Jessica Helfand | Essays

Under The Microscope

Malarial parasite revealed through the use of fluorescence microscopy.

During Design Observer's hiatus last week, I had the opportunity to visit a research lab at National Jewish Hospital in Denver, Colorado where, among other things, I inquired about the state of modern microscopy. To be honest, the term "microscopy" was not even remotely familiar to me: what I asked for was a glimpse through a microscope, a chance to peer into a petrie dish — some evidence that what happens in the lab environment has a visual component to which I could relate.

It turns out that microscopy, like most things, has basically gone digital: no surprise there. But what did surprise me was the realization that scientific observation obliges its participants to engage in a kind of resistance to imagination. To simply gaze at a specimen is not enough: such viewing lends itself to speculative assessments that are not necessarily productive with regard to tangible results. If it is the scientist's role to quantify data, then to simply observe the evocative beauty of what the "scope" reveals is essentially a meaningless — if not an altogether irresponsible — act.

I found this discrepancy (between observation as an art and as a science) at once fascinating and revealing: fascinating to consider the act of observation as a test of wills, and revealing insofar as design is, quite simply, anything but a science. And yet, does not the very act of observation require, for the designer, a certain amount of scrutiny and analysis? After all, we routinely engage in a set of actions that might be said to rely specifically upon keen observation: oversimplified as this seems, we examine, we think, we edit and we resolve. Fold in the complex incentives of identity and stragegy and audience, add the formal imperatives that define the visual artefact in question and the designer's role may begin to seem like that of a scientist. But nothing could be further from the truth, for as scientific as we would like to imagine ourselves to be, the act of making design depends upon an element of mystery that is, quite frankly, anathema to science.

And therein lies the real difference.

Green autofluorescence of pollen grains visualized using widefield fluorescence microscopy.

In Denver, I witnessed a fascinating demonstration of something called fluorescence microscopy. Fluorescence is the property of some atoms and molecules to absorb light at a particular wavelength and to subsequently emit light of a longer wavelength after a brief interval, which is known as its "fluorescence lifetime. " (A more complete explanation can be found here. ) In the lab, I saw a quicktime movie generated from multiple still photographs: at 15 seconds and more than 55 megs it was a tour-de-force of light and technology — like a James Turrell light sculpture dancing a deft pas de deux. But it didn't merely perform magnificently (although it did that too) it actually meant something, something specific and real and deeply consequential. Art in the service of science — but art nontheless.

Of course, the use of electrons, photons, phosphorescent light and fluorescence microscopy largely remain a mystery to me, but not because their capacity for imaging is itself mysterious. Rather, as a visual maker I am used to filling in the blanks with invention, or inflection, or even interpolation, all of these born of the creative license that comes with being a designer. Not so with scientists: imagine the consequences if researchers invented their results.

Nevertheless, we have something important to learn from scientists and their tools of observation — which brings us back to microscopy. I am not trying to minimize the importance of design any more than I am attempting to demystify the nature of scientific observation. But there is something about the harnessing of light and technology in search of a kind of concrete, factual truth that is, to me at least, nothing short of mesmerizing. As imperiled a commodity as it is, truth remains the nucleus in so much of what any of us ultimately seek, not only as designers but as active participants in a cultivated world. (And to think that it took the cultivation of a single cell to make this clear to me.)

I returned home to the evangelist scare tactics framing the National Republican Convention here in the US, followed by reports of extremist scare tactics fueling upheaval in Russia. Writing paralysis held me in a kind of suspended animation for several days as I wondered: how could I write something for Design Observer that wouldn't trivialize world events of such magnitude? As my thoughts drifted to what I witnessed in Denver, I thought back to the notion of the fluorescent lifetime: brief, but tangible; illuminating truth and demystifying the unknown; advancing our capacity to see what's in front of us, or inside us, or ahead of us — and to comprehend what's real. At the end of the day, this strikes me as a worthy goal for any of us.

Posted in: Graphic Design, Science

Comments [14]

To paraphrase Bruce Sterling, "What we often forget about *science* is that there are people there."

I think you are perhaps romanticizing the nature of science. It is common to believe in the dispassionate scientist, dutifully observing and recording data, setting aside their hopes and fears in search of the ultimate Truth. But, as they say, some of my best friends are scientists, and I was dismayed to learn that science is routinely subverted to agendas even to the point of (sometimes) inventing results.

