Start a Science Art Collaboration Today!

Where do I start for a Science Art Collaboration?

This month’s Lifeology SciComm Challenge is around Science Art Collaboration. But we know that collaborating with artists and designers can be a daunting task for scientists new to this area, and Science Art collaborations can be overwhelming for artists to organize from scratch. So we asked science art experts Gaius, Pooja and Elaine to answer some questions to help you start your collaborative SciArt journey!

In a live discussion hosted on our Slack Workspace, we started with the question of “What is the value of scientist-artist collaboration?”, and moved onto the details underpinning successful collaborations, such as contracts and review process. Dive into the Q&A responses below!

Collaboration is key to the Lifeology process

But first, if you haven’t seen it already, check out this blog post explaining Lifeology’s September SciComm Challenge.

SciArt Collaboration – Lifeology’s September SciComm Challenge

Q: What is the value of Science Art / scientist-artist collaboration?

Gaius Augustus: SciArt in general is valuable because visual communication enhances and often improves the reach, impact, and accessibility of science.

Scientist-Artist collaborations mean getting the most of both experts. The scientist brings their topic-specific knowledge while the artist brings their expertise of visual communication.

Pooja: I’ve primarily seen this as a means to reach out to larger audiences. To make science more accessible! Reflecting on combined expertise as Gaius has rightly said! I also think that value is added during the process. That is, the collaboration might even change the course of content/output created even before it has taken any artistic form.

Elaine: I’m a non-scientist and what really struck me is how similar the scientific method is to a creative process that many artists use. I love that art is a universal visual language and can help to better communicate complex ideas.

Chantal Mustoe: This is something my sis (an artist) and me (a scientist) have discussed in depth. It’s definitely a common misconception that science isn’t a creative endeavor. And it’s really wonderful to hear you say this too!

Jordan: We can all agree there’s so much value to science art collaboration! Points that I really liked:

“getting the most of both experts” – Gaius

“reach out to larger audiences” – Pooja

“collaboration might even change the course of content/output created” – Pooja

“art is a universal visual language and can help to better communicate complex ideas” – Elaine

“It’s definitely a common misconception that science isn’t a creative endeavor” – Chantal

Q: How does one get started with a scientist-artist collaboration?

Gaius: Finding an artist is often difficult, I’ll be honest. But checking out the #SciArt tags on social media can give you a place to start, and see who follows others. Or just ask on social media. Lifeology also has a member list and matchmaking tool, so that’s a good spot.

As for choosing an artist, find a few artists whose work you love, and talk to them to decide who best fits your goals, timeline, and budget. Be up front and honest about these 3 things. But it’s important to start with the art.

Pooja: I agree, but also know that a lot of artists don’t see science as a topic they can work with. So, definitely don’t hesitate to reach artists of all kinds! Even those who do not have science experience. You’ll be surprised by how many folks are interested and want to collaborate.

Alejandra Enriquez: I think it varies depending on the topic. There are a lot of artists out there who care about animals and the ocean, for example, so I find that looking for them on social media to collaboration on a project for conservation is easier than, say, working on a project involving human health or molecular bio

Pooja: Absolutely. If the subject requires scientific understanding then it makes total sense to choose an artist who has that backing. Even conservation messages require a lot of sensitivity to issues and you might want to work with someone who understands that! For instance, they might ask questions that another would take for granted. This allows for more clarity in the final works.

Elaine: No experience can lead to fresh ideas.

Alejandra Enriquez: This is true. This also kind of goes back to question 1, but if we are trying to make science more accessible, it would be a perfect opportunity to reach out to those with 0 experience with science and have them learn along the way with you

Gaius: This really depends on the project needs, of course.  I definitely think it’s fine to get non-scientists involved. But if you’re just starting out with collabs like this and don’t know where to start, someone new to the field might not be the best idea.

Sorry for all my science-side metaphors but… It’s great to get undergrads in the lab to do research projects, but there’s a benefit to getting an expert (postdoc or faculty) in to push a project to completion.

Q: How do you come up with the terms and budget for this collaboration? Do you need a contract?

