A Better, Brighter Place: Talking with TEDx Speaker Ikumi Kayama

Tell us a little about yourself!

My name is Ikumi Kayama and I’m a professional medical and scientific illustrator. I own and operate my own studio, Studio Kayama LLC.

A lot of my illustrations end up in science textbooks, medical brochures, and signs and panels at museums and natural parks.

My mission is to create illustrations that make modern medicine and science accessible and relevant to everyone. I mainly work with educators, scientists, researchers, and surgeons to create illustrations that will make complicated scientific concepts easier and faster to understand.


The artist at work.

The artist at work.


Tell us about the history of Studio Kayama.

When I first started Studio Kayama, I was fresh out of graduate school with my Master’s degree in medical and biological illustration from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. My professors taught us throughout the program to develop our own style and and to value our rights and ownership of the illustration. However, few months before graduation, they told us to get a staff job where all our intellectual property and rights to our images would belong to a company. Some of my colleagues said as a staff illustrator, they rarely get to work with subject matter experts. Working directly with the experts is my favorite part of creating an illustration because accuracy really matters in medical illustration and scientific illustration. I decided to see what I can do as a full-time freelancer.

Working with experts results in more accurate illustrations.

Working with experts results in more accurate illustrations.

Ignorance is bliss! At first, I didn’t realize that we were taught how to make illustrations, but not to sell illustrations and to be our own advocate for our services. Being a sales representative for your work and creating work are completely different things that require different skills and experiences. First, I wrote to as many publishers and doctors as possible and got some success, but I wasn’t happy with all the work involved as a freelancer.

I slowly realized that most people get jobs so they don’t have to do a sales talk or go to a networking event all the time to seek out new clients. After a while, however, I started enjoying the challenge of getting new clients and to market myself as a professional medical illustrator.

It is often said that medical illustration and scientific illustration are not well known and therefore not respected. I find that once I meet the clients and work directly with them, they admire our work and respect us for our knowledge in science and artistic creativity.

Now I see that the challenge is to make the world of medical illustration and scientific illustration a little more famous. After all, our work is everywhere from science textbooks to field guides to doctors’ office posters. It’s really hard to describe what you do (especially if you’re an expert) to someone who knows very little about your field.

Once I learn how to describe my niche job, I started to get more recognition from my work and as a professional company owner. I also realized that I can’t do everything on my own, so I sought help from professional marketing experts and took business courses to understand the business side.

How did you get into medical illustration?

I always loved to draw. My world turned upside-down when I was in second grade when my family moved from Japan to the US. I had to learn English fast to try to fit in. It was really embarrassing to not be able to express myself or to understand and follow instructions. That’s when I discovered the magic of pictures–you don’t have to have the same background, education level, or speak the same language to understand. I find that very powerful.

Many people tried to dissuade me from becoming an artist. They wanted me to get a “real” job. I looked for a professional artist job, and the one I found most enticing as a 12-year-old was an animator at Disney. I wrote to Disney, and to my surprise they wrote back. The letter said to draw every day and take close note of animals and humans and see how they move and how they express their emotions through actions.

Animals and humans alike express their emotions through stance and movement.

Animals and humans alike express their emotions through stance and movement.

When I got to college, I promptly signed up to be an art major. Unfortunately, after my first semester at school, I got the news that traditional Disney animation closed their doors to make way for the new 3-D animation. I love 3D animation, but I wanted to do something with my own hands.

I looked in the big list of majors it at the University of Georgia and I found that scientific illustration was a major. I fell in love immediately with the classes—the courses stressed the accuracy and drawing from life. My other art class projects consisted of painting emotions on huge masonite boards, but in scientific illustration classes, we were required to measure every single bone feature down to its millimeter and to try to duplicate reality onto the paper.

One thing I learned is that illustrations are usually augmented from reality by concealing imperfections and individuality of a specimen to create an idealized illustration that shows all the necessary features to identify an animal or plant. Illustrations can do what photographs cannot.

The ideal brain can't exist in nature, but it can exist in medical illustrations.

The ideal brain can’t exist in nature, but it can exist in medical illustrations.

One day, my professor told me about medical illustration. I had asthma as a kid, and it was painfully embarrassing to see my parents struggle for me to communicate with the doctors and the nurses in English. Then I thought how powerful it would if I could create illustrations that would help patients and doctors communicate better even if they don’t speak the same language. Medical terminology can be difficult even for native speakers.

I signed up to apply to a Masters degree in medical illustration. To my surprise I didn’t get in the first time. They said my illustrations weren’t good enough. After crying and fighting with my parent, I was determined to try again and work for year as a web designer and zookeeper. Second time, I finally got in and it was a most humbling experience working with world experts in surgery and anatomy at Johns Hopkins University school of medicine. I went to anatomy lab with the medical students at sketched the bodies, I got to sketch in the operating room and then discuss with the surgeons what structures to highlight, and we got trained on all kind of media from Pen and ink to pencil to Photoshop to 3D animation.


Studying alongside medical students and sketching in the operating room allowed Ikumi to create captivating, medically accurate images.

Did you have a certain plan or goal when you started your website?

When I first created my own website, it was for a class. The assignment was to make a portfolio site displaying my artwork. I got my inspiration for the design, style, and content from previous years’ students and also professionals in the field. I thought a website was all I needed to create new business and to attract clients.

What programs/services did you use to design/market your website?

