Making DNArtwork #2: competitor analysis

There are quite a few companies offering artwork generated from DNA. This is a good thing – unique ideas are overrated, and if you come up with an idea that nobody else seems to have tried yet, it’s less likely that you’re a special genius that had the idea first and more likely that the idea doesn’t work!

Here’s a tour of the currently available offerings, during which I’ll analyse the pros and cons of each and build up a wish list of features for the perfect DNA-based artwork.

Genetic fingerprints

This is the classic image of DNA testing you may have seen illustrating stories about forensic analysis and paternity testing:

Gel electrophoresis image
People call this “genetic fingerprinting” because that’s easier to say than “restriction fragment length polymorphism genotyping by gel electrophoresis”.

These images are produced in a lab using gel electrophoresis, photographed, coloured on a computer and printed. The end result looks like this:

PlayDNA's Classic Portrait
PlayDNA’s Classic Portrait

This is the most common kind of portrait, offered by PlayDNAGenetic Photos, DNA 11Easy DNA and DNA effect to name a few.

Pros: the great thing about this style of artwork is its ability to show relatedness. If a mother, father and child all get an artwork, the child’s artwork will visibly be a combination of the two parents’ artworks*. This is Requirement 1: genetic art should illustrate relatedness.

Cons: there’s very little flexibility in presentation, because the layout of the image is determined by a lab process that was designed to yield information, not an aesthetically pleasing layout. Therefore while it certainly looks interesting, I don’t think it’s beautiful. In fact to my eyes it’s medical / clinical. In order to appreciate its value you need an explanation of what it is. Hence Requirement 2: genetic art should look like art – something you might want to hang on your wall even if you didn’t know about its genetic meaning.

* If it’s not, then mummy got some ‘splaining to do.

Textual base sequences

Your genetic code is essentially a giant length of ticker tape, 3 billion characters long, written in an alphabet of 4 letters: A, T C and G. One popular way of visualising your DNA is to simply print out these letters. The company Genetic Photos has several products that work like this:

Base sequence
Base sequence artworks available from Genetic Photos – from pop art to letters etched in crystal.

Pros: this is substantially more flexible than the genetic fingerprints, allowing a variety of graphic treatments and the possibility to create something beautiful.

Cons: humans are over 99.5% genetically identical, and this style only looks at a small section of DNA, so if two people order the same style of artwork then their artworks will look either very similar or absolutely identical. Siblings are especially likely to have identical sequences. Requirement 3 is therefore: genetic artwork must emphasise genetic differences and gloss over the similarities.

Graphical base sequences

Check out this beautiful offering from Genetic Ink. It is in my opinion the best genetic artwork currently available, because it looks like art.


Technically this is very similar to textual base sequences in that it is a representation of the individual letters of your genetic code. But it shows what you can achieve if you abstract away the raw data and allow designer or artist free rein to create something that you’d want to hang on your wall.

Pros: first you see the beauty, then the genetic meaning is accessible if you know how to analyse the image. This is the Right Way Round for something that I’m going to hang on my wall and be around for many years, and it’s really just another way of expressing the second requirement: that genetic art should look like normal art.

Cons: Doesn’t fix the big issue with textual base sequences: siblings are likely to have identical portraits.

A note on costs

Finally, a note on costs. Most of artworks described above start at around £200 including shipping, even for small artworks. Larger artworks cost much more. This is way beyond impulse buy thresholds, and therefore most of the above companies make a big deal about how this is a special and unique object to treasure forever. I’ll wager that for every person who’d be prepared to spend £200 on a unique object to treasure forever, there are twenty who’d spend £50 on a fun little present for that cousin who you can never think of a good present for.

The reason for this expense is simple – all these companies sell a DNA test as part of the artwork package, and that test is expensive requiring lab time and return postage. The solution is to sell the artwork separately from the test.

23andMe is a personal genetic testing company that has already tested over a million people, has given DNA tests to 1.4 million people. All these people should be able to get an artwork without paying for another test.

As far as I can see, only one company – DNA 11 – offers the ability to import your genetic testing results from other testing companies, thus bringing the cost down into impulse buy territory. This is the 4th requirement: don’t make people buy a new test.


So there you have it, based on the current offerings, the perfect genetic art will:

  1. Illustrate relationships. My artwork should look totally different to a stranger’s, but quite similar to my sister’s.
  2. Look like a work of art. It can’t rely on it’s genetic meaning to make it worth taking up space in my living room, it should be something I want to put on my wall in its own right.
  3. Only show differences between people, and ignore the bits of DNA that are the same among all humans.
  4. Be priced within impulse-buy thresholds, at least for people who already have a DNA test.

Now here’s the cool thing about the current state of the genetic art market: as far as I can tell, there’s nothing out there that is doing all of this. I spot an opportunity!

For more posts in this series, check out the DNArtwork category on this blog.

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