Science as Culture, and Cultural Depictions Thereof

What can we learn about science from the thought processes of t-shirt designers? Let’s ask some entrants in the Seed Magazine / Threadless T-shirt competition!

First, we learn that science is something that acts on culture, and is important to culture, but is not a part of culture – like rain, or the location of a deposit of easily refined tin:

Nothing embodies the cultural importance of science greater than [this shirt]

Science has been known to over complicate things at times; but then there are times that it improves our culture!

I wanted to show that even parts of culture that are crazy and unscripted have science working in the background.

Then we learn that science and culture conflict:

We always give cultural names -such as “heartbreak”, “butterflies in the stomach”, etc. – to our feelings, which actually have a scientific explanation

At last, someone gets it right:

Science is, in fact, culture.

I’m not quite sure how a Victorian-style octopedal skull-in-jar conveys that concept, but then, my cultural production is limited to science and blogging.

Finally, we learn that science is mostly for white people, especially white men. Of the people depicted on the shirt submissions that had either an identifiable race, an identifiable gender, or both, as of last night, we had:

  • 1 person of color of indeterminate gender
  • 1 man of indeterminate race
  • 3 women of indeterminate race
  • 4 men of color
  • 7 white women
  • 8 white people of indeterminate gender
  • 29 white men
  • 0 women of color

We also learn that using Einstein’s face as a synecdoche for sciencey brilliance is really trite and overdone. As if we didn’t know that already.

Despite its collusion with white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, I really want this one to win.


  1. Lab Lemming wrote:

    Is this about the culture of science, or the culture of scientists?

  2. yami wrote:

    Can the t-shirt designers really tell the difference?

  3. bret wrote:

    So, graphic designers have an inaccurate view of the culture of scientists. Okay.

    Now, how much do you and your fellow scientists know about the culture of graphic designers? Anything at all?

    At least these designers recognize the importance of science. Most scientists that I know give no thought to graphic design, and have no idea how much good design could benefit their work.

  4. Kerr wrote:

    Bret, I’m a museum person, and I greatly value good design. Very little about Threadless encourages good design. It’s an interesting collaborative experiment, to be sure, but it mostly encourages popularity contests and gaming the points system, which as it turns out is not very meaningful anyway.

    But if you think this contest was about having graphic designers describe the “culture of scientists,” you also, like many of the entrants, have MISSED THE POINT.

    Good design in at least some cases must convey a message, and if you don’t know what the message is that you’re meant to be conveying, you’ve failed before you’ve begun.

  5. yami wrote:

    Contrariwise, Bret, at least scientists recognize that graphic design is a cultural product.

  6. Lab Lemming wrote:

    Does graphic design promote the practice of science, or the promotion of it?

  7. yami wrote:

    If I ever find a t-shirt that promotes the promotion of the promotion of science, I’m so buying it.

  8. bret wrote:

    Kerr, from what I’ve heard from people who have served on conference committees, science isn’t exactly devoid of popularity contests and gaming the points system. :)

    You’re right that I missed that the theme of the contest was specifically “science is [a part of the] culture”. But I still hold that designers give more thought to science than scientists to design. Einstein may seem trite to us, but how many scientists can name even a single influential designer?

    Lemming, graphic design can be used to promote science, if that’s what you’re into. But more interesting to me is how visual design directly affects scientific practice. Researchers understand data and communicate results by doing graphic design — drawing graphs, charts, maps, and other information visualizations. As untrained designers, they often do this very poorly, and their science suffers. (Researchers also communicate results by writing lots of text when they -should- be drawing graphics.) Edward Tufte’s work is far more relevant than Einstein’s for both scientists and designers, but he doesn’t get his head on a shirt.

    (As you might guess, my own research is at the intersection of science and graphic design, so the insularity of the two camps is a personal issue for me. :)

  9. yami wrote:

    Heh. You’d think if anyone could get their favorite disciplinary icons into the public eye, it’d be the graphic designers…

    You’ll get no argument from me on your basic point, though – lots of scientists do indeed need to be beaned in the head by Edward Tufte.

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