An interest in botanical illustration and the future of this art form prompted
Niki Simpson to explore the digital arena to determine if botanical illustration had a place in this new medium. Aware of the argument that traditional illustrations are thought to be more informative than photographs, she investigated ways to increase the amount of information presented in digital illustrations. Her investigation resulted in the composite digital botanical illustrations seen in her online gallery.
Simpson’s digital illustrations give users clear information about leaves, flowers, reproductive parts, venation, leaf arrangement, inflorescence types, fruit, buds, and the underground features of a plant. Her botanical plates also include a color chart and botanical symbols identifying the sex of a plant’s reproductive organs, whether its species is monoecious or dioecious, plus many other characteristics. The symbols used by Simpson are unique to her work because she created many of them from scratch. The process by which Simpson created her symbols is the focus of Botanical Symbols: A New Symbol Set for New Images.
Botanical symbols have been used for centuries because they offer a way to abbreviate repeat words and conserve space on a page (Simpson, 2010). To make her botanical plates as informative as possible, Simpson knew she needed to use symbols in her illustrations. So she researched botanical symbols and how they had been used in the past.
During her research, Simpson (2010) discovered symbols with multiple meanings, symbols no longer in use and symbols not easy to think about, much less easy to write by hand. Her search made her realize that a universal set of botanical symbols about plants did not exist, so she decided to create her own set for her own use.
This lead to additional discoveries, namely that traditional typefaces and fonts lacked symbols suitable for the scientific documentation of botanical specimens (Simpson, 2010). Simpson realized whatever her symbols were to look like, they needed to be easy to write, needed to blend with modern fonts, needed to have a contemporary look, as well as a scientific feel. With these issues in mind, Simpson created the design criteria for her new symbols.
Simpson’s design criteria includes specific information such as, “symbols must be botanically appropriate”, “symbols must be easily readable; clear on reduction and enlargement”, and “symbols must be visually understandable by an international audience” (Simpson, 2010). Simpson’s detailed design criteria can be viewed in Appendix I of her paper.
In 2007, Simpson showed the new botanical symbol set in use in 40 digital composite illustrations in her solo exhibition, Digital Diversity: A New Approach to Botanical Illustration, held in the Botanisches Museum in Berlin-Dahlem, Germany.
Since then, she has fine-tuned her symbols and created a new botanical symbols font based on her symbol set. The Simpson Botanical Symbols OpenType font was completed in January 2009.
Simpson’s fonts are available for free and she invites readers to download the font from her website to use in floras, plant surveys and on plant labels. She also invites readers to use her symbols as shorthand while taking notes in class.
Simpson, Niki. 2010. Botanical symbols: a new symbol set for new images. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 162: 117-129.
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