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Having Designs on a Graphic Career Change

My story really begins 4 years ago, although the seeds that eventually grew into my dream career had been planted a good 10 years before that. During my PhD, on novel gene therapies for ovarian cancer, I began to use PowerPoint® to create slides for presentations. When I realised I could do only so much using PowerPoint alone, I began to look for other means to translate the imagery in my head into something tangible.

As a teenager I had produced artwork by using computers such as the Atari® ST®, but many years had since passed, and technology had moved on from the basic paint packages I had used then. The new state of the art was to create artwork by first building fully formed three-dimensional models that existed only in the computer. Texture 'skins' were added to the models, before virtual lighting and cameras were set up to capture the images. I had no practical idea how to use such packages, but a magazine was giving away a free, full version of a package called Corel® Bryce®2, which--although it had actually been conceived as a landscape generation package--looked very impressive.

I started to play around with it, and my early attempts ended up being turned into slides for colleagues, using PowerPoint again. These hybrids, although crude, certainly stood out and got peoples' attention!

At about this time, a colleague left his position as a postdoc to become the editor of a new medical journal. I got a call from him asking if I would be interested in producing a cover for the first issue. I was certainly surprised, but damn interested! Working from a list of the topics in that issue, I began collecting images from magazine sources. For the centerpiece of the illustration I created a 3D image of an osteoblast on bone. I montaged all the elements using Adobe® Photoshop® and the 'old faithful,' PowerPoint (as it would turn out, rather naïvely) before sending it off for comment. Well, the image was passed from editor to editor, and luckily most liked it, agreeing that it had a very distinctive style. They decided to use it.

However, my inexperience in the world of publishing was about to be laid bare. I got a worried call from my friend, who said that the cover had gone to the printers but looked terrible because the resolution (something I hadn't considered or, to be honest, even realised existed!) was too low. I discovered that most cover images are produced at 300 dots per square inch (dpi), and mine was 72 dpi--the default for PowerPoint. There was no way to increase this without ruining the quality of the image.

So now I had a problem. The publication deadline was rapidly approaching, and the journal wanted to use another artist with more experience. But this was my big chance, and I wasn't going to let it slip through my fingers. I got the journal to hold on for a few more days. Thus began a marathon session to recreate the whole piece from scratch at a higher resolution. It got published, and an editor of another journal liked the style enough to commission me to do another cover. Being in the right place at the right time had led to my first big break.

Meanwhile my PhD came to an end, and I took up a job with a biotech company. I quickly began to realise, however, that doing medical graphics was what really fascinated me, and I wanted to learn more. I was still using the same old landscape program and was ultimately restricted in the complexity of the art I could produce.

Some years earlier during a holiday and through a friend, I was introduced to an entrepreneur in New York City who had told me he intended to set up a 3D animation training school. I dug out his details and to my delight found out that he had since managed to get the project off the ground. Although it was still in its infancy, he invited me over to have a look. To cut a long story short, he agreed to fund my 3-month course if I helped him out with the day-to-day running of the studio. It sounded like a great opportunity, so I handed in my notice and headed for the Big Apple. I immersed myself in the program, 3ds maxTM, and learnt a lot from other animators there. After 3 months, I returned to the UK with new skills, including the ability to animate my creations.

It was back to reality and the need to find paid employment. Thus began my trawl through the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook 2001 (A&C Black, London, 2001; ISBN 0713651598) for medical and scientific publishers who might be interested in freelance commissioning. I sent out a lot of portfolio packs and got many pleasant responses, but no concrete job offers. Things began to look bleak when it appeared that I would not be able to break into the field of scientific animation and illustration as a full-time occupation. I started to look into going back to postdoc work.

Fortunately, just as I was about to give up hope, an ad in The Guardian caught my eye. The publisher Dorling Kindersley was looking for artists to work on their science A-level CD-ROMs. I sent them a letter and got a call back straight away, because they were very happy to hear from me. As far as they were concerned, I was multifunctional, being in a position to review the questions on their biology CD-ROMs as well as provide graphic content!

After I completed some work for them, they called me in to discuss some animations they were interested in including in their tutorial sections. I was given a test project to work on over Christmas. The biology of respiration was not the easiest thing to start on! But they liked what I did enough to commission me to do all their animations for biology, maths, physics, and chemistry--about 1 hour of animation in all, which would also need to be edited to fit with a narration soundtrack. Bearing in mind that I had produced a total of about 2 minutes of animation in my career so far, this was no small undertaking. The first thing I had to do was get a decent computer....

From the lab to professional animation within 1 year ... I figured this was not bad going, and my decision to stay in the graphics field was cemented.

Shortly after that, I met with the creative director of ReGRAPHICA, a design and advertising agency specialising in the medical and scientific sector, and I was offered the job of running a new 3D visualisation and animation division. This was a great opportunity, because it meant working in a field where my background was of use. Since then I have worked on numerous projects, such as the online Encyclopedia of Life Sciences for the Nature Publishing Group and animations depicting the progression of septicemia for the pharmaceutical Eli Lilly, as well as many journal and book illustrations. I hope the future will bring more high-end animation work, which is still the most rewarding (although by far the most time consuming).

Looking back, I realise that many lucky breaks allowed me the opportunity to make the transition and do something that combined the two loves of my life--science and computer graphics. For these breaks I will be eternally grateful.

If anyone wishes to get in touch to learn more about the field (or commission any work!), please e-mail me.

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