David Ehlert talks about his career as a Medical Illustrator.  Find him at www.cognitionstudio.com and on his Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview.

What do you do for a living?

I’m a certified medical illustrator and Co-Owner / Director of Illustration at Cognition Studio, Inc. in Seattle, WA.

How would you describe what you do?

As a certified medical illustrator, I’m bringing visual meaning and understanding to complex concepts for the biomedical community. I enjoy the process of discovering and unraveling each project’s story and then accurately illustrating and visually communicating those findings.

What does your work entail?

At present, the work I do relies on 15+ years of industry experience in academic and commercial practice not including graduate training from an accredited program. This background serves as the critical foundation needed to efficiently ascertain the message, meaning and purpose of any project before doing final visualizations. With this info in hand, work usually proceeds with an arsenal of the following ever growing skill sets: curiosity, an open mind, listening, asking questions (especially Why?), project management, time management, research, conceptualization, color theory, composition, communication, humility, perseverance, patience, dedication and gratitude.

What’s a typical work week like?

Any given week can take me on a magnificent journey from the surface of the brain to the microenvironment of a lymph node. There are days steeped in researching disease, studying surgical procedures, and comprehending biomedical innovation in the making. These scenarios afford me an opportunity to converse freely with C-suite, surgeons, researchers, scientists and attorneys, to name a few. Generating and reviewing numerous concept sketches before finalizing illustrations is typical, as well as attending client and team meetings, staying on top of the business side of Cognition Studio with my partner, looking to the future, and remembering to enjoy the day, exercise, and eat right.

How did you get started?

While I could tell you about where I went to school, where my first job was, and so forth, I think this question begs for the catalyst to go into this line of work. We all have that story and mine began circa 1990, where I was steeped in 3DTV: drawing, daydreaming, dating, and watching TV, especially Jacques Cousteau on PBS. The latter gave a glimpse to a career that served as a spark that lead to a parallel career that began my lifelong pursuit. I initially had a desire to be a marine biologist like Jacques Cousteau, but while watching his show on PBS one day, there was an artist aboard his ship drawing their undersea discoveries. This turned out to be a scientific illustrator, and while I had never heard of this before, I knew it was unique. Sadly, the precision and vastness of biology was daunting enough to have me second guess my interest in pursuing this career. I recall mentioning this cool finding to my mother, an epidemiologist, during dinner. Coincidence or not, shortly thereafter she saw a mural in the cardiac wing of a hospital she worked at and told me about it in great detail. Based on my bewildered expression and exhausting line of questioning she couldn’t answer, she felt it would be worth her sanity to find out who did the work and speak directly with that artist. Shortly thereafter, I found myself chatting in the home studio of Scott Barrows, world renowned medical illustrator, that lived in the same area as I did. Scott showed me samples of his work and his artistic process (e.g., pencil, pen and ink, air brushing, etc). I asked Scott what were likely some of the oddest and incredibly ill-formed teenager questions, and he probably caught me daydreaming there on the spot. Regardless, this was the catalyst because Scott was patient with me, laughed a lot (at me, I’m sure), and served as the ultimate (pre-Google-guide) for what I needed to do to become a medical illustrator — the perfect blend of medicine and art.

What do you like about what you do?

The process that leads to creating a finished illustration (read What does your work entail? listed above).

What do you dislike?

This career does mean that there are times I am away from drawing for days on end while doing research, meeting, or non-illustration-based projects. This can be quite frustrating.

How do you make money/or how are you compensated?

As the Director of Illustration at Cognition Studio, I ensure the biomedical community wants to work with us time and time again as well as recommend us to others. This is done by providing consistent, reliable, and accurately illustrated solutions with the utmost courtesy to the client in the process.

To directly answer the question, creating a contractual agreement between us and the client is the critical first step to ensure both parties know what is requested of the other. Agreed upon invoicing before, during, and immediately after a project ensures compensation is timely. Lastly, gratitude goes a long way to show the client we sincerely appreciate the opportunity to be a part of their team.

