Those who work in biomedicine use an entirely different language in their day to day working lives. But, in medical circumstances where we need to interact and most importantly understand what scientists and doctors are talking about, this language can become a frustratingly confusing barrier. Recently tasked with visualising biomedical language in relation to an organism set of DNA known as genomics, studio Lennarts & De Bruijn has created a typeface of sorts built from chromosomes.
A very quick project for the Hague-based design duo of Max Lennarts and Menno de Bruijn, the original brief was to make a type-driven illustration for NEO.LIFE make a type-driven illustration for NEO.LIFE to support its article titled ‘The Language of DNA should Rewrite English, Too’. To begin, the designers picked up on the important fragments of the article such as, “Translation is the process of converting one language to another. In biomedicine, it means something less literal: it’s when scientific advances — new diagnostics, therapies, methods — translate into clinically meaningful tools that improve human health,” and how “We use old vocabulary out of habit even as the letters of our DNA illuminate new ways forward.”
Within the article birth defects are highlighted as an example of the various uses of language, and “the way that we name different conditions affect standards of medical care, as well as our perception of the conditions themselves”. After reading the article, and since Neo Life asked for a type-driven illustration, Lennarts & De Bruijn became “intrigued by the way chromosomes are structured and displayed, and the overall aesthetics of the chromosomes themselves,” it explains. “We knew it wasn’t going to be perfectly readable, which was exactly the point since it suits the main problem stated in the text; the difference in usage of words, in the context of the biomedical world.”
In terms of designing the actual font which has adopted the name Chromosomal Abnormalities, Max and Menno didn’t design letters that looked like chromosomes, instead, researching into chromosomes and DNA which looked similar to letters already. “Because in the end, we wanted it to look like chromosomes…only in the context of the text and other letters you can read,” the studio explains. “If you isolated the i, j, k and l for example, they would all look similar.” Consequently, the typeface is displayed as a whole alphabet where if you look closely, “you see they also start long and big and end as small chromosomes. You see that in the imagery, so also in our font.”
Neo Life was bowled over by the studio’s in-depth effort into what was originally meant to be a singular illustration. Handing over all the research and visualisations shown below, the studio explains that “every image or illustration has a serious proposal”. Impressively the work was also all completed in two days and published alongside the article the following day too. “They were stoked and said we nailed the concept, also asking if we could make “public health” and “preventable disease” in the typeface. Since we had already illustrated a whole alphabet, we could do this quite fast.”
Although simply displayed in the context of the article, Lennarts & De Bruijn’s interest in the project has continued. Additionally, considering that every single chromosome is unique, the studio had to make duplicates of letters which could allow the designers to build a more cohesive typeface. “That would be something to think about if we ever want to make it into a usable font, maybe it could be generated or something,” says the studio. “We did really like the topic, the process and the result, and believe there’s a lot more to discover. Hopefully, we can, and will, do that in the future.”
About the Author
Lucy (she/her) joined It’s Nice That as a staff writer in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In January 2019 she was made deputy editor and in November 2021, became a senior editor predominantly working on It’s Nice That's partnerships. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about creative projects for the site or potential partnerships.