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What is a Medical Illustrator?

If you are reading this right now, you are probably one of the following:

  • An aspiring medical illustrator or scientific communicator

  • Currently a medical illustrator or scientific communicator

  • An academic seeking a scientific illustrator

  • Someone who likes art and science

  • Thinking "what am I doing here"

If you are any of the above, you are in the right place (except maybe that last one)! To those of you who don't know me, allow me to introduce myself; my name is Avesta and I am a scientific animator, illustrator, and designer from Vancouver, Canada. I recently graduated from the MSc in Biomedical Communications program at the University of Toronto – one of four accredited medical illustration programs in North America and the only one in Canada. Before starting down the path of medical illustration, I got my BSc in Life Sciences at Queen's University with a minor in World Language Studies.

Ok, I'm going to go off on a tangent for a second. For some reason, when we leave high school, we have this ingrained notion that we have to pick the "path of science" or the "path of art," but reality doesn't work like that. There are SO many opportunities in between. So, I thought I took the science route, but somewhere along the way I ended up right smack in the middle of science and art – exactly where I wanted to be, but that's a story for another time. Now, I want to help YOU learn how you can do that as well; or if you are already there, I want to help you learn some extra tips and tricks that might help you on your journey as a medical illustrator, scientific communicator, or whatever you want to title yourself.

First things first: what is a medical illustrator?

The Association of Medical Illustrators summarizes it quite nicely:

A medical illustrator is a professional artist with advanced education in both the life sciences and visual communication. Collaborating with scientists, physicians, and other specialists, medical illustrators transform complex information into visual images that have the potential to communicate to broad audiences.

Above is an example of how a medical illustrator can simplify a complex scientific topic.

It is also important to understand that the field of medical illustration, or biocommunication has evolved a lot since the technological explosion that has happened since the internet and 3D modelling became a thing. I remember once in high school, someone told me I should consider pursuing medical illustration, which, at the time, sounded super boring because I thought it meant purely drawing textbook illustrations.

So before moving on, I want to debunk a misconception about the field:

Medical illustration is not just the act of illustrating images for textbooks.

Yes, a small percentage of medical illustrators do create images for textbooks, and if this is your thing then you are in the right place! But the field is far more diverse than you might realize. The majority of professionals in this field don't just do illustrative work, it also encompasses 2D/3D animation, UI/UX design, educational gaming (AKA "serious games"), graphic design, VR/AR media, the list goes on. Some may say the term "medical illustrator" is actually too narrow. Here are some other titles I've heard people use:

  • Scientific Artist

  • Natural Science Illustrator

  • Biomedial Communicator

  • Biocommunicator

  • Scientific Communicator

  • Biomedical Designer

  • Multimedia Designer

You get the gist. There are many words to describe what we do, however a term I have grown to like is scientific visualization (let's call it sci viz) because it encompasses more than just the medical field and includes all visual media, not only illustration. This also prevents confusion with the term "scientific communicator" which is used by many academics who are actively involved in public outreach to communicate research and science via social media.

Now that you have a basic understanding of what a medical illustrator is, you might be wondering, "but what exactly does a medical illustrator do"?

Lots of things! Here's a list to name a few:

  • Textbook illustrations – this includes surgical illustration

  • Academic images: graphical abstracts, graduate thesis imagery, etc.

  • Editorial illustrations (ex. journal covers and imagery for Sci Am, or Nature)

  • Patient education media for hospitals

  • AR/VR educational experiences (ex. OSSO VR surgical training)

  • UI, UX, and/or product design for science/healthcare startups

  • Biomedical animation

  • Data visualization

  • VFX / scientific graphics for the movie industry (ex. G-Creative – founded by MScBMC alumna Gladys Tong)

  • Graphic medicine, or educational comics

  • Web design

You get the idea – medical illustrators do a lot of different things!

It all boils down to the visual communication of science.

To see how a medical illustrator might take an idea to completion in order to communicate a specific topic, I have included the progress work for my editorial piece The Cancer Paradox, which is intended for an educated audience.

I hope this gives you a basic understanding of what a medical illustrator is and what they do. If you would like to learn more, I recommend checking out the AMI website, which dives into a lot more detail on the subject. Check back later for more juicy updates about the field, breakdowns of the process behind my own sci viz work, tips and tricks for various programs/software (Illustrator, Photoshop, Maya), and more! Also, if you have any burning questions, feel free to reach out to me via social media or email. Thanks for stopping by!

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