CR May cover: grown in the lab

The cover image for our May Annual issue was literally grown in an immunology lab, using pollen cells. Here’s how it was done

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The cover image for our May Annual issue was literally grown in an immunology lab, using pollen cells. Here’s how it was done

Each year for The Annual we ask a different person to come up with a cover image based on a capital A (see our back issues page for previous ones)

In recent years, this has resulted in imagery on an increasingly grand scale. This time, however, Craig Ward of Words are Pictures decided to buck this trend by going much, much smaller and creating some “cell-level typography”.

Ward approached  a couple of UK universities with his idea and discovered that making letterforms from cells was do-able, if a little costly (he was quoted anything up to £250,000). But he persevered and was eventually put in touch with Frank Conrad, “a friend of a friend,” he says, “who happened to be an immunologist at the University of Colorado in Denver” (lab shown below).

So for the last few months the pair of them have been busily shaping cells and growing them into an A shape here in the lab.

“The first hurdle was creating an ‘A’ small enough yet still legible,” Ward explains. “We settled on melting plastic, putting it under a high pressure into a mould – in this case the ‘A’ from a ‘Made in the USA’ stamp on an aluminium pen – and then applying the cells.”

Here you can see the cells growing within the A mould created by the letters on the pen.

“Our original choice was to use Chinese Hamster ovary cells,” Ward says, “but the techniques we were using proved too much for them and they died, en masse, every time we went to check them. The solution was to use pollen as the cells themselves are graphic and cool-looking. But we had trouble getting enough on the slide while being able to achieve an image at a high enough resolution for the CR cover.”

Above are sample slides on which the cells are growing

“My favourite of the ‘A’s were at 200× resolution, but my favourite pollen cells were at 400× so we had to settle in between,” Ward says. “The images are weird, a little sinister even. It was a lot of fun and I learned a lot along the way. A successful brief by any measure.”

Here are the final two images that we chose to use on the two sides of the Annual issue

And here is how they look on the cover of the May issue, which is out on April 22. The covers were printed using a metallic base ink to bring out the details

Photography and cell manipulation: Frank Conrad. Lab assistant: Bastion Ridley.

Our thanks to Craig and to Frank



  • That’s brilliant, what a great concept and it looks good.

  • Looks awesome, can’t wait to get my hands on one!

  • Abi

    Intriguing concept and process – nice to see a design that it isn’t possible for just anyone to reproduce too.

  • Awesome, looks great.
    Metallic base ink sounds like a lovely touch, looking forward to my copy!

  • very beautiful. And organic…really.

    So, how much did it actually cost?

  • science meets design, very impressive!

  • Great work. We always look forward to our copy of CR, specially the Annuals. This year with the new look and direction should a special treat

  • @Ernest Burden, re: cost
    Virtually nothing, except time. We already had the lab equipment, so it was just a matter of experimenting with conditions.

  • A very intelligent and interesting response! Really nice to also see the new look masthead working with a full bleed image too. Looks very smart. Now I just need the postman to be in a good mood and hope he/she doesn’t tear my copy to shreds!

  • Amzul

    Science and Art meet again! love it

  • A

    This is insane. Awesome

  • WOW really awesome idea, process and RESULT! more, more more!!!

  • Looks incredible. Was certain it was photoshoped, but please to see something like this done authentically.

  • Stu Royall

    Seriously impressive work. Beautiful but most of all, thoughtful.

  • Lovely stuff! Alternative way of producing type!

  • joel

    MAD Creative! Excellent execution! Scienterrific.

  • Love this. For what it’s worth, this is my attempt of combining art and science back in 2008. I made use of e.coli bacteria, which then grew in to the form of the MTV logo:

  • Love it.

  • Mickrock

    Please let this issue make it across the pond (the Atlantic) without being purloined by some ne’er do well postal employee… want to look closely at that type.

  • Craig Addy

    Truly a brilliant combination of design, science and patience. Well done mate.

  • Carlos Agudelo

    Talk about a custom made limited edition cover process…what other publication can say that for their cover they had specific “cells” grown/produced in order to achieve the cover image of their most important annual release? I can think of none at the moment…can you?

    And if YOUR answer is no as well, then CR has achieved something quite remarkable.

    As a creative, I appreciate you getting into details about how this came about and the process that it took. Patrick, another great post…

  • MLA

    Interesting to know a Bacteroid Alphabet was previously developed by microbiologists Alan S. Craig and K. L. Giles of New Zealand department of Scientific and Industrial Research back in 1975.

  • ferdinand

    Ok, this word in mind urges and dictates my fingers to type it: photosyn-type-sis! The type as a synthesis of cells, lights, and everything in between…cool!