Learnings from medical information design

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Dr. Frank Netter’s diagrams from his collection of medical illustrations published on Volumes 1 and 4 of the CIBA collection

The work produced by Dr. Frank Netter is a good example of well-conceived information design that shows how effectiveness is not related to the use of sophisticated tools. Netter was both a doctor in medicine and a graphic artist who combined both sets of skills to help achieve a more understandable way of presenting complex medical information to wider audiences. He worked closely to pharmaceutics and doctors applying his learnings in medicine and expertise in graphics to first better understand the problem and then create the most appropriate way to visualise the problem. Netter’s background knowledge in medicine gave him a specialised body of knowledge that not many (information) designers or graphic artists often have. His work illustrates ‘the happy result of artist and physician being combined in one person.’

Pharmaceutics and the Army

Similarly to Will Burtin’s design trajectory, Netter forged a closed relationship with pharmaceutics and also with the US army. During the Word War II years, Netter joined the US army working as a graphic artist directing the creation of manuals and first aid materials for combat troops and sanitation in the field.

After the War, he started working for CIBA (Company for Chemical Industry Basel), the pharmaceutical company where later published one of his most influential pieces of work: the CIBA collection. In 1948, Netter’s illustrations were published as a single volume, but then it expanded into eight volumes presenting ‘a compilation of paintings on the normal and pathologic anatomy of the’ body system. The collection provides visual explanations about the nervous system (Volume 1), the reproductive system (Volume 2), the digestive system (Volumnes 3I, 3II and 3III), the endocrine system and selected metabolic diseases (Volume 4), the heart (Volume 5), and kidneys, ureters, and urinary bladder (Volume 6). Since this collection was initially published back in 1953, ten more revised editions have been created.

In his paintings, illustrations and diagrams, he visualises anatomical descriptions and metabolic schemes, and presents structural relations ‘with care and precision.’ The core of his work relies on making accessible to experts (researchers, clinicians, teachers) and general audiences (students) complex medical concepts (e.g. diseases) and simple aspects of medicine (e.g. characteristics of the human body) that may not have been previously shown. This allowed ‘to all who [were] either teaching or learning the functions of the [body] system’ to get familiar with that information.

The Process

Another similarity between Burtin and Netter is their problem-solving process. Both emphasised a strong need for gaining a complete understanding of the problem before even start thinking about the solution. Netter’s process involved the following three stages:

  1. Study & Understanding the problem. The initial stage was ‘unquestionably the most important and difficult part of the entire process.’ Netter did not start drawing or sketching until he has acquired a complete understanding of the subject matter, either through reading or by interviewing leading authorities in the field. He also paid visits to hospitals to observe clinical cases, surgical processes, or operative procedures relevant to the project he was working on.
  2. Creating first sketches. Once questions were answered, unclear aspects were unravelled, and the problem was understood, Netter made a pencil sketch on a tissue or tracing pad. The research conducted during the first stage, helped him determine the areas that needed to be covered and visualised, and the most appropriate plane/s to provide the clearest understanding. His drawings were frequently created from the standpoint of the physician, and in some cases, two, three and even four pictures of dissection were necessary.
  3. Creating the satisfactory sketch. Initial sketches were then transferred to a piece of illustration board for the creation of the finished drawing. Netter worked with water colours mixed with white paint. Legends and descriptions were provided by experts, making evident the role of collaborative work for the creation of well-conceived solutions.

Key contributions

Probably without knowing, both Netter and Burtin worked during most of their careers with the visualisation of medical and scientific knowledge at a time when the use of visualisations in science was gaining value. In addition, both worked with an emphasis on instructional design. Their work has an intrinsic educational component (which is not always present in the visualisation of complex information) that connects them to information design rationale.

In the case of Netter, some of his work is still in use today, contributing ‘to the learning of the nervous system [and other medical concepts] beyond the atmosphere of academic discipline,’ and ‘the progress and the history of medicine.’ In the case of Burtin, his work has greatly contributed to the learning and understanding of complex medical concepts (e.g. components and functions of atoms, the brain and the cell). Most importantly, in both cases, their processes strongly indicate the fundamental roles of research, understanding and collaborative work for the development of well-conceived information design.

Quotes from this post have been taken from:
– Netter, F.H. (1975) The CIBA Collection of Medical Illustrations. Volume 1. Nervous System (11th Edition) The Case-Hoyt Corp, USA.
– Netter, F.H. (1977) The CIBA Collection of Medical Illustrations. Volume 4. Endocrine System and Selected Metabolic Diases  (4th Edition) R.R. Donnelley & Sons Company, USA.

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