To speak about billing hourly, it’s important to know what that means. In fact, I don’t like to call it an hourly rate, but a value rate (and I’m not alone in this line of thinking). Knowing what to charge—your value rate—or what you/the project is worth, is essential to survival. Being comfortable talking money is critical which means you have to do some homework and put your business hat on, especially if you run your own business. This includes an awareness of what it costs to stay in business (aka overhead), type of work to be done, complexity, licensing of the work, and of course your reputation as an artist. This becomes a formula, for better use of a word, that is unique to each individual/company with value as the common denominator.

Okay, on to the question at hand. I’m sure medical illustrators bill hourly, but I wouldn’t say all. There are instances where this format will occur for rush projects, ongoing/multiple projects, or projects that were billed as a fixed fee that slide out of scope. Speaking of fixed fee, medical illustrators may see their value as an industry expert/team asset and bill by the project rather than hourly. Benefits of this format include value-based pricing and perceived value in the client’s mind, to name a few. Lastly, there may be medical illustrators that are on retainer which has an agreed upon weekly/monthly number of billable hours that is guaranteed income and is usually founded on a trusted relationship. The key point comes back to your value rate as I mentioned above. Regardless, at the root level, each scenario generally takes a value rate into account.

How much money do you make as a Medical Illustrator?

While this isn’t a direct answer, I earn enough to help take care of our business and life needs.

Income can vary based on experience level, type of work (e.g., illustration, animation, modeling, creative or art director, faculty, etc.), sector of work/type of employer (e.g., academic, institutional, corporate, government, etc.), demographics (location, location, location), business savviness, and the state of the economy. That said, this is a difficult question to answer. On average, someone in this industry that falls under the general blanket term “medical illustration” can earn anywhere from $50k to well over $100k, but I would put the median around $60k – $65k to be safe.

How much money did you make starting out as an Medical Illustrator?

My first job was at the Biomedical Communication unit at St. Louis University. I made $28,800 plus benefits. Mind you, I was working in academia, cost of living was low in St. Louis, and it was 3Q 1997. That said, in reference to the previous question, location (demographics), job field (academia vs commercial), and the economy all factor into this financial equation. If this starting salary was for an academic facility in San Francisco, I would have expected this starting salary to be much higher to balance the cost of living. Hope that makes sense.

What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?

I can only speak specifically to my career path, but there are other ways to arrive here.  I have a Master of Associated Medical Sciences from the University of Illinois (UIC) at Chicago’s Biomedical Visualization (BVis) program. This is an intensive, two year graduate program that helped provide the core skills I needed to go out and become a medical illustrator. Beyond this, a drive to constantly learn and create serve me well. Regardless of how you get here, you have to be able to draw well because this is how you communicate, and be efficient at working in various software applications (e.g., Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator) pertinent to your specific needs is a must.

What is most challenging about what you do?

Embarking on a new project that I have never done before, but really want to do.

What is most rewarding?

Succeeding on that new project and landing additional project opportunities as a result of it.

What advice would you offer someone considering this career?

Talk with medical illustrators, medical animators, etc. in your area. Meet them in person. Tour their studio. If you’re near a graduate school like UIC, then call and ask to tour their program. You can find out more about this career and programs at http://www.ami.org .

How much time off do you get/take?

When you run your own business, time off is what you make of it. We don’t accumulate vacation, personal holidays, or sick leave, but our employees do. When opportunity for continuing education presents itself, we take it. For instance, just this past year, I have attended a Creative Leadership Academy (CLA) in Arizona and my business partner and I just returned from TedMed in Washington, D.C.

What is a common misconception people have about what you do?

That’s probably the random individual that perceives what I do is just drawing. Medical Illustration is so much more than that. However there are days where I wish it was more drawing as I mentioned in What I dislike? listed above.

What are your goals/dreams for the future?

To continue honing my abilities to communicate better is a daily goal.  An additional goal is spending quality time improving my hand-eye coordination by attending an atelier program.  Lastly, a dream is to continue waking up each day enjoying what I do.

What else would you like people to know about your job/career?

If you find yourself looking at the world through a magnifying lens, like to see things with those blue/red 3D specs on, and have an active imagination that aligns with Max from Where the Wild Things Are, then this is a perfectly good career to set your sights on. At least, that’s what I think.