Scientists are people pursuing goals. They spend years—lifetimes, even—hoping to prove an hypothesis. When your degree or career hangs on the line, the temptation to skew or subvert data is extreme. Fortunately, many of them are creative as well, and find a way to make something meaningful of what they didn't prove.

The best scientists are also passionate, and to read some of their writings is to know that, while staring into the lens of the microscope, they too take the time to admire and wonder.
marian bantjes


The point of Jessica's post is that designers should consider being guided in their endeavours by the truth rather than by strategy or flair. I would add that the same goes for reading. The narrative example that Jessica uses can not be truthfully read as an assessment of the nature of science, and by generalizing it in this way you veer off into the extremities of characterization where science can only be romanticized or vilified (which you do alternately). The word "truth" may sound vague but the truth itself is inevitably very specific. That is why fidelity is the hallmark of close observation.

Last week, Leon Wieseltier wrote a wonderful essay in The New York Times Book Review remembering Czeslaw Milosz, the great polish poet who died last month. This quote from Milosz seems relevant to this post:

"Description demands intense observation, so intense that the veil of everyday habit falls away and what we paid no attention to, because it struck us as so ordinary, is revealed as miraculous."
William Drenttel

You may want to check out Felice Frankel's Envisioning Science, a book on "the potential of using your images to communicate to those outside the research community".

"But there is something about the harnessing of light and technology in search of a kind of concrete, factual truth that is, to me at least, nothing short of mesmerizing."

Isn't this why we draw from life? To see clearly?
Randolph Fritz

My father, who accompanied me on this trip to Denver and toured the lab at the same time, shared his own observations — reproduced, with the author's permission here.

"it is interesting to me that we came away from the lab visit with different ideas to consider. To me, the fact that scientists know they are untrustworthy and need something independent to keep them honest, was the major revelation. I recall spending lengthy moments reading the meniscus on a thermometer to determine the precise temperature reading in an experiment. Far better for the experimental results if the reading could have been done by an automatic digital camera, not my eyes. Or take the example of counting the number of white blood cells in a petrie dish -- the eyes of several investigators would probably record different numbers. But a digital computer would get the total right every time.

If scientists do not trust their own observations, they have at least found a trustworthy independent source that could. If you end up saying that truth is the important concept to search for, have designers found a way to find a trustworthy source as well?"
Jessica Helfand

this comes to mind ...

Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity
by Gregory Bateson

Chapter II: Every Schoolboy Knows ...
1.Science Never Proves Anything [excerpt]

Prediction can never be absolutely valid and therefore science can never prove some generalization or even test a single descriptive statement and in that way arrive at final truth.

There are other ways of arguing this impossibility. The argument of this book - which again, surely, can only convince you insofar as what I say fits with what you know and which may be collapsed or totally changed in a few years - presupposes that science is a way of perceiving and making what we may call "sense" of our percepts. But perception operates only upon difference. All receipt of information is necessarily the receipt of news of difference, and all perception of difference is limited by threshold. Differences that are too slight or too slowly presented are not perceivable. They are not food for perception.

It follows that what we, as scientists, can perceive is always limited by threshold. That is, what is subliminal will not be grist for our mill. Knowledge at any given moment will be a function of the thresholds of our available means of perception. The invention of the microscope or the telescope or of means of measuring time to the faction of a nanosecond or weighing quantities of matter to millionths of a gram - all such improved devices of perception will disclose what was utterly unpredictable from the levels of perception that we could achieve before that discovery.

Not only can we not predict into the next instant of future, but, more profoundly, we cannot predict into the next dimension of the microscopic, the astronomically distant, or the geologically ancient. As a method of perception - and that is all science can claim to be - science, like all other methods of perception, is limited in its ability to collect the outward and visible signs of whatever may be truth.

Science probes; it does not prove.
Sebastian Campos

Couldn't help but mention Tschichold's essay, The New Typography. Wasn't he the biggest lobbyist for making design a science?
In my opinion, good graphic design must contain a portion of original thinking, but also has to be backed-up by use of common sense. Whether common sense is where design corralates with actual sciences, or perhaps there is a deeper connection within, is beyond me.
Meir Sadan

A few thoughts/anecdotes based on the article and the successive dialogue:

- To me, there is a parallel between the way a scientist's agendas drive their conclusions and the designer's agendas drive their outcomes.

