Yukai Du's bright, textured artworks make complex science easy to understand

Yukai explains how to make numbers, science and space interesting with vibrant images.

Yukai Du uses colourful illustrations and popping animation to explain concepts such as prime numbers, science and space, in a way that simplifies and demands attention. It’s a unique talent, and one we’re pretty jealous of.

From editorial illustrations depicting new year resolutions, to animations of the Hubble telescope for TED-Ed, to illustrating an entire book on famous scientists and their discoveries – Yukai is not afraid to tackle the hard-hitting topics. An impressive list of clients include a huge range of editorials – The Telegraph, The Guardian, The Washington Post, New York Times, BBC – and Adobe System, WIRED, Ted-Ed and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Image: Cover image for an Adobe Photoshop CC online tutorial on how to make a banner in Photoshop.

Yukai moved from China to study at Central Saint Martins. She resides in London as an illustrator and animator. She fell in love with the vibrant colours of the capital - how people painted their house doors, windows and shops on the street. She describes her work as vibrant, textured, with dash lines inspired by Impressionism and grittiness.

We spoke to Yukai about how she makes information easy to understand through her illustrations.

Image: An animated lesson about the history of the treadmill for Ted-Ed.

Miriam Harris: Talk us through the creative process for your illustrations.

Yukai Du: "I usually sketch down many little rough idea to see which one would work the best with the brief/script I got. If it were animation, I would sketch the whole storyboard again and again with the script. When I'm happy with the rough composition, I finalise it to a refined sketch, sometimes pencil sometimes digital. After that, I take the sketch in Photoshop and finish it."

Image: A storyboard sketch for Yukai's Beautiful Equation illustration series for the Guardian Live. 

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MH: How do you make information easy to understand through illustration?

YD: "I often feel like a translator, my job is to translate information or a story from text to visual. Usually I would think about something that could visually represent the topic. For instance, the Beautiful Equation project was for a speech from Marcus du Sautoy about his study about prime numbers. I used square shapes to represent the numbers and a landscape represents the mathematical graphs."

Image: From a series of six illustrations used in the background of a speech at a Guardian Live event based on prime numbers by Marcus du Sautoy, Proffesor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford.

MH: How can numbers/science become more interesting through illustration?

YD: "I think numbers and science give a lot of space to play around. Because those topics are very rational and abstract, something emotional and imaginary like illustration and animation works very well. Like in my book 100 Steps for Science, the female scientist travels to different periods in our history. She's sometimes curious, sometimes amazed by a discovery and sometimes meets famous inventors that it feels like an adventure rather than a science lesson with only formulations and texts.

"So far, it's the book project 100 Steps for Science, because it's my first illustrated book and I have never done that many drawings for any projects before. I spent six months on it and actually did draw 100 images."

Image: 100 Steps for Science explores 10 stories of scientists whose discoveries have shaped the world we live in.

MH: You do a lot of editorial illustrations. Tell us a bit about the collaboration process.

YD: "Usually I receive a copy of an article - sometimes it's a summary paragraph. Based on the copy, I do some research online about similar topics. Then I do some roughs, it depends on the topic. Some topics are very specific so I can only come up with similar roughs with different compositions. Some topics are very broad that I could try a few very different ideas. So the editors/art directors can pick up a rough to finalise which they think would work the best with the article."

Image: Illustration for the Washington Post's 5 resolutions health experts hate to hear - and what to do instead

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MH: How did you come to experiment with motion?

YD: "I studied in animation, so I actually didn't do much illustration before. When I first finished my personal short film Way Out at uni, I found my illustration style. So I work in both motion and stills. My animation background helps me a lot when I try to design something, because I always need to think a bigger picture than just a still image."

Image: From a collaborative video about the upcoming European elections and how lessons from Brexit and Trump might relate. 

MH: What are some current projects?

YD: "I'm working on an animated documentary with live action footage about Hortencia Marcari, the Brazilian basketball player as well as an Olympian. It's really fun and something new to me."

Image: From an animated lesson about Hubble Deep Field images for TED-Ed.