The Design Observer Twenty

William Drenttel | Essays

Call for Entries: Periodic Table of the Elements

Jessica Helfand and I are building a collection of Periodic Tables and hope to publish a book on their scientific, visual and cultural history. We are looking for examples — historical or contemporary — of interesting, innovative, unusual, compelling, daring, exotic versions of the Periodic Table of the Elements.


Real Science
We have a fairly substantial collection of images of early (pre-19th century) systems for categorizing elements; extensive materials related to Mendeleev and his original Periodic Table; and alternative graphic systems proposed by chemists. We are seeking additional original materials to help us document the Periodic Table's history and evolution.

Applications: Subject
We have inventoried Periodic Tables invoked as an armature for any of a number of odd subjects, including beers; fruits; cereals; nuts; sex; desserts; fonts; subversive elements; cultural elements; and more. We welcome additions to this ever-growing list and invite you to send examples.

Applications: Form
Part of this inventory has revealed unusual adaptations of the Periodic Table in signage or on T-shirts; in advertising, annual reports and posters; on menus; in songs; even on buildings and in architecture. We welcome additions to this ever-growing list and invite you to send examples.

The Fine Print
We need original materials or high-quality scans, as well as full bibliographic information and design credits. We will post all items received as comments to this blog thread; this will serve as a public archive of the items received.

Original materials can be sent to:
William Drenttel
71 Undermountain Road
P.O. Box 159
Falls Vilage, CT 06031
[email protected].

To launch this project, I'd like to share three recent finds:

01. Call for Entries for the Architectural League of New York, 2002
Michael Bierut has fessed up to the sin of faux science, and has submitted this item:

02. Fast Company Magazine, January 2004
An article on IBM's brain talent being for sale, art directed by Dean Markadakis:

03. Miracle of Science Bar & Grill Menu at MIT
At a bar near MIT in Boston called the Miracle of Science Bar & Grill, the menu is a Periodic Table done on a chauk board. Photos to be posted after my next beer there, unless any Boston-area readers familiar with this watering hole care to beat me to it!

[Other periodic tables are viewable in our lecture, Culture Is Not Always Popular.]

Posted in: Graphic Design, Science , Technology

Comments [42]

Several time-based interactive studies on the table were done by graduate graphic design students at NC State University and are well worth a look. The table was a core project in the New Information Environments studio course for two years. Professor Alton Banks of NC State's Chemistry Department supplied a refresher on decoding the elegant plot of electron shell configurations, etc. Dr. Banks was one of the first to do an interactive version of the chart. He presented reactions of most elements (some are only stable for a split second in a lab) on laser disk.

The student works included a morphology from alchemical symbolism to the present chart configuration, molecular hexagonal frequency in elements and natural states of being, historical patterns in the discovery or elements, as well as the revealing of hidden patterns within the chart through motion and case-sensitive mutability. You can take a look at two of these projects at AIGA's LOOP online mag. Stacie Rohrbach, professor at CMU, has a well detailed review of her project online as well. If you want more details, I will be glad to help.
Tony Brock

do a google image search and you will get some interesting results like this one -

stephen synnott

There's always the Periodic Table Table.

Out of curiousity, do either of you have a background in chemistry (organic and inorganic), or are qualified in any scientific way to approach this subject?

What is the genesis and motive of this project -- beyond establishing an intellectual and academic claim of purposeful knowledge? I understand the graphic design significance, but I'm unclear about the need and the genuineness of your approach.

The Periodical table is a scientific standard -- a chemical dictionary, user manual, map, and history timeline all rolled into one. It's not a monopoly board you can translate into different versions for greater mass consumption.

With all due respect Mr. Drentell, how exactly are you (or Ms.Helfand) qualified again?

Actually, after listening to the Winterhouse folks talk about the Periodic Table at the last AIGA conference, I doubt that this project is about promoting arbitrary redesigns of the table. They made some great points about how the structure and format of the table is intimately tied in with our understanding of the information it presents. I think pulling together a lot of approaches to organizing that information would a great chance to investigate how well all that data can be communicated to experts and amateurs alike. Jessie's point about the table being "a chemical dictionary, user manual, map, and history timeline all rolled into one" that can't be randomly reworked was exactly the point they made.

Jessie, your question deserves a direct answer.

I do not know much about chemistry, or the Periodic Table.

