Cognition Studio, Inc.

strategic communications for life sciences

Utilizing a Rare Breed of Illustrator

November 1, 2008
By David Ehlert
David Ehlert's picture
Sat, 11/01/2008 - 00:00 -- David Ehlert

When you read “Medical Illustrator” what comes to mind?

There are many species of illustrators. Some specialize in advertising, entertainment, fashion and children’s books… to name a few. But one rare breed, known as a Medical Illustrator (MI), fuses art with medicine. At first blush, you may not know what MIs do, but you’ve likely seen their work in places such as a high school biology book, a drug or device advertisement in a magazine, perhaps a wall chart in your doctor’s office or even on television (e.g. CSI). At the core, a MI is a visual storyteller, beautifully depicting complex or never-before-seen information, breaking it down into an easy to understand illustration.

Brief Background

There are five accredited graduate programs in the U.S. and Canada that offer a degree in medical illustration. These programs blend courses of illustration technique, animation, and design with in-depth medical sciences such as gross human anatomy, neuroanatomy, pathophysiology, embryology, etc. Approximately 1,000 MIs world-wide belong to the Association of Medical Illustrators (AMI) and some of these members opt to take it to the next level and become a Certified Medical Illustrator (CMI)—a voluntary process involving a written exam and a separate, peer-based portfolio review. Being a CMI requires continuing education in the medical, art and business industries, which is paramount to stay at the forefront of innovation and maintain professional expertise. At present, there are 231 CMIs, making the rarest of this rare breed illustrator.

Utilizing a Medical Illustrator

MIs often serve the role of consultant to art directors and clients in developing the visual strategy for communicating complex medical, scientific and biological information. Retain MIs early in your project and look for these key traits to yield the best results: graduate education; pertinent industry expertise (e.g. academic, biotech, editorial, medical legal, pharmaceutical, etc); association memberships; certification; and awards. By doing your homework, you’ll work with MIs that add significant value to your team and provides solid visual solutions. To find MIs, possibly right in your backyard, visit, and click on the Member Directory link.

Note: the AMI web site will be vastly new and improved with a tentative launch date of early November, 2008. It’s a site worth visiting as it will afford you the opportunity to read a lot more about the industry, the artists and the opportunity to locate an MI that fits your specific need. Perhaps you’ll find yourself inclined to become an MI as well!

Experience Matters

Continual training, being research-oriented, and having an eye for detail truly lends itself to working with clients in hospitals, medical research, law firms, design firms, ad agencies and biotech companies. Serving each diverse industry demands specific skills, but the necessary training to become a MI provides artists with the expertise and confidence needed to formulate ideas and execute distinctive illustrations. Of course, being in a creative industry, personality and enthusiasm are also vital to ensure successful client relationships.

This article originally appeared in Media, Inc./Northwest Creative Showcase, Issue 6, 2007. Since its first appearance in Media, Inc., the number of certified medical illustrators dropped from 237 to 231.