Q&A: Medical Illustration & Design

Over the years, I’ve helped guide a number of individuals interested in pursuing medical illustration, biomedical communications, UX/UI design, or product design, specifically in the health tech space. Here are some answers to get you started. There are two main sections: on the origin of how I got into medical illustration, and on my transition from the graduate program in Biomedical Communications (BMC) to product design in digital health.

Please feel free to post a response if you have more specific questions!

Medical Illustration — Origin

Had you taken any other career paths before becoming a medical illustrator? How did you find out about medical illustration?

I started working in a research lab in my freshman year at UCLA, and never left. I moved from DNA purification and PCR, to small animal imaging and novel Positron Emission Tomography (PET) probe development. Six years later, as I was waiting for my PhD application status, I stumbled upon “medical illustration” while searching for information design by chance, and the rest was history. I spent 2 more years working in the biopharmaceutical industry as a drug discovery and oncology researcher, while working on my portfolio.

Why did you decide to become a medical illustrator? What did you do to pursue it?

I remember being awed by The Inner Life of the Cell while in the lab in 2006. It never occurred to me that creating a medical animation was a profession one could pursue, despite how I was the designated “person who drew in PowerPoint” for the lab. “Artist” and “illustrator” were unfamiliar terms.

The moment I realized I could combine both art and science for a career, I immediately signed up for foundational art classes at local community colleges, after building a spreadsheet comparing all the prerequisites and portfolio requirements from all the medical illustration programs (very scientific of me). I think the real reason just came down to pure passion — I always knew I had an affinity for art, but I completely neglected it.

It took me 2 years of night and weekend classes of figure drawing and painting to build a portfolio from scratch — it was a very humbling experience to step out of the lab and into an art studio for the first time. I also sought for advice from alumni that I could find on social media, and their input definitely helped set expectations. I finally quit my job at the bench, moved across the country to attend the Biomedical Communications (BMC) program at University of Toronto.

Where has your medical illustration path taken you? Share some of the interesting parts of your career or opportunities you’ve had.

My master’s research project was a scientific animation. Right after graduation, I moved back to Los Angeles to work as an in-house illustrator and designer at a neuro imaging institute at University of Southern California. A few months later, I went to a digital health hackathon in San Francisco for one weekend and fell in love with the vibrant drive and creativity in this space: I found tech, and experienced the same feeling I had when I found medical illustration.

Less than a year later, I took a similar leap, quit my job and moved north to Silicon Valley with nothing lined up. Through a very slow and occasionally painful process, I learned to leverage what I could do with my background in biomedical communications and life science to open the door into tech. I rebranded myself as a digital product designer with a focus in healthcare and science, after identifying transferrable skills I learned as an animator. I realized that animation and illustration could be much more powerful and effective if they were used as means to an end, in products that could reach a very large range of audience and users.

Illustration used for coach mark in FirstDerm’s tele-dermatology mobile application, showcasing how illustrations can be used as part of a digital product. © 2015 Andrew Q Tran

I worked at a young startup for a portable medical imaging technology. My biomedical background definitely helped with familiarizing myself with the technology, effectively communicating it to our physician users, and identifying our target markets. On the visual side of things, I worked on the mobile app user interface and illustrated for our investor pitch deck. I’m now currently working at a biotechnology-technology hybrid company, building tools to help scientists accelerate their research.

At the same time, I have been quietly operating Kandeo Studios to provide biomedical illustration and design services. With the training from BMC and knowledge from other AMI members, I was able to run a successful part-time business without having to actively market myself. Most of my clients come from my old biopharma network, and some actually found me from my website, despite my public narrative as a designer in tech. It’s been rewarding to be able to stay close to the latest scientific research breakthroughs and specially to help scientists or founders who are starting their labs or companies.

Transition from Biomedical Communications

In July 2016, I was invited to give a presentation on the role of medical illustration in digital health at the annual AMI meeting in Atlanta, Georgia. The purpose of the talk was to call for designers to join the healthcare space. I gave a brief overview of current and emerging trends and products that are transforming healthcare. Some of these products utilized medical illustration and animation. I shared my personal journey into the health tech industry as a product designer and showed that medical illustrators possess skills transferrable to product design.

Why this talk at the AMI? What propelled you to address your experiences?

There were a few reasons for this talk. Digital health technology is accelerating faster than ever, with more and more products and solutions being released directly to consumers. At the same time, this space desperately needs designers to help create usable and understandable products, from EMR systems to consumer-grade medical devices. I wanted to bring this to the AMI membership and hopefully send a message that medical illustration can go beyond marketing services to be part of a product.

