Illustrating anatomy is no easy task. The goal is to make each image engaging, interesting, clear, and hopefully beautiful. Erin Garvey, the Director of Medical Illustration at Emmi, describes her job as breaking down complex information so it’s easily digestible for patients. It turns out, what you don’t see is even more important than what you do see. A huge part of her job is deciding what to leave out.
The process begins with research. Lots of it. “The amount of research isn’t different than if I was illustrating a medical textbook,” Erin says. “I do as much as possible to understand all the details. Then it’s easier to say, well, this isn’t important for a patient.”
It’s vital to keep the audience in mind. Erin and Jen Kincaid, another Emmi medical illustrator, carefully consider who will be viewing their art. The intended audience impacts the decisions they make about what to show and how to show it. “When you do things for surgeons, a lot of times, it’s a lot of diagrams that only they would understand, because you’ve simplified it down to very specific techniques and you’re showing things very diagrammatically,” Jen explains. “Whereas, when you do things for an average person, you have to put a little more into it. Make it more engaging, interesting. You have to give things a setting. You can’t just show one specific area.”
Though accuracy is crucial, there’s still room for creativity. “When you do art for patients, it’s like your images are telling a story,” Jen says. “You’re clarifying, but you’re also engaging an emotion.”
For surgical prep programs, the story is the before, during, and after. We want patients to feel calmer and more relaxed because they understand their body, what’s wrong, and how surgery will address it. It works because “Emmi explains the why for everything,” Erin says. “Everything from NPO (why your doctor doesn’t want you to eat before surgery), to how the muscles around the hip help stabilize it to explain physical therapy.”
The Emmi art team also tackles some very challenging subjects. Sometimes the things that go wrong in the body are terrifying. For example, with an abdominal aortic aneurism, there’s a risk the largest blood vessel in the body could rupture. No one wants to watch that happen. Instead, the art team used a metaphor (a garden hose). This lets patients focus on understanding the concept, without inducing too much anxiety.
The art team are masters at putting on their “patient goggles” to think about how an image will make viewers feel. They use realistic figures for step-by-step procedures (like changing an ostomy bag) to help patients identify with the drawings. Viewers see a real person doing it, and think, “Hey, this isn’t so bad. I can do that too.”
However, sometimes the art team doesn’t want viewers thinking about other people. They want them thinking about their own thoughts and preferences. In these cases, the artists switch to silhouettes, which are easier to identify with. For example, a woman standing at the intersection of a lumpectomy or mastectomy for breast cancer has a tough, personal choice to make. That choice comes down to each individual woman’s thoughts, feelings, and wishes. It’s easy to put yourself in place of the silhouette, so you can really focus on your own choice.
Though “beauty” may not be one of the first words that leaps to mind when you think of a tumor, hemorrhoid, or ostomy bag, there’s a psychology behind the colors the team uses. Mike Garvey, Emmi’s Art Director, uses a rendering style based on the principles of French Neutral, an oil painting technique. With this, every color in the palette has a little bit of the base color in it. This looks nice, but more importantly creates a sense of harmony. Everything feels like it goes together, even if the subject is a bit off-putting.
Whether the task is to educate, engage, change behavior, or facilitate a decision, the Emmi art team is there to support it and improve health literacy. “It inspires people when they know about their body.” Jen says. “It inspires better behavior. Most people, even if they think it’s gross, have an innate interest.”
The team is truly passionate about the work they do. “It may not be as glamorous as the entertainment industry,” Mike says, “but it’s far more impactful and it has far more potential to help the world in general.”
Dani Alcorn is a health writer at Emmi where she creates programs that turn overwhelming medical information into conversational tools for patient engagement. She completed the pre-medical curriculum at Northwestern University and graduated with a double major in film and psychology.