Kendall has designs on medical illustration


Students combine their artistic talents and medical knowledge to produce illustrations for use in the human and animal medical fields, as well as the legal and pharmaceutical industries. Courtesy KCAD

More than 500 years after Leonardo da Vinci drew his seminal “Vitruvian Man,” the intimate relationship between science and art continues to be a point of emphasis for students at Kendall College of Art and Design.

And as of 2012, students have had the opportunity to obtain a degree that blends the two fields even further.

With the introduction of the medical illustration program, Kendall College of Art and Design is at the forefront of a high-demand specialized industry. The brainchild of illustration program chair Jon McDonald, the program initially began in response to the completion of Michigan State University College of Human Medicine’s expansion into Grand Rapids.

McDonald asked assistant professor David Gianfredi and then-dean Max Shangle to work on creating the program. After several years of getting permission from various institutions and designing and outlining the course, KCAD’s medical illustration program was green-lighted and accredited.

“It was really sort of a Cinderella moment for us because everything clicked, one after another,” said Gianfredi, now the medical illustration program chair. “It was like, this thing didn’t exist, but it’s going to exist now.”

The program is one of a kind in the region — in the research stage, Gianfredi found just 12 programs similar to the one KCAD wanted to create in North America. It is tailored toward drawing human anatomy, and is described as “one part art, one part science and one part communication.”

There are about 45 students currently enrolled in the medical illustration program. They study traditional drawing methods, traditional and digital hybrids, all-digital illustrations, 2-D animation and 3-D modeling, but they also learn biology, medical terminology and anatomy.

Students are required to maintain a B grade or better in the medical courses to stay in the program.

The biggest difference in the medical illustration designation is the importance placed on accuracy rather than artist interpretation.

“We look for a very particular kind of student because creative people are generally not science-minded folk,” Gianfredi said. “There’s no low hanging fruit. We’re looking for a very particular type of student with one foot in each camp — because the sciences are not easy, but they also have to have the creative mind to take all that science and data and put it into a visual construct.”

The three-year program is an exercise in collaboration between KCAD, Ferris State University, Grand Rapids Community College and Michigan State University. Students begin with studio classes at KCAD in the first semester, gradually building their illustration skills until their final year in the program.

At Ferris or GRCC, students take biology and medical terminology courses, and at MSU, they’ll take histology and gross anatomy classes, with instructors also teaching some illustration classes on certain topics.

The partnership with MSU is a symbiotic one. Not only do KCAD students have access to resources and experts at MSU College of Human Medicine, but MSU’s teaching hospital reaps the benefits of having an arsenal of skilled illustrators at its disposal — allowing for quick turnaround on free medical drawings tailored to the needs of the hospital.

Additionally, medical illustration students have access to MSU’s cadaver lab, setting KCAD’s program apart from similar programs across the nation.

In the professional field, medical illustrators are called upon by anyone from pharmaceutical companies and medical researchers to attorneys and veterinarians.

The Association of Medical Illustrators lists the median salary for a medical illustrator at $62,000 a year and can range up to $100,000. Supervisory and creative director roles can earn a median salary of $85,000 and up to $175,000, according to 2013 survey data by the AMI.

Additionally, about 46 percent of salaried illustrators do freelance work to supplement their income.

“It is a very rigorous program,” Gianfredi said. “It’s not for everybody, and we do occasionally have students drop out. But for the most part, they know what they’re getting into and they keep their eye on the prize. They know what’s at stake.”

Gianfredi added that, even though the medical illustration program is only in its fourth year, he’s receiving calls from all over — from Florida to California and even Ontario — inquiring about the program.

“This program is really putting Kendall on the map in a different way than it ever has before,” he said. “It’s opened up a whole new professional field to Kendall.”

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