The Strata Effect—How Michael Northrop Built a Career Making Art out of Science

When Michael Northrop was studying Fine Art at the University of Utah in 1978, he knew two things: 1: Art was all he wanted (or cared) to do, and 2: a degree in Fine Art would be about as useful as a degree in basket weaving. Disillusioned, he decided to quit school and go to work full time as a portrait photographer and counter clerk at a local camera store. 

While there, he learned (through a customer) that Utah Technical College (now SLCC) had a graphic design program where he could possibly learn about art as a practical application and earn an Associate’s degree along the way. Northrop quickly enrolled and then graduated soon after. 

“It was there that I learned what true creativity was all about. While at UTC I made many new friends including a student who upon graduating moved to St. George, Utah.

By that time, Apple had introduced the Mac II and Northrop knew he had to have one. Soon after he purchased the computer, all kinds of graphics programs were finding their way onto his newly acquired electronic desktop. Occasionally Northrop ventured to St. George from Salt Lake City to reconnect with one of his friends from UTC. 

“He took me over to the Strata offices and showed me something called Strata Studio Blitz. I was dazzled to say the least. I purchased a copy of the software and it wasn’t long before I was up and running, finding ways to incorporate 3D into my workflow, or simply exploring.”

Since that time, Northrop has been fortunate to have had continuous employment as a graphic designer throughout his 30-year career. For many years his goal was to become an art director at a creative agency. After moving from Salt Lake City to Phoenix in 2006, he achieved that goal but soon found out the ad business was very cutthroat, living and dying on client acquisition. Out of desperation he looked for something more stable and landed a job as a graphic designer for the Translational Genomic Research Institute, or TGen as it is mostly called.

Northrop worked in the marketing and communications department at TGen, designing the quarterly magazine and other related collateral including presentations and graphics for proposals. When the researchers at TGen learned there was a trained graphic designer in house, many of them began soliciting his help in scientific figure design to augment their work. Soon after, he was asked to provide an illustration for cover consideration for Neoplasia, an international cancer research journal. This was Mr. Northrop’s first foray into high-profile cover design so he knew he needed to provide something eye catching and provocative. Starting with confocal microscope images of cancer cells as textures, Northrop used Strata Design 3D CX to create the artwork, which appeared in the April 2009 issue

“It was at TGen that I gained a sense of being part of something important – bigger than myself. I fell in love with scientific illustration but budget cuts and the threat of layoffs had me looking for new employment. I eventually left TGen and after a short stint as a graphic designer at a company called Microchip Technology, I was made an offer to come to work at the Biodesign Institute, a research and discovery facility at Arizona State University. A former colleague at TGen was now working at Biodesign and was in need of a highly skilled artist. I knew my options for growth at Microchip were limited so I jumped at the chance.”

Once at Biodesign, opportunities for high-level design became more available. Since that point, Northrop has had covers published for high profile international scientific journals such as Nature Nanotechnology and Bioconjugate Chemistry as well as a few niche pubs. Strata Design 3D CX was used exclusively or as the primary 3d modeling software in every case. He eventually left Biodesign and is now employed as an art director at ASU’s Research Development Group, part of the Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development (OKED). Northrop acknowledges that much of his success is due to the high caliber of scientific and research talent he has access to at ASU. He believes this new appointment will allow him to serve ASU’s scientific community on a much broader scale.

“From an academic perspective, 3D artwork is a godsend – at least for me. It has opened doors for me that otherwise might very well have remained closed.” Northrop points to a recent victory where he submitted 3D artwork to the 2017 Wellcome Trust Image Awards, an international scientific design competition and was flattered to have had my work selected as one of the top 22 finalists.”

Northrop has not played around with Strata’s 3D VR tool Spaces VR yet but says he hopes to do so in the future, adding—“It looks like the next big thing in visualized scientific research from a graphics standpoint.” 

Northrop earned a Master’s degree at ASU in Graphic Information Technology (GIT) which focused on the science of graphics and how new technologies are pushing it to new realms of creativity and application. The degree has helped him further understand the power of graphic design. 

“I have no plans to pursue a PhD. I am hopeful that this degree will open new doors for me here at ASU. I have an A.A.S. degree in graphic design and B.A. in communication with emphasis on marketing and advertising. I learned through education and practical application that everything I do regarding graphic design is selling, whether it is cover art, editorial illustration, figure design or presentations. It is all about making a favorable and memorable impression. My favorite quote is from David Ogilvy (The original Mad Man A.K.A. King of Madison Avenue and Father of Modern Advertising)—If it doesn’t sell, it’s not creative.”


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