Charlene Eldon


Exploratorium Climate Change Graphics

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I interned as the San Francisco Exploratorium’s first graphic design intern this previous summer. While there, I saw a presentation of the then work-in-progress climate change science part of our website, which was receiving a huge amount of web traffic even though the climate change data hadn’t been updated since 2002 when the idea of global warming was relatively new and controversial. I offered to redo some of the graphics because the climate change project scientists were using scientific illustrations and graphs from outside sources, which meant the graphics were messy, incoherent and frequently ugly. My offer to redo them was dismissed at first, but I drew up a couple examples to show the team what I meant, and that changed their minds. The science writers and I had a couple introduction meetings to figure out what I could offer and what they needed, and I put together a Pinterest board of different scientific illustrations to get a sense of what sorts of illustrations they liked.

Below are the pertinent pages from the brand guideline that influenced my illustration process:


To quickly summarize this information, the brand visual is reversed out text with the Exploratorium typeface, “Explo,” which must be set with -25pt optical tracking. The color pallet is supposed to be primarily black and white with a medium gray, and the secondary pallet is only six colors to be used as 10% of the overall design, but for the purposes of these illustrations that ratio was departed from. The website, which can be viewed here, uses primarily photographs in keeping with the brand guide.

After enough versions of the illustrations were done and I had received a lot of feedback from the science writers, the graphics team, and my Creative Director, the visual standards for the illustrations were set. The sun would be represented by a simple yellow circle, sunlight would be solid lines with arrows, water would be blue, regular unheated land would be gray, heat and heated land would be orange, ice and permafrost would be white, and plants would be green. Sometimes these standards had to be deviated from for the sake of a particularly complex graphic, and sometimes certain parts were put in grayscale rather than color to make the illustration easier on the eye. Titles, landmasses, and names were set in Explo Medium all caps with -15 optical tracking, and were always black lettering on a white rectangle with curved corners that mimicked the buttons on the Exploratorium website and emails. All the other labels had normal capitalization and -25 optical tracking in Explo Regular.


My initial sketches didn’t include the use of the branding colors, which then created a challenge when it came time to colorize them in illustrator.

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Because I was thinking more as an illustrator and less as a scientific illustrator with the first graphics I made, I erred on the side of creating artwork rather than getting all the information I needed. Therefore the early versions far too many colors and text that was too small to translate well onto screens.


The final version of this illustration, seen below, is one of my favorites because I got to draw and make things look artistic without having to sacrifice too much design in favor of the information.


A lot of the illustrative process involved making hard choices in favor of putting all the information on the image, even if it wasn’t the cleanest design choice. By the end of the process of creating all these graphics, I looked on the original work that I had called “ugly” with much kinder eyes. Scientific illustrations are a beast of their own.

On this image below, showing the loss of massive ice shelves, I obviously had to typeset the ice shelf names on Antarctica much tighter than I would have preferred. It’s not a clean design choice, but the science writers requested that I label the four biggest ice shelves on the continent.


This sunlight on ice vs. no ice illustration was the first one I did for the science writers. The early versions had thin dotted lines, small type, and a focus on the composition of the illustration rather than the information.


The final version, shown below, has the thicker lines and heavier type that were set as standards for optimum screen viewing. It also has a tighter view of the water and iceberg, which helps draw further attention to the labels.


The feedback I got during the process of creating these illustrations was usually about the design, but other times was about the science, which was an interesting and unique point of view that I wouldn’t have considered on my own. For example, when I did the above illustration, which shows the paths of cold and warm water currents around the globe, a last-minute note from the science writers was that the warm path had to be on top of the cold path because warm water rises.


The following illustration was the hardest to do and my least favorite, because I had to show some fairly complicated processes while keeping it the correct size and continuing to use the design standards that had already been set, such as the line width and the colors for the sun, land, and heat.


These early version were crammed with information and percentages but didn’t detail the normal verses current high levels of CO2, so the science writers and I met a few more times to discuss what information was crucial to have in the graphic. The design team also had helpful input during this process.


This is the final version that’s on the website, and obviously it’s not perfect by design standards. The type had to be set much heavier than the original designs which made it run into some of the lines, and the information is still a bit crowded. This was the graphic that I had to make the most design sacrifices for, but it has everything that the science writers wanted it to and ultimately that was who I had to design for.


Half of the work that needed to be done for the website was re-doing graphs that were pulled from outside sources. Some of them were too messy to understand, some had information that wasn’t pertinent, and some were just nice to re-do so they fit the brand look. Below are all the graphs, which follow the Exploratorium branding standard of reversed-out text set in the Explo typeface.


Ultimately, this series of illustrations was one of my favorite things I’ve done to date. I’m not a scientist but I can help illustrate their work, and this little bit of involvement in helping to educate about climate change means a lot to me.

Charley Eldon