, turned out to be important pieces for where I finally landed. My obsessive passion for understanding science continues to play a role. After the laboratory, I developed a knack for creating architectural photographs and did that for a number of years. In 1991, I was given a Loeb Fellowship in Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, which changed my life. I approached a chemist whose class I was auditing while at Harvard and invited myself to his lab. That was the first bit of luck. I had no idea who he was and it turned out he was world-renowned. And so, when I made an image of his work that got on the cover of Science, that chemist, George Whitesides, said to me: “Stay with this. You are doing something no one else is doing.” The fact that he encouraged me helped open up another door, this one at MIT.  Another piece of luck. And so began my career as a science photographer, with an appointment as a research scientist at MIT. MIT is an amazing place with a truly collaborative culture. It is the best place to land. And every day, I am learning something new.

You’ve said you’re not an artist, but your science photography—and many of the images featured in the Visual Elements series—are unquestionably beautiful. You’re well-known for that! The images also communicate a great deal of important information, and you’re well-known for that too. Can you tell us a bit about where the art and the science meet for you in image-making, if they do at all?

How about using the word “design,” instead of art. For me, the difference is that my primary goal is to communicate science and engineering. I “design” images to be appealing so that people will be interested in asking questions. If some people want to call the images “art,” that’s fine. But the key is to nudge the viewer to learn something about science and engineering.

The first book in the series, The Visual Elements—Photography, focused on four tools that all readers can use in image-making (a phone, a camera, a scanner, and a microscope) as well as offering important advice on composition and image manipulation ethics. The Visual Elements—Design takes a wider view, using amazing case studies (and advice from expert designers) to explore the impact of design aspects like color, type, composition, and layering on the success of visual communication. Can you tell us a bit about the goal of Design in particular, and how it connects to your vision for the series as a whole?

Design is part of the series because during my thirty years working with researchers on imaging their science, and my running graphics workshops, I have become convinced of the following: the research community knows very little about designing a figure or visually presenting to an audience. It is simply not part of their education, and it should be. The whole series is my attempt to introduce to the broad research community accessible approaches to creating the best visuals possible for the purpose of communication.

 While you’ve been working on this project, what did you learn that surprised you the most?

I am sure the answer will resonate with your readers when anyone starts on a project like this. I was surprised to learn how much I do not know. Oh, but wow! What an opportunity this has been!

Where will your research and writing take you next? Any sneak peeks you can offer into future Visual Elements volumes?

I am working on the third book in the series, Abstraction. This handbook is turning out to be the most complex but frankly, the most fun, mostly because, once again, I am learning so much. This volume will be all about making representations: Illustration, Notations, Metaphors, Systems, and Uncertainty.

What’s the best book you’ve read lately?

How about changing the question to what movie have I seen lately? Oppenheimer is way up there on the list. I own it now and continue watching it, always discovering new ideas. Amazing movie.

author photo

Felice C. Frankel is an award-winning science photographer and research scientist in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Working in collaboration with scientists and engineers, Frankel has had images appear in the New York Times, National Geographic, Nature, Science, PNAS, Newsweek, Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and New Scientist, among others. She is the author or coauthor of several books, including Visual Strategies and Picturing Science and Engineering.

The Visual Elements series is available now from our website