Wendy Hiller Gee is a Certified Medical Illustrator who holds an M.A. in Medical Illustration from the University of Texas Southwestern Graduate School and a B.A. in Fine Art from San Jose State University. With much of her career focused on patient education, she loves the challenge of solving visual problems and creating artwork that tells a story or explains processes for patient understanding. It was my pleasure to interview Wendy on her illustration work, her current role as President of the Association of Medical Illustrators, as well as the upcoming 72nd annual AMI conference in Austin, Texas.
Tell us a bit about yourself, and how you decided on a career in medical illustration.
My background started with a Fine Art undergraduate degree, which of course led to me working in a completely unrelated field after graduation. I discovered medical illustration by accident one day after stumbling across an article about a local exhibit of medical illustration. There was one image in particular showing a closeup of an eye with conjunctivitis which made the lightbulb in my head go on, and I thought holy smokes! This is what I want to do! So I spent a few years working on my portfolio and science requirements, and applied to graduate school.
As President of the AMI, what does your role entail?
As President, I am the public-facing voice of the AMI which means I take every opportunity I can to represent our Association externally. The Chair of the Board of Governors and I work very closely together to make sure our organization is making progress in meeting its strategic goals. I have also been fortunate enough to participate in two rounds of five-year strategic planning which give our activities their focus.
I've worked in pharmacy for over 25 years, so I see prime examples of medical illustration in effective use everywhere. Are there any unique examples of medical illustration that you have seen in recent years? Anything especially exciting?
Because most of my career has been in patient education, I find myself particularly attracted to images or approaches that work well in that arena. There's been ongoing work with using storytelling images almost in comic-book format using little or no text to instruct patients about how to do self-care things like use a walker or inject insulin. It's surprisingly difficult to make instructional images with no supporting text - and it's awesome finding something that really works well.
Using a metered-dose inhaler with a spacer, Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop. © The StayWell Company
How has the AMI grown since its start in 1945? How many members are currently in the AMI?
The charter membership of the Association was about 55 illustrators in 1945. Today our membership is around 825, of which 144 are student members.
What do you consider to be the biggest benefits of being in the AMI?
I'm a strong believer in the power of a professional organization to further one's career. I would never have imagined as a student the ways in which the AMI has shaped and influenced my career - and also my personal life. I've had opportunities to learn and to take on leadership challenges, I've discovered the power of peer networking to help with everything from work policies to staffing, and I've even been approached to provide illustration work as a direct result of being in AMI leadership. I've also made some fantastic, life-long friends (who fully understand my predilection for decorating my house with skulls and bones).
The AMI annual conference is going to be in Austin, Texas in July of this year. It was in my backyard in Cleveland in 2015, but hasn't been in Austin since 2002. What influences decisions on where to hold the annual meetings?
Our meetings are generally located in an area where there is a medical center or university which can help provide some of the resources we need such as workshop locations and speakers. We also like to meet where there are local medical illustrators to help with the meeting planning. We try to move to different locations around North America over time to make travel more equitable for our widely-dispersed membership, and also to have the fun of exploring different cities. And, of course, keeping costs low is a major consideration.
Can you tell us a bit about the annual conference? Is there anything especially new and exciting planned for this year that you can tell us about?
We're so excited to be back in Austin for our annual meeting - we're of course looking forward to seeing the bats at the bridge! Our meeting format has gone to mostly TED-style talks, so we're able to pack in a lot of fascinating information. This year, our keynote speaker is Terryl Whitlatch, who is a creature and concept designer for major film studios. We'll also have fantastic presentations on business practices, science, and a tech showcase which highlights techniques and technology in a small-group setting. And there will be plenty of time for networking!
I'm sure plenty of artists out there don't necessarily even think of medical illustration as a career. Does the AMI do outreach to provide info to students?
Yes, the AMI has an active Membership committee which is always looking for ways to get information about the profession out to prospective students. We also welcome anyone doing medical illustration, no matter what their educational background, to join the AMI and enjoy the benefits of continuing education and the potential for becoming a Certified Medical Illustrator (CMI).
What would you tell someone interested in becoming a medical illustrator? What first things should they consider?
The first thing is to map out a preparation plan that equally includes rigorous art training as well as a wide range of science coursework. It's vital for medical illustrators to have highly developed art skills including drawing, sketching, composition, and color theory, even if they plan to concentrate in 3D modeling/animation. They also need as much science coursework as possible to be able to effectively communicate with our clientele. The most effective path to entering the profession is to plan on attending an accredited graduate program in medical illustration - the curricula, opportunities, and networking are fantastic preparation for this career.
Tell us a bit about your own work. Is there a particular type or area of medical illustration you really enjoy? What do you feel is your favorite, or most important work?
Most of my career has been in developing patient education materials. I've done medical illustration for other uses, but I really love the challenge of creating graphics for the patient population. There needs to be a focus on distilling key messages into artwork that tells a particular story and hopefully inspires positive behavior or enhances learning. Besides doing art myself over the years, I've also had the pleasure of art directing other medical illustrators, and being creative director for all our self-produced images, including photography.
Male pelvic anatomy, Photoshop. © The StayWell Company
What do you like most about what you do?
You'll hear this often from medical illustrators - and I'm no different: I love it that every day I'm learning something new, and I'm continually challenged. I don't always create art myself every day, but I'm involved with images in one way or another and I'm very involved in the underlying content message of each. I love solving visual problems and making decisions about telling stories with images, especially medical illustrations.
Is there a particular example of where you most felt the impact of the work you do?
We solicit end-user feedback about our products, and it is always inspiring to find out when a particular image has made a positive difference with the kind of person it was intended for. Positive feedback like that is great - but I'll also say that negative feedback can be just as inspiring. I love having any information from our target audience that can help us craft our visual messages more effectively.
What do you consider to be highlights of your career thus far?
I had two years of self-employment which were a wonderful opportunity for professional growth. I've particularly enjoyed the leadership opportunities I've had at my current job, and have really loved working with the talented people in my department. It's actually really fun to partner with them as they create illustrations and animations, and also to support them in their career growth.
Fish tattoo design, graphite on paper. © Wendy Hiller Gee
Do you have any goals for the future, or a dream project you'd love to take on?
My career is not over yet, but my retirement years are on the horizon... A dream project in my current position is to completely overhaul our 3D style and creative direct it specifically for some of the approaches we're taking in patient education. I'd love to have that creative challenge. In retirement in several years, I'd love to get back into producing fine art, mostly drawing but possibly printmaking. And I'd love to learn more about natural history and how to create skeletal preparations.
When not hard at work, what do you enjoy doing?
I'll confess that one of the activities I enjoy most is hanging out with my delightful pug - he's a riot! I also have been trying my hand at some tattoo design, and have a few in the works for friends and a couple which have been inked. I also have a fascination for how eyes are used in art, and I collect images at www.cerebral-animal.tumblr.com - look carefully and you'll find an image or two of mine!