Gaius: Yes, you need a contract. Full stop. Contracting will be different depending on who you work with. I prefer to write my own contracts and discuss it with my client. Most importantly, a contract should protect both the client and the artist. I often find contracts do one or the other.

For example, a contract should cover what happens if something comes up or if a project needs to be put “on hold” or even cancelled. How will this be handled?

Pooja: I’ve often found that contracts that were written in collaboration [between scientist and artist] worked best. Allowing both parties to bring relevant points to it. Key Elements can include:

    • Dates
    • Timelines
    • Artwork Specification (Size, style)
    • Payment structure and timing
    • Ownership
    • Licensing details
    • Crediting

Another element that is absolutely key is the agreed upon number of revision at each stage of the process. I sometimes outline my process as an artist when I feel like it’s the first time for the scientist for instance.

Chantal Mustoe: A lot of my scicomm efforts have been unpaid. Collaborative blog writing with a scitoonist. My own foray in scitooning. It’s all understood that it’s entirely volunteer based up front of course. I’m intrigued as to what this might look like with a contract to guide it.

Gaius: Chantal, I think that even volunteer work should have a contract. It protects you from being asked to do more and more work. It protects your client from worrying that you won’t deliver. It sets clear goals and guidelines for what you both can expect. By the way, I wrote an article about some of this language (exclusivity, commercial licensing, and derivative works), if anyone is interested:

Your creative contract needs these 3 things

Q: As artists do you expect some form of payment upfront?

Pooja: For Client work – I often get an advance for 30-50%, especially when I’m blocking time for the future and it’s not all immediate. For publications where there is a contract and everything is based on delivery of artwork – It’s often right at the end and before publishing.

Jessika Raisor: For my freelance work I always do 50% upfront and 50% after. This lets me pay my bills while doing the project and keeps the other party invested in the project.

Gaius: In the art world, I found that patrons almost always pay up front. But in the science world, I found that people are very shy to do this. I typically do a “down payment”…. But I’ve had clients try to get out of the final payment after I completed the work, so I’m starting to go back to my artist roots.

This really depends on the client. Have I or someone I know worked with them? How are they paying (personal or grant money)? Etc.

Pooja: It’s good practice to not hand-over any final high-res files until you’ve received final payment. Especially when you are unsure of who you are working with and the like. And if you think that you won’t have regular conversation after your projects where following up is going to be difficult!

Gaius: Pooja, I definitely agree! The problem is when they suddenly don’t want or need the finals, but you’ve already put in 90+% of the work.

Jordan Pennells: We’re using “entry into the Challenge” as a motivator for payment in the case of our Lifeology Scicomm Challenge this month, but some downpayment might be a good option in the future!

Q: How important are rough sketches, and signing off on visual ideas prior to rendering the work in final form? Do you have a process you use?

Pooja: Very very crucial! Rough sketches are the best way to show the scientist your imagination so to speak. Words just don’t cut it – most of the times! We think it all makes sense and that they get it but almost never works out well. And it’s the artist who ends up working more! to get it right even if it’s a two way mistake.

Rough sketches also give you a reference point. For eg: you can say – hey, but, we’ve discussed this and you have approved it. Very useful to contain no. of revisions. And provides clarity on the fact that it is ‘time added’ – ‘redo’ etc

Gaius: Agreed! No final work should be done without sketches/prototyping first.

Paige Jarreau: Artists – what do you expect from scientists after the rough-sketch / storyboarding phase? What kind of feedback should a scientist expect to give at this stage?

Gaius: Paige, I’m mostly looking for the scientist to tell me that we are on the same page and are going in the right direction. Most creative projects can be envisioned a number of different ways. So this step is incredibly important to (hopefully) avoid redoing the work later (or canceling the project).

