Case Study: Medical Illustrator - David

What do you do?

Most of my day is spent either drawing or doing research. I specialise in illustrating pharmaceutical products for pamphlets and other promotional material. Therefore, it's important that I do thorough research so I can make accurate drawings.

I've also done illustrations of the human body for educational pamphlets that doctors give to their patients. And I teach courses part-time in medical illustration. Most of the work I do is freelance, going from project to project for different clients.

What is your background?

I graduated from university with a degree in art history, and I made a living off my own art for five years. I also did some commercial illustration for a little extra money. I soon discovered, however, that my detailed style worked well with medical illustration. Since I was already interested in drawing the human body, I signed up for a medical illustration course.

When I finished the course, I went straight into freelancing. I could do this because I still had some clients from my commercial illustration days. I used this work to support me until I built a medical illustration client base. Now about 95 per cent of my work is medical.

What characteristics do you need to be successful in your job?

You learn something new on every project, so it's important to be curious about the way the human body works. The illustrations must be very precise, and have to convey the right information. The job involves a lot of in-depth study of technical medicine, so you have to be interested in that.

As a freelancer, you have to be extremely motivated. You are solely responsible for making sure you keep working. You have to be able to sell yourself as an illustrator.

What other jobs could you do using the skills from this job?

There are many avenues open in the field of health communications. A medical illustrator could work with the government to convey information about health issues to the public.

Medical illustrators are also trained to understand the subtleties of visual communication. These skills can be used in anything from advertising to developing multimedia projects.

What changes will there be in the future?

This is a very specialised job, with a limited amount of opportunity. However, with new medical discoveries occurring more frequently, there should be a lot of growth in this field. These new discoveries need to be explained to doctors, students and the general public.

Computers also provide opportunities for work. Medical illustrators can get a lot of jobs involving the internet or multimedia. Computers also allow for animated illustration, which opens up a whole new field of work.

What are the biggest challenges in your job?

An illustration has to look nice and communicate the right concepts. Incorporating both into a drawing can often be the most difficult part of the job.

You also have to shape your illustration to the needs of the person viewing it. A patient is going to need something much less technical and more visually interesting than the doctor will need.

Are there many opportunities to enter this career?

I don't recommend starting as a freelance illustrator. If you get a job with a company, you can build contacts while learning the 'ins and outs' of the business. After a couple of years of experience, you can try working on your own.

What do you like about your job?

The thing I like most about this job is that you're constantly learning. There's so much information surrounding medicine and the human body, and so much research constantly underway, that you can never know everything. In fact, many of the jobs that I do are dealing with breakthroughs that have just been discovered from cutting edge research.

For me, freelancing means working to deadlines. Even though this means working like crazy when you're busy, you don't have to pretend to be busy when you're not.

I like having control over my hours. I can actually build my day around my life.

What do you dislike about your job?

There's not much I don't like about this job. As a freelancer, my one dislike would probably be spending most of the day working alone. There's a lack of collaboration, no people to bounce ideas off and a lack of social interaction, which you find in most workplaces.

What advice would you give to someone interested in your career?

Essentially, you have to be a curious person who thrives on learning. You've got to enjoy creating your own opportunities, especially as a freelancer. And you can't be afraid of self-promotion.

A day in the life

9:00 am - 10:30 am

Contacting clients to discuss current work. Mailing letters and samples of my work to potential clients.

10:30 am - 12:30 pm

Finishing a preliminary sketch of how arteries clog. Sending it off to the client for his or her feedback before making the final illustration.

12:30 pm - 1:00 pm


1:00 pm - 4:00 pm

Scanning the finished sketch into the computer. Cleaning up the illustration using a design program.

4:00 pm - 6:00 pm

Researching a new project by searching through medical textbooks and journals.

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