At the same time, I was aware of several students and new graduates (and existing and previous AMI members) who are working on or curious about design for digital health. I wanted to share my story breaking into Silicon Valley and hoped that it could be helpful or inspirational. At a personal level, I always try to push the boundary of my comfort zone, so this was an opportunity for me to be on stage and share my ideas — not a very comfortable thing for me to do.

What motivates you? Or drives you to do what you are doing?

Doing something that leaves a lasting impact motivates me. With this in mind, I was pretty stubborn when I went knocking on the tech industry’s door. I insisted on contacting only companies working on health or science problems, and that limited the number of opportunities I could have. At the same time, I enjoy guiding and mentoring others who share similar passion and interests. I try to learn as much as I can from what I am doing, so I can share my experiences and empower others.

What did you learn from your talk at the AMI? Either from having gone through the process, or from the feedback you received?

I did a lot of research to prepare for my talk — I wanted it to be relevant to the AMI membership, and I also needed to know what I was talking about. I barely started my first tech job when my presentation was accepted, so it was quite the learning experience for me the next few months. I reached out to current and past AMI members who worked as or worked with designers and medical illustrators. I had also talked with quite a number of digital health companies when I was looking for jobs.

During this process, as I learned more about the role of a product designer, I noticed a growing trend in product illustration for general tech products, paving the way for medical illustration to be in digital health product. After the talk, I got some great feedback from AMI members and students. It was rewarding to learn about their excitement when they recognized the transferrable skills medical illustrators have.

How has BMC helped you for your ventures after graduation? What would you like to see implemented at BMC in the future?

I completely give BMC all the credit for introducing me to design. I had some experience in web design prior to BMC, but I never learned about UX/UI design. Even then, I chose to create an animation for my master’s research project, with the naive belief that I already had some affinity for design so it would be beneficial to learn something completely new. The MRP, and various courses throughout BMC, taught me how I could learn anything fast and gave me the confidence to do so. The diversity of experiences (and obsessions) from faculty members also helped guide me towards my goals, even when I hadn’t fully defined them. I embrace being a generalist, and BMC gave me the tools to do that.

I am not familiar with the current curriculum, but I would love to see these implementations at BMC. Interdisciplinary collaboration: my first foray into tech was a hackathon event where I participated with a group of computer science students as their designer. These collaborations can help students see their values in a group setting, be confident with what they can contribute, and give them clarity in what they want to focus on. Diverse guest speakers or lecturers: I think it would be very beneficial to students to hear from those who are not working in the traditional “medical illustration” scene. We know biomedical communications is so much more, and students can learn from others outside of the field.

As an international student in the BMC program who went back to the States, what takeaway points were you able to bring back from the program? Did you find your experience in certain skills more pertinent than others?

There were skills unique to the BMC program that I wouldn’t have been exposed to, had I chosen to attend another graduate program. From a personal perspective, I think BMC has high standards in design, both in visual design and design thinking, and in animation, both production quality and technical competence. These standards are driven by the talented and diverse faculty, competitive student cohorts, and a relatively high number of local studios and agencies. I am definitely proud of my leaderlines.

I also think BMC has a strong research background (again, driven by the faculty). However, these are not experiences specific to my being an international student, which is a completely different story. Being an international student meant having higher international expenses, which led me to be more proactive and creative in finding money. I guess that’s a skill — I now can identify opportunities fast and act on them.

Any advice for anyone (or BMC alumni, new grads) who wants to get into healthcare startup?

Here are some things I’ve learned in the process, by trial/error and formal/informal mentorship. Identify what you want to do and what you can contribute. One great way to know this is to participate in a hackathon to get a feel of what it’s like to be on a team working towards a tech product or prototype. Knowing why you want to do it helps give you the grit to keep trying. Be open-minded and leverage your past experiences, even when they are not directly related to the role. Reorganize your portfolio so that it’s relevant for healthcare startups (and not studios). Brush up your skills by working on a side project, watching tutorials, or taking a course or two.

Reach out to people who you think have walked the same path, and join communities (Meetups, Facebook groups, LinkedIn groups) to get support, mentorship, and exposure to current trends and opportunities. Look for opportunities on startup job syndicates (Angel’s List, RockHealth, etc.) and just apply, even when you’re not completely ready — there are many opportunities out there, so don’t succumb to FOMO. Job applications and interviews will help you learn what people are looking for in this space, and don’t hesitate to change your narrative over time.

Young startups tend to look for generalists who can wear many hats with a small team, so don’t hesitate to show what you can do (but be clear on what you want to do). One thing about startups in general though: be careful with accepting equity as a form of payment, as they might not mean much. But, if you’re just starting out, it’s always a good opportunity to learn and grow, whether well paid or not. The great thing about being a medical illustrator is that you can always freelance on the side to generate some income during the transition.