Denna Jones, curator of the TwoTen Gallery and Contemporary Initiatives at the Wellcome Trust, looks at how DNA's double helix became a design icon.
Century 21 calling
Image courtesy www.archive.org
Twentieth century style gurus Charles and Ray Eames knew a good design when they saw one.
Their influential short film Powers of Ten (1968) uses a 'ten times' scale change every ten seconds. The pivot point is a man lying in a field.
A few minutes in one direction and we reach the Milky Way. A few minutes in the other direction and we are staring at the milky strands of the man's DNA.
The century of the genome
Fifty years ago scientists revealed the structure of DNA.
From that point onward the century of physics and the atom that became not only a scientific symbol but a ubiquitous design motif itself - gave way to the century of the genome.
The double helix structure of DNA became a design icon.
Why has the double helix become so popular? Simplicity, symmetry and serendipity are key.
The simplicity of the design - a spiral form resembling nothing more complex than a twisted ladder - means the metaphors used to describe DNA are easily understood and even more easily depicted.
If you believe humans are hardwired for equating symmetry with beauty, then the pleasing proportions of DNA - parallel sugar spines connected by rungs of base pairs - ensures a positive atavistic response.
And just as a slightly wonky nose on the otherwise perfect face of a model can add rather than subtract from her beauty, the slightly off-centre spiraling of DNA adds to its design perfection.
The 'X factor'
As for serendipity, nature handed us a design that is easily read by both layperson and specialist.
Designers often call the inexplicable "something" that raises a design from common to classic, the "X factor". It looks good, it's well-made and it works. And DNA's got these in spades.
And speaking of spades, in the last 50 years DNA has ended up in some pretty ropey design manifestations.
Century 21 Calling (a short film shot at the 1962 Seattle World's Fair) has a scene in which the teenage couple who star run excitedly towards a giant DNA model.
The base pairs (A, C, G, T) on the model are revealed as giant playing cards (spade, heart, club, diamond).
But rather than being a frivolous interpretation of DNA, the suits are consistently paired (mimicking the consistent pairing of the bases: adenine to thymine and guanine to cytosine), and hint at the role of chance - the genetic game of cards - that along with nurture, determines our makeup.
But most DNA designs are such literal depictions of the double helix that they reduce the sublime to the cliché.
Aside from numerous DNA sculptures (which are usually more scaled-up model than 'art' or even 'design'), how about a double helix tie or boxer shorts?
Or a left-spiraling DNA bracelet? The hyperbole accompanying some of the more banal creations is often better than the object itself.
A necktie with a giant silk-screened DNA molecule has the accompanying text: "Helix, schmelix, what I'd like to do is meet whatever has DNA this big. And it's replicating. Yikes!"
A quick search on the internet reveals many design businesses that incorporate the word DNA in their company title.
And those that use the double helix as part of the company logo quite frequently get their DNA in an awkward - and incorrect - twist.
Like a corkscrew, DNA twists to the right. But sinister twisting DNA appears in the most predictable (i.e. non-scientific) places as well as the most unlikely (an edition of James Watson's book The Double Helix).
Perhaps the last thing to say about the double helix is that fifty years of ubiquity has almost institutionalised the idea in popular culture that the double helix as design is new. It isn't.
Scientists reveal the truths inherent in nature. So just as DNA itself wasn't 'discovered' - it's always been there - the double helix as a design construct has been around a long time.
It was employed in the grand staircase of Chambord (begun 1519) designed (probably) by Leonardo da Vinci for François I.
Leonardo's employment of the double helix was done for purposes of secrecy: those ascending one helix would never see those descending the parallel helix.
More than 400 years before the discovery of DNA's structure, Leonardo's push-me-pull-you staircase - a design with inherent tension - mirrored the oppositional pull of DNA's parallel sugar spines.
Charles and Ray Eames understood that good design should be based on a democracy of distribution. Beauty coupled with affordability. And their spirit of democracy mirrors that of the public human genome project that aims to make DNA an open source code.
In nature as well as in man-made design, good designs succeed and poor designs eventually die off. So happy birthday DNA, and long live good DNA design.
© Denna Jones 2003
Denna Jones is curator of the Four Plus: Writing DNA exhibition, open until 29 August 2003.