Guest writer: ‘Zine-ing’ science by Ipsa Jain

Ipsa Jain is a scientist by training and science visualizer by practice. She runs her own business – Ipsawonders, which, in her own words, is ‘a one-woman labor of love’. She uses visuals to tell the story of science, aiming not only to educate, but to incite curiosity, encourage her audience to question science, and be struck by the wonder of the world around them. She hopes that her work makes science a part of public memory. Follow Ipsa on Instagram and Twitter, and take a look at her website for more information about her and her work.


A zine is a magazine minus the ‘maga’. A DIY medium that ranges from a bound mini-comic to an A4 sheet folded up, they have been used to express dissent, and share personal stories and ideas since the 1980s.

My first brush with zines happened at a local metro station where young art school students were selling their zines. I loved the idea of sharing one’s thoughts directly with an audience. In my experience a lot of science communication work happens within gated spaces, and zines felt like a good way to broaden that and share science with the public.

Since last year I have made a lot of science-based zines. In this article I will explain my zine-making process from idea to finished product, and hopefully inspire you to make a zine of your own! Zines have only one rule – there are no rules. They’re a truly flexible medium, so feel free to use my process as a starting point, and then adapt it to find your own style.

How to find ideas
I create zines for two main reasons:
1) To share my inquiry of the scientific phenomenon and the scientific method.
2) Working with clients to share their scientific focus areas.

To me, ideas come from musings on my projects and the talks, books, and other media around me. For one of my zines I was working on a different project where we had to define a cell. I found myself questioning the popular definition, ‘a cell is the smallest structural and functional unit of life’. Curious about what people remember about cells, I did an informal survey at a public science talk and found that red blood cells and neurons are popular in public memory. When asked to draw the cell, these people drew a circle in circle drawing to depict a cell. Interestingly, RBCs and neurons cells are quite unlike the prototypical cell. This fueled an entire series of zines on cells, one of the first ones being the identity of a cell.

Responses to ‘how do you think a cell looks?’ by biologists and people from other audiences.

What content to include
In any area of science, there is a wide depth and breadth of ideas that you can choose to cover. I tend to decide on one aspect that I find most interesting and has visual potential. Once I have decided on the topic I’m going to focus on, I spend some time researching. I read about the subject matter and flesh out my ideas and pick up details. The sources could be popular science writing or research based literature. I also look up images related to the subject matter. I then have discussions with collaborators and friends who I invite to critique my ideas. Based on their feedback I decide on the core narrative and which smaller details I can use to surround that. My work seeks to invoke curiosity and wonder, so I often close my zines with an open-ended question, and prefer not to pack in too much information.

Storyboarding
Storyboarding is the real meat of zine production, it is where I decide the visual and verbal languages and the number of pages that I’m going to work with. For ease of production, I prefer centre-folded pages, but I would love to try an accordion zine someday! I carefully plan out how the story will develop over panels and page spreads, and then add in details to make sure that the narrative works. This storyboarding stage is iterative until I find what works. I think about the overall style, aesthetic sense, colors, medium of drawings, text and image relationships. I decide if I want it to feel like clean or a chaos, or simple lines or a burst of textures.

Storyboard and drawings for ‘Identity of a Cell’ zine. The research for this zine involved looking at how RBCs are formed in hematopoiesis. I decided to make it about lots of organelles.
The storyboards went through a series of iterations. The drawings were done with thin line pen on paper, and coloured red in photoshop.

Execution
This is where I let my playfulness run. I draw on paper, scan and lay images out with text digitally. I may play around with composition at this stage, particularly to fit in all the text. I don’t like writing a lot and hence have developed my style where I try to convey the core of my idea in very few words. In my independent work, I am looking to probe and provoke and not explain. So minimal words do the trick. I hope to push the boundary and make a silent zine someday! In collaborative work, the partners sometimes bring in their art of writing.

Glimpse into the zine. There is a spread that invites the audience to draw.

Production
There is an absolute joy in holding your work once it out from printing machine 🙂 I do short runs of 50 pieces at a local printer for personal production. For client work, I share print ready pdf files.

Zines don’t need to be professionally printed. If you are planning to start, all you need is a bunch of A4 sheets (white or colored), and a photocopier machine. You can start with black pens, markers and pencils. Collage, collate and photocopy the pages, fold them up and if need be, staple them up.  If you can, print some copies on the office printer! You can add more colors (and other elements?) to individual copies, adding personality to your zines!

If you need some folding templates, find them here.

Distribution
I sell my work via online portals and local bookstores. I spread the word through social media. I also set up stalls at comix festivals, conferences and other social events. Some commissioned work is made available by the partner institutions like CCMB.

Zine displays.

I hope I’ve inspired you to get started on making your own zines now!
Start with stories that you know really well, your own scientific research is a great starting point. Pick your audience, make them think, give them enough information to ask questions and discuss science with others, and have fun! If you need more inspiration, browse through this library of science zines.

Editorial Support: Somdatta Karak and Heidi Gardner

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