Q&A with Medical Illustrator Annie Campbell

AUG 22, 2019

Annie Campbell is a medical illustrator, animator, and creative studio director based in Glasgow, UK. In this interview, she explains her experience with a unique career that makes the most of both artistry and science communication.

Annie Campbell, Director at Campbell Medical Illustration (Source: Annie Campbell)

Q: Describe your job! What does it mean to be a medical illustrator? What types of projects do you work on?

I currently run my own creative studio called Campbell Medical Illustration and we are made up of a team of full-time and freelance tech savvy illustrators and designers—all with a Master’s degree in scientific communication.

Our clients mainly consist of companies or individuals from the healthcare or pharmaceutical industries. We help them explain their technology, research or drug to their audiences in the form of captivating animations or engaging illustrations and diagrams. Because of our medical background and design training, we can have conversations with content experts and are able to understand the medical lingo and terminology in order to marry the world of art and science.

Currently, we are working on a series of educational videos for a client whose company focuses on helping nurses train for their exams. Within this project, we incorporate motion graphics and medical animations to really engage their viewers and make some of more complex topics more easier to digest. We also have another couple of projects where we are creating a series of surgical illustrations to describe a surgical procedure using a particular technique or device. Once we’ve got that signed off, then we’ll move on to creating 3D animations of the procedures so that the surgical steps can be seen in motion.

Q: How did you become interested in medical illustration?

I got into the field around 12 years ago. I’ve always had an interest in art and design, but was swayed from going to art school when I was younger. I think my parents were worried that I wouldn’t have been able to get a job with an art degree— I was the first in my family to go to a university, so I totally understand where they were coming from. Because of that, I decided to go down a science route and did an undergraduate degree in neuroscience. When I graduated with a science degree, I had no idea what my next steps were—I was lost when it came to finding jobs.

It was a pretty difficult time in my life and I felt like I was barely treading water. Knowing of my love for art, my best friend suggested that I look into the field of medical illustration. She encouraged me to look at all of the schools that offered a graduate program in medical illustration. I ended up attending the Biomedical Visualization Master’s program at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) for two years. That’s when it all clicked and everything fell into place. I was enjoying what I was learning and practicing, and I felt like I did it well. Ever since then, I’ve been working my whole career as some form of medical illustrator or animator.

Q: What is your favorite part about your job?

My favorite part about my job is definitely the work that I get to do. I love the creative part and the challenge of developing informational graphics. I’m always learning new things within the world of science, and also in the world of art and design. To learn an animation technique and create something from scratch is really satisfying and rewarding.

Q: What is your least favorite part about your job?

I wouldn’t say that there is a least favorite part about my job. I’m very lucky to have found a niche career that excites me and makes my day-to-day feel like an adventure. There are challenges that do crop up, now that I’m the boss of my own company. The amount of time I get to create is reduced because I need to focus on admin, invoices, project management and spearheading the company so that we are moving in the right direction. It might seem like a downside of running my own business but I find it very rewarding because I can now bring on a team of amazing artists to work with me. Here my role is to provide guidance, encouragement, and art direction to my team so that we can create beautiful visualizations together.

Q: Tell me about Campbell Medical Illustration. How did you get started?

When I left my graduate course, I started working for a medical communications studio in New York. It was a great experience and I felt that I learned so much about our industry and business that contributed to where I am today.

Both my husband and I are from the UK and my work visa had a time limit. As part of my move back to the UK, I set up my own freelance practice, in case I couldn’t find work as a medical illustrator in Scotland. That’s how Campbell Medical Illustration started— as a side hustle five years ago. ​ Luckily, I did land full time jobs as a medical illustrator in Scotland. It was a good experience, but part of me felt that we could have been doing more within the companies that I worked for. In 2017, I took a leap into the full-time freelance life and ended up working for some amazing clients. At first, I was content on being a company of one, but projects kept coming in and so I decided to create a limited company, hiring my first employee in 2018. Since then we’ve been working together, alongside a couple of freelance artists, and we just celebrated our first year business anniversary.

One of Campbell Medical Illustration's works for website launch of Entrada Therapeutics (Source: Campbell Medical Illustration)

Q: Describe the process it takes to complete a project, from beginning to end.

We usually get client inquiries via our website or through referrals. We’ll sit down with them to go over their project needs, budget, and timelines. If we’re able to meet all of those requirements then we schedule a production milestone schedule and begin work.

Our process is more or less broken down into three review stages: a rough sketch, followed by a refined sketch, and then a final illustration. We’ve found that these review stages keep the production measured, as well as allow our clients enough opportunity to provide their valued feedback— it is a collaboration, after all. Once we’ve brought the content to a place that we all want it to be, we package the materials and deliver it to our clients.

Q: What's your educational background?

I have a BSc in neuroscience from the University of Glasgow and an MSc in biomedical visualization from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). I also have some art credits from Carnodald College in Glasgow, which helped me apply for the UIC graduate program.

Q: What educational background does it take to become a medical illustrator?

The important thing we need to have is the science training; that’s our specialty and is part of the value we bring to our projects. If you find that you’re missing the science training, then you can get this through schooling.

Secondly, we need to have the creative training and be able to convey complex science into beautiful and engaging visuals. Understanding the fundamentals of art and design is key. Then, there’s visualization techniques that you can read about or learn through school.

Thirdly, we need to keep up to date with industry best practices, such as how we structure our files, how we use real MRI data to create visuals, what our production pipelines look like, etc. This can be achieved by attending conferences and workshops, keeping an eye on what’s happening in social media and websites of industry leaders, following and connecting with other professionals in the field, and regularly chatting with them.

There are a lot of undergraduate and graduate courses in medical illustration. Those who are earlier in their educational journey might wish to look at these first. If you’re late stage in your career but are still interested in entering the field, then it’s still possible to shift your career path. Again, the number one thing is having the science background— the rest you can learn on your own through online resources or local classes. I would definitely encourage anyone who is interested in the field to reach out to people who already work in the field. Get different opinions, learn and observe from them, and you’ll find that more doors and resources will be opened to you.

I get a lot of questions about getting into the field. As a response to this, I co-founded a free online resource called SciArtNOW, a hub for all things medical illustration.

Q: Did you find anything particularly surprising during your years of experience?

Yes. When I was younger I was terribly shy. I hated speaking, never mind public speaking, and didn’t really know how to articulate myself well at all. I remember meeting so many people in my life who just seemed to have this wonderful knack of talking. It took me a long time to realize that this is a skill that I needed to practice. If you had asked me 10 years ago if I would be able to present to clients or run a workshop, I would have nervously laughed in your face. But, throughout the years, I’ve forced myself to step out of my comfort zone to do more public speaking engagements, lectures, and workshops. Even my experience as a freelancer helped, because I was forced to sell my skills in order to land work. It all came down to practice and learning from mistakes. I still get nervous but at least I know that I can talk now.

Follow Campbell Medical Illustration’s progress on their website and follow them on social media for more day-to-day content!