First my website was in HTML tables, then Flash. Now finally, my website is created in WordPress. I have some experience creating websites and coding so I do all of that on my own, but I recommend that you get a professional designer and coder if you’re unfamiliar with the process. WordPress is very user-friendly and with all the plug-ins available, you can make a powerful, custom website very quickly. I also understand that the website is always a work in progress is. It’s important to get it out there rather than to wait for it to be perfect before you make it live.

How did you market your website initially?

First I believed in “If I build it, they will come” concept. I didn’t have web traffic analysis, so I had no idea who, where, or how many visitors I was getting. After my launch, I sent the link to my friends and colleagues and did a little announcement on my personal Facebook page.

How do you market it now?

My current marketing plan has a multi-pronged approach. I write articles about medical illustration, scientific illustration and PowerPoint design for my target clients. One was a feature article for American College of Surgeons Newsletter. I have a mailing list opt-in to keep in touch with those who showed interest in my products and services. I attend conferences and meetings to meet prospective clients and collaborators. I read a lot of articles and books on marketing and sales. I also share my artwork in many places as possible from Facebook to Twitter to LinkedIn.

I now get a lot of invitations to present at meetings and at college campuses to share my specialty. Marketing is a lot of work and I don’t get to draw as much as I would like, but I love knowing that my artwork is going further, faster and helping change peoples lives out there.

You provide a very specific service. Do you use any services or strategies to target potential clients?

I love having a very small niche audience for my services. Having everybody as a target is actually counter-productive and the message gets watered down trying to reach everybody. I realize that smaller the market, the stronger the message to reach my clients. I love showing my previous works to my prospective clients and how my services are custom and catered very closely to fit the clients’ needs.

How has your marketing strategy changed since you started your website?

When I first started, I did not have a target client base for my website. When I relaunched my website a few years ago, I narrowed my target down to four groups. Since then I continue to narrow my marketing scope so I reach out to very specific groups of potential clients for higher return. In order to get jobs, you need to have examples and in order to have examples need to have jobs. So it’s important to have a similar project to show and to have an organized project guidelines or price sheets ready to go when a prospective client request them. More focused marketing strategy will help you be better prepared to guide your clients.

What, if anything, would you do differently if you decided to start your website all over again?

If I were to start my website all over again, I would probably separate out my services further. Medical illustration and scientific illustration actually have very different client base and different audiences. Now that I’m starting to give more speaking engagements and workshops, I might make a separate website for that too.

You gave a TEDx talk recently. Can you tell us a bit about that process? How were you selected?

Ikumi speaking at TEDx.

Ikumi speaking at TEDx.

The TEDxFoggyBottom2015 talk was an amazing experience. I was nominated and invited by the TEDx team at George Washington University in Washington DC. It was a lot of work to shrink down my entire life and career into a five-minute presentation.

The TEDx team was very good at giving me guidelines and asking great questions to design my talk. I also practiced like crazy so I knew what I was going to say forwards and backwards. Backstage, everyone was very supportive, helpful, and organized. I felt really comfortable and the results were great for my business.

My colleagues treat me differently and I’m a little bit more famous after what I did after my talk. Funny thing is that I didn’t think to put my TEDx talk on my website for a while. I guess I’m a little bit shy and don’t like to brag. I think I still need to think about how I can use my to talk to generate more web traffic and therefore business.

What advice would you give to anyone who wants to market their freelance services online?

Freelancing online is such a neat experience. I recently worked with a book publisher in Japan and another in New Zealand. I get tickled to know that my illustrations are being printed on the other side of the planet. For someone just starting out, don’t worry about making mistakes—in fact, success is found by going through the mistakes. I’m always learning something new.

Also, make as many mistakes as possible as quickly as possible. Freelancing is a lot of trial and error. Analyze what is working on your website and what isn’t. Don’t think that just because you have a website, people will visit and would want to work with you.

What would you like to achieve with your website in the next five years?

I have so many projects in my head to make my website better, but I really have to prioritize. Otherwise I end up with a million unfinished projects. I want to add more artwork and more information about the world of medical and scientific illustration.

Knowledge and creativity: integral to marketing, integral to art.

Knowledge and creativity: integral to marketing, integral to art.

I’m constantly trying to narrow the gap of knowledge between me and my audience. Better informed audiences will become better clients. I would like my website to be better connected to the social media outlets especially Twitter and LinkedIn. I would love to have a few online courses, books, and other products I can offer.

What inspires you?

I get inspired by all sorts of things! I love seeing artwork and thinking about what I can borrow to make my art better. I love going to illustration conferences and talking to like-minded people. I love to work with so many people working hard every day to make the world a better place using science and biomedical research technologies from counting butterflies to cutting-edge brain surgery.

I love to take walks and runs outside and watching birds, animals, and plants. I appreciate the seasons and realize that our time is very temporary and the world is always changing. The world is not going to wait for you, so it’s up to us to take action and make a little mark to make this world a better, brighter place.

You often blog for other websites. What advice do you have for those who wish to market their websites through blogging?

Being a blogger or a guest blogger on another site is a great way to showcase your expertise to be seen as someone very knowledgeable on the subject. My advice for you is to think of blog post subjects that will best help your client base. Rather then showcase the features of your services, concentrate on how your skills and knowledge will benefit their work and to make their lives easier. Rather than being a sage on the stage try being guided by their side. Don’t forget to use a lot of pictures and keep the writing simple, nice, and short so the readers remember you.

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