However, even late in life, one learns. Having assembled an important archive related to the Periodic Table gives us resources and materials that are not available to most people, even scholars. Further, part of being a professional is to know what one does not know. Our book on the history of the Periodic Table will have essays by leading history of science scholars precisely because developing such a project is best done with multiple viewpoints, and by writers with different areas of expertise.

Lastly, most of us have a clear image in our mind of what the Periodic Table of the Elements looks like. In fact, this image of the Periodic Table as "a chemical dictionary, user manual, map, and history timeline" is only one of hundreds of attempts to visualize the structure and relationship of the elements. Mendeleev's solution is not the only answer. [See Edward G. Mazurs, Graphic Representations of the Periodic System During One Hundred Years (University of Alabama Press, 1974). Note that the book showing graphic representations of the Periodic Table was published 30 years ago, and the window for a new book is obvious.]

One of the reasons we are so interested in the work of design professors such as Julia Wargawski at Parsons School of Design, Stacie Rohrbach at Carnegie Mellon, and Tony Brock at North Carolina State University is their engagement as design educators with hard science. I doubt most of them are chemists by training, but they are introducing their students to the science of chemistry through their assignments of the Periodic Table. That they are teaching in the Graphic Design department is not an impediment. As Tony Brock notes, "Professor Alton Banks of NC State's Chemistry Department supplied a refresher on decoding the elegant plot of electron shell configurations, etc."

These designers are not afraid of what they do not know.
William Drenttel

Dan Gould at Brown University sent me the following links for our archive. Enjoy.
William Drenttel

A bit off topic perhaps but you may be interested in Peter Greenaway's new epic film project 'the tulse luper suitcases" which uses atomic element no 92 - U - Uranium at its centre.

Damien Hirst's Pharmacy bar in London may also be of interest. His Spot paintings would be important to mention perhaps too as they are representations of chemical elements.

Came across this one recently:
The periodic table of condiments

Science writer Oliver Sacks is a big fan of periodic tables (he's wearing a periodic table shirt in some of the photos on that page). If you've got a connection to him, he could probably point you in the direction of some great tables.

Blog.Elements (currently's a copycat)

The Periodic Table of Science Fiction

There's a very very big Periodic Table in the Lecture hall of the Natural Science building in Kabul University. If you need to see it, go to the Chancellor's Office and look for Mukhtar (he is the assistant to the Chancellor) and ask if you can see it. (Yes, it is in Kabul, Afghanistan)
The Pageman

Thank you everyone for adding links to more Periodic Tables. I have also received some interesting examples off-site that I want to share here.

Jessica Helfand just bought this circular dial for our collection: Heath's Chem-Formulator, 1950.

Julie Teninbaum, a graduate student at Yale School of Art, "charted my roommate's unusual (read: insane) eating habits? I lived with her for four years and for that entire time, she ate the Same things, prepared the Same
way every Single day." It's titled, "Periodically at the Table."

Tony Brock of North Carolina State University sent me information about the work of his student, Lucas Charles, viewable at the AIGA Loop site. Here's a screen shot:

An illustration by Thomas Fuchs for a piece by Oliver Sacks on the discovery of new elements from the New York Times Op-Ed page, February 8, 2004.

An eBay purchase earlier today is too good not to share. A Goldwater political pin from 1964 presidential election done
William Drenttel

We used a periodic-style table to illustrate the different industrial contaminants in our "BodyBurden" study. Basically, scientists have studied pollution in air, land, and water for decades, but we are only now finding out about the extent of industrial contamination of our bodies. We tested for 210 different contaminants -- and we wanted a visual way to display the results so people could compare and contrast what we found. Each "element" represents a singular contaminant, and you can click on each one to learn more.

Read the report at:

The "periodic table of contaminants" is at:
Timothy Greenleaf

I'm not sure if you're seen this already, but is a Craigslist personals ad in which the guy lists qualifications/characteristics as elements in a periodic table. While it doesn't have much historical background nor scientific relevance, it's pretty funny.
Michelle Lee

Again, thanks to all contributors. Here are three more received off-line:

From K. Anselmo:
A cool link to a range of visual displays, educational installations and boxed collections featuring real samples of the elements in the periodic table. (For £1000 you too have can a 3-D periodic table in your living room.)

 The Most Beautiful Periodic Table Displays in the World

From Matte Elsbernd:
Since high school in 1992, Matte has been experimenting writing words with symbols for the elements.

