Recently I had the pleasure of attending the annual Association of Medical Illustrators (AMI) conference in Austin, Texas. As an alumna of the Master of Science in Biomedical Communications program at the University of Toronto—one of only four accredited graduate programs in the field—I am well versed in the many applications of this little-known discipline. Yet even I found myself surprised by the variety of speakers featured at last week’s event, and delighted by the insights that each brought to the group of nearly 400 attendees.

Let’s start with the basics: what is a medical illustrator? In short, the term describes someone who is highly trained in both biomedical science and visual art. Medical illustrators might produce didactic images for science textbooks, instructional drawings for surgeons, or information graphics for magazines like Scientific American. They may just as likely work in non-static media, creating animations for pharmaceutical companies or interactive applications for medical students. They might even sculpt prosthetics for amputees or make digital 3D models for virtual anatomy dissection. When you start to consider all of the ways in which medical science and visual media can overlap, it becomes clear that medical illustrators are everywhere.

A classic first-year assignment for a medical illustration student: a textbook-style depiction of a human hip bone, rendered in an obscure medium called carbon dust.
Credit: Amanda Montañez

So what would one expect to learn at a medical illustration conference? Well, for example, the Austin meeting featured a doctor who lectured on some elements of heart anatomy that are often depicted inaccurately in illustrations; a medical-legal illustrator whose work has helped personal injury plaintiffs win seven-figure cases; and a professor who described a creative way of teaching biology students to interpret microscopic tissue sections.

Then there were the things I didn’t necessarily expect to hear about: Star Wars characters; bat conservation; the 1970s-era computer game Oregon Trail. Where does all this fit in?

First, let me tell you about the keynote speaker, who has what I’m fairly certain is the coolest job on the planet. Terryl Whitlatch is a vertebrate zoologist who creates characters—usually animals, either real or imaginary—for a wide variety of media, from movies to coloring books and greeting cards. Her official title is Creature Designer. (Incidentally, one of her most famous creations is Jar Jar Binks from Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace.)

Credit: Terryl Whitlatch

While Whitlatch’s talk was inherently fascinating, I found it was also eminently applicable to medical illustrators. Much of the work in this field involves taking something intimidatingly complex or even off-putting—a cellular process, for example, or a cadaver dissection—and making it accessible without compromising accuracy. Whitlatch does not deal in photorealism (although her draftsmanship certainly affords it); rather, she uses her deep scientific knowledge of vertebrate anatomy to draw creatures that are true to life in the important ways that make them believable, yet friendlier than they could ever be in the real world. In essence, what Whitlatch achieves so elegantly for a crocodile, a medical illustrator might do for a gory heart surgery.

Another exceptional talk was delivered by Merlin Tuttle, a bat conservationist whose passion for flying mammals made his presentation equally heartstring-pulling and educational. Tuttle’s mission is to abolish the public perception of bats as scary, disease-ridden, and otherwise unsavory animals. To convert wary strangers into fellow bat lovers, Tuttle rejects straightforward didactic approaches in favor of more personalized, community-centered methods. He leverages what he knows about a given audience to educate them in a way that feels more interactive and less combative.

Tuttle’s talk seemed especially relevant to Austin, where the underside of the Congress Avenue Bridge houses an estimated 1.5 million bats, seen here venturing out to catch their dinner.
Credit: Amanda Montañez

In many ways, Tuttle’s methodology echoes what medical illustrators strive to do, especially in the context of educational applications. For example, how do you effectively teach recalcitrant parents about why they should vaccinate their children? What does it take to make high school students not only learn about the circulatory system, but actually engage with the material enough to retain it? Visualization is often key to such challenges, but much more than drawing ability, an understanding of community-centered design is crucial. A medical illustrator must research her audience, and then formulate creative ways to not only feed them information, but actually influence their behavior—all without alienating or boring them. It is a process that Merlin Tuttle has mastered remarkably well, to the benefit of many a winged rodent.

In another potentially unexpected application of medical illustration, the conference featured two different presenters who spoke about game design. (And to everyone’s delight, both referenced Oregon Trail in their presentations.) Sam Bond explained the foundations of game-based learning theory, which can help medical illustrators to engage and instruct their audience more effectively. In a related talk on what makes a good educational game, Brendan Polley invoked audience participation to drive home the importance non-linear, interactive teaching methods. 

Neither of these talks focused on science or visualization, per se, yet they addressed the professional objectives of many medical illustrators, especially those working in interactive media. In a context such as patient compliance or medical app design, visualization is just one layer of skill required. The rest is about developing tools that support users’ needs and guide them towards a goal while allowing them to retain agency throughout the process, just as game designers do.

The breadth of topics covered at last week’s conference expands further yet, from Nick Klein and Russ Adams’ introduction to virtual reality production techniques, to Kecia Thomas’ instructive discussion of diversity and inclusion in the workplace. As I reflect on my experience in Austin, I am struck by this interesting dichotomy: When I explain to a new acquaintance what medical illustration is, the response is often something like “Wow, that’s really specific!” Yet, a career in this field can mean so many things, and the disciplines that overlap with it are much more varied than one might expect. 

You can check out the AMI website for more on medical illustration and this year’s conference.