- A friends of mine getting her PhD in Neuroscience at Northwestern University recently told me a story of a colleague who was so desperate to be "right" that he completely erased years and years of data and replaced it with what supported his desired outcome. He was expelled from the program and will not be granted his PhD. But that is just one person, and the same kind of unscrupulous activity takes place in every field, but not by every one in every field. I haven't given up on science or design for its detractors.

- I'm thinking about the aesthetic of science commonly being adopted(or co-opted) by design. I imagine it's sometimes out of desperation to prove the truth of design, sometimes because it's "cool", sometimes because it's appropriate.

- Talking about "Truth" seems strange to me (yet, I just mentioned it in my last sentence). What does "following truth" mean anyway (rhetorical question)?

- I love images you've posted, Jessica.
Andrew Twigg

Jessica, your father hit something important. The point of scientific method--the whole point--is to get to truths which are true independent of ourselves. A big part of the "scientific method"--what makes it distinct from other epistemological methods--are the critical tools which allow us to, sometimes, see past individual biases. Amazingly, this has taken us past basic assumptions of our culture and transformed them--there is every reason to believe that science does, in fact, teach us about an external world.

Design...I think design deals with different sorts of truth. I'm a recent architecture graduate. Architecture engages, directly, the physical world. Architects deal in measurable things--heat, light, sound, structure. But what makes it architecture is engagement in the human experience of these things. To me, "True architecture--the real thing--is only where man stands in center." And that demands engagement with people.
Randolph Fritz

Regarding scientific method: "Against Method" by Paul Feyerabend.

Regarding creative microscopy: "Building Blocks of Life" by Roman Vishniac.

Regarding design as a science: "The Sciences of the Artificial" by Herbert Simon.

Regarding the manipulation of bioflourescence: "The Eighth Day: The Transgenic Art of Eduardo Kac."

All of the facts; none of the links (you do the work).
david stairs

I am struck by what you have said, this is fascinating and something I have been considering personally.
To me the most important thing in design is not a quantifiable evaluation. The most important thing is the feeling and emotional response that visual communication elicits. Like music the pure communication of ideas outside the structure of language. I believe it is this very thing that stirs others as well, this very thing that design strives for: the desire to add to the language components of communication a communication that will transfer ideas outside the language.
We want to evaluate visual communication the same way science evaluates itself, through a non-partial system that will not change. But doing this undermines what is inherent and unique to design, removing all that is valuable. It's backwards and self defeating like low fat dessert. It loses the thing that made it good. Maybe it is the assumption that design should be evaluated in scientific terms that is wrong. Rather than structuring the evaluation to the subject you have altered the subject to fit the evaluation (a variation of the mistake that guy Andrew mentioned). The point Jessica's Dad brings up is interesting, because to me it is exactly the thing designers should avoid. I don't see any way (science fiction excluded) for a computer to make an accurate evaluation of a piece of visual communication.
We should be confident in the power of our work, not undermining it through evaluations that ignore emotion. I agree Jessica, it is important to realize that there are valid evaluations of visual communication that are not quantifiable but easily justifiable.
John Gordon

When I think of the subject of observation, I'm reminded of education. Education allows for revelations that were previously invisible. For instance, as trivial example, after learning about letter-spacing, students often remark on how terrible most of the type is out there.

One sees what one is capable of perceiving physically first of all, but the act of interpretation, or making sense of, depends of the ability to make the necessary links that allow the data to be useful. And it is that "usefulness" that fluctuates. As the physicist David Bohm remarked, " A physicist has a certain kind of contact with matter. A philosopher thinks of matter in a more general way. But if you simply look at nature, you are contacting an aspect of matter which is not abstract, which somehow conveys the whole. Almost anyone who has seen mountains and the sea or the sky at night has that feeling. It is just as valid a way of learning about reality as any other." Likewise, Aristotle, put more faith in poetry than science in explaining the nature of reality. So where one person sees in a message the poor letterspacing, another is looking at the veracity of the statement -- and both are measuring "truth" according to particular needs and values.
Louise Sandhaus

"Is it possible we place too much faith in pictures?" Malcolm Gladwell on mammography, military surveillance photography, and the interpretation of images in the latest New Yorker: another take on the same fascinating topic that Jessica raised in September.
Michael Bierut

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