Periodic Symbols as Language

From Douglas Bowman:
A banner ad he created for Wired News, five-six years ago. "Wired News publishes the daily story of how technology affects our lives. I had a simple idea of using elements from the periodic table to capture the story Wired News so often told about ideas in Silicon Valley turning to gold."

Wired News Banner Ad
William Drenttel

the link someone posted further up the page: is from me mate (me brother's mate actually) in glasgow - Murray, who's a printer/designer

track him down - he's done a great peice on the periodic table, the website doesn't really do it justice

Hard to on the web but these might be worth checking out by Simon Patterson, UK artist:

This link may be helpful for you : Good luck.

Few days ago I saw John Mayer's cd cover. The album called "Room for squares". They used the Periodic Table of the Elements on the cd. To be honest I didn't understand what was the purpose of using the Table of the Elements for that cd but I suppose it's related to the album name. You can find that from any music store. The actual table is on the cd and on the cover there is the shape of the table filled with John Mayer's picture instead of elements.
07:08 is a collection of links to periodic tables that various people have found interesting.

Two additonal resources for this archive.

Thanks to Christy Kilgore-Hadley for drawing my attention to this amazing peridic table of shelf-life (everything from ketchup to batteries to lipstick) in this month's issue of Real Simple magazine:

Also, reporting in from Iceland, Jeffrey Ramsey sends us an identity program for the photographer Thorsten Henn based on element number 90, Thorium:
William Drenttel

Hi Jessica and William,
While at Yale (GD 2000) I did a few projects that investigated the PTE. One is here:

It uses the Art Library, the PTE, and the Library of Congress system to create a series of books. I have be seduced by its form and elegance for years and found while at Yale that the Kline Science Library (which I am sure you have visited) had some great books on the PTE.
Also I have done a number of paintings related to it structure.

Let me know if you would like any more info and good luck

Kevin Jones
Kevin Jones

Oh one more:

Kevin Jones

Kevin, I remember you and your work very well, and am delighted you've joined the discussion and pointed us to this work.
Jessica Helfand

Just found this a couple of days ago. Fits right into your discussion and it looks like you don't have this link yet. Enjoy!
Robb Smigielski

Armani Goes Periodic.

This periodic table was spotted last week in Miami in the window of an Armani shop.

William Drenttel

We did a re-design of the periodic table - check out my idea (more of a historic view of the table of elements) at under student work.

Two more recent entries for this archive:

Annual report by Ideas on Purpose (NY).

Website for SEI Chemical, a specialty chemical developer, formulator and manufacturer.
William Drenttel

Going, going... nearly gone.

This one is about to leave the building. Initially developed in 1998 and nominated in the first FlashForward awards in 2000 for navigation, it has hung online well past it's time. It came before VW's Periodic Turbonium site by a full year - with the periodic table (what else) being the common element? Enjoy.
Don Julio

Chemical Galaxy:
A New Vision of the Periodic Table of the Elements by Philip J. Stewart.

"Many chemists before and after Mendeleyev have proposed a spiral image, to get the advantages of a helix in two dimensions. My Chemical Galaxy is the latest of these versions, using a starry pathway to link the elements and to express the astronomical reach of chemistry. The intention is not to replace the familiar table, but to complement it and at the same time to stimulate the imagination and to evoke wonder at the order underlying the universe."
William Drenttel

And for help with the complex task of finding an Anthropologie store location. . .
Angela Norwood

As a archive item, least we forget, there is this wonderful Periodic Table of Blonde Newscasters.
William Drenttel

Constantly changing, here's is Humbug's blogroll done as a Periodic Table of Blogs:
William Drenttel

Another great site for Periodic Table of the Elements is at:
William Drenttel

Now we have a Periodic Table of Poetry...
William Drenttel

Nice interactive Periodic Table of the Elements from Popular Science. (Via Core77.)
William Drenttel

Two more periodic table references:

A typographic version of the "The Elements" by Tom Lehrer.

And "The Visual Elements of the Periodic Table":
William Drenttel

Periodic Table of Visualization Methods
William Drenttel

A periodic table of aspects of humanity that lend themselves to social compartmentalization.
William Drenttel

I agree with the sentiment that we should strive for Colorful spiral periodic table

Another Periodic Table: The Periodic Table of Mad Men:
William Drenttel

This one is definitely colourful. One of the few tables that use the full element names. PDF poster is high res and has all the abbreviations and atomic weights.
Robert Harrison

Jobs | June 07