Giving Your Right Brain a Regular Workout

Featured Artist: The Chemistry Infographics of Compound Interest

"My day job is teaching chemistry…I wanted some eye-catching, engaging chemistry posters to stick up on the wall. After failing to find any online, I decided to make my own."

Andy Brunning who goes by the name Compound Interest has had a fascinating journey toward a creative career by making dynamic science infographics. Andy is a chemistry teacher who wanted to use art to help teach his students (and decorate his class), but noticed a lack of quality and engaging work, so he took the matter into his own hands and decided to make some himself. After creating a crop of clear, well-designed posters, he started sharing them online and soon found others shared his passion for chemistry infographics that are not only educational, but pretty darn cool looking as well.

Andy’s work is available on a wide range of Redbubble products, but they look especially great as prints. Check out his shop to get some for yourself.

Featured Artist Andy Brunning (Compound Interest)

How did you get into creating infographics?

My day job is teaching chemistry, so I started making the graphics as a means of decorating my classroom. I’d just started my first job after teacher training, and I wanted some eye-catching, engaging chemistry posters to stick up on the wall. After failing to find any online, I decided to make my own. There was also an element of competition in there – at the start of term, everyone’s enthusiastic about putting up classroom displays, so I wanted mine to look the best!

As the number of posters I was making grew, I made a website to post and share them on. That proved a lot more popular than I originally anticipated, and the graphics from the site have since been featured on a number of other bigger sites. This eventually led to a book deal, and I’ve got a graphics-based book focused on the chemistry of food and drink coming out this October.

What’s your favorite part of sitting down and designing?

For me it’s two-fold – on the one hand, I really enjoy doing the research behind the posts, and learning things that even I didn’t know about the chemistry of certain things before. Then, of course, there’s the actual design aspect. I’m completely self-taught as far as that goes, but I really like taking the — at times — rather dry chemistry research and turning it into something that’s visually appealing.

"My advice would be as simple as just giving it a go! I knew next to nothing about putting graphics together before I started making the ones on my site, and where I’ve got to now is merely the culmination of trying things out and picking various skills up as I’ve gone along. I developed my own style for my graphics by picking up bits and pieces from elsewhere that I liked, then combining them into something that’s distinctive and stands out."

"Functional Groups in Organic Chemistry" by Compound Interest

How has being a teacher changed how you approach creating infographics and communicating ideas?

I think the graphics I produce tend to be pretty loaded with information. I try and make them as succinct a summary of the particular subject as I can within the space available, but at the same time with enough detail for them to actually be useful. I think with some infographics, there can generally be a tendency to prioritise style over substance, but I try to keep a good balance of both.

As a teacher, I also know how easy it is for concepts to be misunderstood or misconstrued if they’re not communicated clearly enough, so a lot of thought goes into the text I include on the graphics, in order to try and make it as straight-forward as possible.

What’s your favorite thing about chemistry? 

I just love the fact that you can identify particular chemical compounds that are responsible for so many things we come across on a regular basis. The chain of chemical reactions producing a particular molecule that makes your eyes water when chopping onions, the different compounds that give fireworks their different colours, or the smell of frying bacon in a pan, are all examples. Those are the kind of things that I find fascinating, and it’s that fascination I try to convey in the graphics. I know a number of people feel like it’s “taking the magic away,” but I think knowing a little about the chemistry behind it just adds to the enjoyment!

"The Chemistry of Coffee's Aroma" by Compound Interest

What do you think scientists can learn from artists, and artists from scientists in the coming decades?

Well, there’s currently a big drive to try and get scientists to communicate their work to the public more, and I think they can certainly learn from artists in terms of doing that visually. I don’t actually think of myself as much of an artist, but I do think that marrying chemical information to well-designed graphics has brought the information to far more people than if I’d just written articles about chemistry. I think that can apply to research as well; scientific papers aren’t always written in a manner that’s immediately accessible to non-scientists, and communicating the information therein in a more graphical, easy-to-understand way is something I think should be encouraged.

As for artists learning from scientists, I think there’s a huge amount of inspiration that can be drawn from science. There are already a fair few people doing that, in fact – Tabletop Whale is a great example – but I’d love to see even more science-based art!

Why do you think people enjoy infographics so much?

I think they satisfy a demand for immediacy. A lot of people don’t want to read through a 1000-word article or a research paper in order to learn about a particular topic, and with infographics, they don’t have to. When done well, they can be a great means of distilling information into its essential components.

"Chemistry of Glow Stick Colours" by Compound Interest

How do you stay consistent in what you create? Do you have a creative routine?

I’ll usually create two graphics a week, though that’s dependent on how much marking I have to do in any particular week! The design of the graphics has changed a fair bit since I started the site, as my abilities in making them have improved, but I’ve now got to the point where I have some very rough starting templates, with standard fonts, that I’ll use when making new graphics.

My routine is pretty much set by my job, but I’ll usually spend a couple of hours a night working on the graphics after getting back from work. It varies from graphic to graphic though; some will be quick and easy, others will end up requiring a marathon of work to get to a point where I’m happy with them!

What advice would you give to artists who wanted to try different forms of expression/communicating ideas?

As cliched as it is, I think my advice would be as simple as just giving it a go! I knew next to nothing about putting graphics together before I started making the ones on my site, and where I’ve got to now is merely the culmination of trying things out and picking various skills up as I’ve gone along. I developed my own style for my graphics by picking up bits and pieces from elsewhere that I liked, then combining them into something that’s distinctive and stands out.

"The Atmospheres of the Solar System" by Compound Interest

How do you think we can encourage more women to participate in science and chemistry in the classroom but also on a professional level?

I think good science communication certainly has an important part to play – for instance, I know a number of my students love SciShow’s videos, and that spurred on their interest in science. Simply stoking enthusiasm, and getting students excited about the subject in the classroom, is also important.

As a teacher, I also think it’s key to emphasise the contributions of female scientists. The modern science curriculum ensures that everyone’s familiar with the likes of Mendeleev, and Watson & Crick, but we should be equally emphasising the contributions of the likes of Franklin, Curie, and Hodgkin. We need to ensure that female students don’t get put off of science by any male-dominated stereotypes.

What advice would you give to artists in transitional stages of their career, from hobbyists to freelancers, or changing career paths entirely?

Well, I’m not sure I’m particularly well-placed to answer this one, as I’ve still got the teaching day-job (which I very much enjoy). I suppose what it does show is that it’s possible to combine art or a hobby with a day job – albeit with a large amount of commitment and perseverance required!

I think it’s also important to just get your creations out there, and get people looking at them and talking about them. I know that, without social media, the Compound Interest site wouldn’t have anywhere near the following that it has now. It was by no means an overnight success though, so be prepared for it to take a little while of posting into nothingness!

What have you got planned next for your creative goings-on?

As I previously mentioned, I’ve got a book on the chemical compounds behind weird effects of food and drink, which is being published in the UK in October, and in the US in Spring 2016. I’ve also got an ongoing partnership with the American Chemical Society’s Chemical & Engineering News magazine, who I produce monthly graphics for. In the future I’d love to put together some kind of graphical chemistry textbook based on the fundamentals, but that’s something that’ll take a lot more time than I currently have!

"The Chemistry of Beer" by Compound Interest

You can check out the rest of Andy’s work over at his shop.

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