Pooja: A few things I can think of:

    • Check for accuracy
    • Make edits and replacement requests where necessary in terms of symbols or images used to represent.
    • Keep asking for what is working and what isn’t? They need to tell us if a message if not coming through, a visual isn’t making sense and the like.
    • We possibly have to ask these questions ourselves to make them see what we mean by “feedback”

Elaine: My expectation would be at this stage that the big idea/ concept is in place and signed off. Depending on the project, I might have a fully rendered image to show. Going forward, the main idea is in place, and I would then be using my artistic judgment to tweak, review, and refine. As artists we tend to do the whole refining thing naturally.

I would expect communication from the scientist telling me whether they are happy to proceed, listen to any concerns they have, and help develop solutions.

I would also put a deadline on feedback too, as in feedback for big changes, there would definitely be a cut off point.

Q: What is the importance of a pitch and what details should be included? What should scientist and artist talk about before a contract is created?

Gaius: The pitch (also called a brief) is often overlooked, but so important. I like to have a budget and timeline. But a description of the project is key. What does the deliverable look like? How will it be used once completed?

Pooja: The pitch is also a good place to set expectations I think! The role that needs to be played. Again being very specific is important. It’s a good place to include goals, objectives, audience profile. And outcomes!

Paige Jarreau: What if the scientist wants to create sciart with you but has no idea who the audience is or what they want exactly?

Gaius: I start every collaboration with a conversation about this, but I personally think that you need to have these answers before moving forward to the contract. Just like you wouldn’t start an experiment without knowing how you will interpret the results, you shouldn’t start a creative project if you don’t have a vision of the endpoint.

But don’t be afraid to have a conversation with us to figure this out!

Elaine: If it were me I would suggest they choose something they are passionate about, and more importantly that it is something that the readers will be passionate about… unless it’s something they want for personal reasons.

Also consider backward design – process that educators use to design learning experiences and achieve specific learning goals. I could see that working here.

Pooja: Right, but it can so happen that the scientist wants to reach more audiences, collaborate with and artist and not know how to envision this and that is fine. I think you can still collaborate with an artist who is passionate about the work you do and will brainstorm with you as a consultant. I’ve done this several times.

For example – I look into their research, look at what might make sense in the public domain and suggest art, film, comics or whatever it is. I make the goals, objectives and so on with them. This might even help scientists who already have a vision. The artist hopping on early might help refine, add to, change this vision through discussion and questions.

Q: What are some different common steps of a scientist-artist collaboration? Any tips on best ways to make sure virtual collab goes smoothly?

Pooja: Design process often looks like:

    • Research
    • Brainstorm
    • Ideate
    • Prototype
    • Fix errors (analyze gaps)
    • Execute.

It’s common to have feedback soon after prototyping (rough sketches or whatever other form you like) And then once after the final stage. Based on your execution process you can also ask for feedback on a small portion of final form to make sure the aesthetics align.

Gaius: This has always depended on the client for me. Some just want to leave it and forget it. Others want updates every step of the way. This should be discussed up front.  At minimum, I try to give updates once a week or when I reach a milestone in the creative process (whichever happens first)

Steps for a collaboration for me (not just the art) look like this:

    • Develop contract/brief
    • Payment
    • Conceptual art/prototype approval
    • Work in progress approval
    • Final art approval
    • Delivery
    • Final payment, if needed.
    • Followup survey or questionnaire

Elaine: Also when giving feedback be constructive, when reviewing work, I like to give suggestions. If you don’t like something, or don’t think that’s it working, you need to articulate why.

Gaius: Elaine!!!! Yes!!! And as early as possible! I think it’s valuable to bring up something you may not like even if you aren’t sure why. Artists can often extract the “why” if you have a conversation about it, and can offer solutions that may fix the problem.

Pooja: Yes, we can ask several questions to help arrive at the “why?”

About the Lifeology SciComm Challenge

Each month, Lifeology is hosting SciComm challenges help you learn more about the science and practice of communicating science for broad audiences. These challenges give you the opportunity to practice communicating science more engagingly in a range of formats. Learn more about

SciComm Challenge GIF

Submit your SciArt Collaboration piece to by the last day of the month!

Your SciArt will be featured on the Lifeology blog and our favorite entry this month will win $800 in further SciArt funding!!! Good luck :)

Lifeology SciArt Challenge – Submit your collaborative work