lightbulb icon Inspiration

I marvel at ancient spires, exhuberant painters, and captivating websites. They inspire me to explore further, peeling away layers of color or code.

We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.

Maya Angelou

A sample from my Wordpress blog

word 'Sunspots' written in pointillistic font

Periodic Elements

early periodic chart of elements
  • red feather bullet pointvarious graphic and web designers
  • red feather bullet pointscience, literary genres, or any complex topic
  • red feather bullet pointinspired by the standard periodic table of elements
  • red feather bullet pointinfographic, site navigation gallery, site map layout
early periodic chart of elements

Life Elements

In the mid-nineteenth century, many scientists were formulating periodic laws and charts of the 64 known elements based on those laws. Gustavus Hinrichs (left) placed them in a spiral according to their atomic mass, which groups particular elements together in a simple manner. Scientists have discovered many more elements since then — along with atomic weight and isotopes. Eventually, Dmitri Mendeleev (right) arranged them by their properties and atomic weights. According to physicist Jim Al-Khalili, this revolutionary method revealed that there is a numerical pattern underlying the structure of matter [BBC video clip]. Mendeleev suggested that some atomic weights were incorrect and predicted the properties of five unknown elements based on his chart — which had space for many more such as noble gases. Scientists recently added 4 "super-heavy" ones to his table. Element 101 is named for him, while others honor the Curies (96), Copernicus (111), Einstein (99) and Fermi (100). All of these are synthetically created in lab experiments.

Life Magazine dedicated most of their May 1949 issue to The Atom with gorgeous illustrations like this table. According to Frank Swain,

Science reporter Robert Campbell and photographer Fritz Goro spent a year trying to solve the problem of showing the intricate, invisible nature of atoms; going so far as to blow their own luminescent glassware, lighting candles in sealed containers with magnifying glasses and building models out of Christmas tree baubles and light bulbs. A single image of uranium atom required four lenses, fifteen film adjustments and thirty three exposures.
Life magazine version of modern periodic chart

In 1976, Professor William F. Sheehan of the University of Santa Clara created The Elements According to Relative Abundance, shared online by the Feminerds. He noted that “a chemist will probably meet O, Si, Al… and that he better do something about it.” Also, some distortions were necessary since certain elements do not occur naturally (without human instigation).

Character Elements

Kaycie Dunlap began drawing the elements as human characters for her senior project, Elements – Experiments in Character Design. A blogger named Kira saw them at the 2011 Senior Thesis Exhibition for students of the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design. Kira later wrote:

4 of Kaycie's personanified elements

Art and science are often portrayed as the north and south poles of academia—distant extremes. But, as someone who enjoys both of these areas, I can tell you that this portrayal is a shallow interpretation of two vast and complex disciplines.

Kaycie D’s work showcases how complimentary art and science can be. Elements, her rendering of the Periodic Table in the form of animated characters, shows not only an artistic stamina... but also a unique way to interact with the Table itself. In nature, the elements all have distinct traits and properties or, rather, personalities. Kaycie has taken those complex characteristics and rendered them visible, a personification resulting not only in visually stunning art but an accessible communication tool as well.

Elements also shows us how similar art and science can be. Their similarity is not found in mere adjacency, but in the artist’s and scientist’s shared experience of creative and intellectual exploration.

These characters also intrigued the executive director of Milwaukee’s Discovery Center. Museum staff soon contacted her to create an interactive display where visitors select an element from the keyboard to see her characterization onscreen. “I got a lot of feedback saying it was very educational,” Dunlap said. “I’m thinking about trying to market it as an educational tool.”

“I didn’t have an innate interest in chemistry,” Dunlap told Sophia L. Cai in 2013. “But I remember sitting in class and watching a video about the periodic table.” The narrator portrayed each element with different voices and human mannerisms. Years later, this memory inspired her to illustrate them. She researched them carefully and wrote a profile for each one before considering how to display their properties as human characteristics. Now, she’s thrilled to hear from teachers, principals, and chemists. “It’s really nice to see that I’m connecting with science people even though I’m not really a science person myself. I like that I’m bridging the gap between art and science because that’s really the goal of an artist, to reach out to a bunch of different people.”

