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

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



What's the story?

The Storytelling issue, Oct/Nov 2017, is out now.
We invited writers to respond to our cover image
this month: read their stories inside.
PLUS: Tom Gauld, Oliver Jeffers, Giphy & S-Town

Buy the issue

The Annual 2018

The Creative Review Annual is one of the most
respected and trusted awards for the creative
industry. We celebrate the best creative work from
the past year, those who create it and commission it.

Enter now


South East London - Competitive


London - £35,000 - £40,000


Birmingham - Salary £30-£35k


Leeds, West Yorkshire - £20,000 - 30,000