Kaycie D @ Behance Individual card views @ ZME Science

Elements of design

Some artists illustrate the periodic table of elements while others have transformed it to organize their favorite subjects.
10 elements from the Periodic Table Printmaking Project listed here
  • Dynamic Periodic Table designed by Michael Dayah in pure HTML (no images or animation program).
  • Web designer Ricardo Cabello — a.k.a. ‘Mr Doob‘ — uses CSS3D to render the boxes for this table. Viewers choose four layouts: table, sphere, helix and grid, then view everything in three dimensions with their mouse (demonstration video). Cabello enjoys playing with such cutting-edge web technologies as three.js and CSS3D, as demonstrated on his website. Steven Hall later re-factored his code into D3.js, another flavor of JavaScript to generate 3D models.
  • The Photographic Periodic Table of the Elements. Theodore W. Gray, a columnist for Popular Science, arranged his collection of 1000 element samples into a shiny poster and other products. "Every element has a pretty side, and in this poster I have tried to give each one a chance to show off what makes it unique and beautiful," he told Bethany Halford in 2006.
  • Alison Haigh organizes the elements in the standard format, but just displays their electron configuration. The animated version sparkles in her portfolio, while the poster resembles a flower garden. Many writers including Rose Pastore love its artistic simplicity.
  • The Periodic Table of Storytelling: James Harris adapts Dawn Palladin’s design into a navigation method for his website, TV Tropes (which now transcends that media format). Simply click on a storytelling element to read its descriptive page. Best viewed in Webkit browsers like Google Chrome.
  • The Periodic Table of Visualization examines the following categories: data, information, concept, metaphor, strategy, and compound visualization. Ralph Lengler and Martin J. Eppler developed this systematic overview in their 2007 paper entitled Towards A Periodic Table of Visualization Methods for Management. Viewers hover on an "element" to see an image representing that style of communication, from trees to system diagrams. Richard Fahey, a business intelligence analyst, points out that they integrated three dimensions into each "element": task and interaction, cognitive processes, and represented information. This table is an excellent tool for graphic designers, teachers, and journalists seeking better ways to present their information.
  • Kris Straub created the Periodic Table of Sci-Fi Film and Television alongside his webcomic Starslip. The illustrator was thrilled when several design bloggers discussed it, and Roger Ebert tweeted it.
  • Nearly 100 printmakers collaborated on the Periodic Table Printmaking Project (above) to illustrate these elements using various methods of lithography, etching, silkscreen and more.
  • Literary masterpieces such as Lord of the Rings, Star Wars — influenced by Joseph Campbell’s heroic myths — and The Hunger Games.
  • A British steel retailer organized a Periodic Table of Fictional Minerals, which attracted Pam Tobey, graphics editor at the Washington Post
  • The perfectly named Periodic Table of Heavy Metals organizes AC/DC to Zyklon according to their musical genre.

Elsewhere, a team at the University of Nottingham offers the Periodic Table of Videos, 118 shorts which focus on a particular element. Peter License experiments with each one before Professor Martyn Poliakoff quietly explains some of its other properties. Professor Poliakoff was knighted last year for “engaging the public with chemistry, including through [these videos] on Youtube” (quoted from the decree).

Elements of science

  • Geneticist (and forensic scientist) Lou Serico discusses the "The genius of Mendeleev’s periodic table," a TED-Ed talk animated by Franz Palomares.
  • "Table Basics" from ChemWiki: The Dynamic Chemistry Hypertext, University of California Davis.
  • Compare Newlands' and Medeleev's revolutionary charts in "Classifying the Elements (Periodicity)." Part of the Chemistry 2A course at University of California Davis.
  • "The Elements and the Economy" premiere episode of the Elements series on BBC World Service, available on MP3. Thirty-six podcasts separately examine the major elements, their history and uses.
  • Elements presenter Justin Rowlatt wrote two metallic sections for BBC Magazine about tin and gold.
  • "The periodic table: how the elements get their name" BBC Science section, November 2013.
  • Periodic Table site describes the elements on five colorful periodic tables: History, Alchemy, Podcasts, Videos, and Trends (i.e. their properties). Choose an element to read or hear more about that particular element. The Royal Society of Chemistry displays the information beautifully in interactive charts, with pop-up glossaries and further resources about geo-chemistry. Chemistry World magazine produced these "Chemistry in its Element" segments. Most of these videos come from the Periodic Table of Videos team. This extensive site contrasts sharply with those of other esteemed organizations.

Image credits

  • G.D. Hinrichs’s spiral periodic system of 1867. Programm der Atomechanik oder die Chemie eine Mechanik de Pantome, Augustus Hageboek, Iowa City, IA, 1867.
  • Mendeleev's 1869 Periodic Table. Wikimedia Commons, 2015.
  • Periodic table from Life Magazine reprinted by Frank Swain. See the original double-page spread inThe Atom (Google Books).
  • Elements – Experiments in Character Design created by Kaycie Dunlap
  • Periodic Table Printmaking Project