The following is an interview with Thane Andrew, founder and owner of The Patent Illustrator LLC. The Patent Illustrator provides patent drawings and designs for patent applications.
Even if you’re not interested in starting a career as a patent drafter, Thane’s interview has valuable information on patent drawings which is relevant to virtually everyone in the field of patent law.
Let’s get into the interview!
Lisa: What made you decide to get into this career?
Thane: Well I would have to say I fell into it on accident. I used to do post production and advertising. I went to school for 3D animation special effects and when the economy got bad almost everybody I know lost their job. So I had a good skill set of 3D and 2D tools and capabilities and I had to find another avenue which those applied to so I could make a living again. I spent a few years spinning my wheels and I didn’t know what I was going to do.
Lisa: Did you hear about this career through someone else or you did you do research on your own and happen to uncover it?
Thane: Actually no it was kind of surprising to me when I started doing this work that I had never heard of it before. I answered an ad for illustration not knowing it was related to patents. I started doing work for a guy who owned a company based in Houston and does work for a lot of the big companies. I was in Ecuador at the time taking a break from the whole economic situation in America when I entered into that. I trained an office of ten people in Ecuador how to do patent illustration work for that guy; it was in Spanish mind you. And after a year and a half I decided I was done, I wanted to do it for myself. So I came back to America and started my own company.
Lisa: So it was a random ad for an illustrator that turned out to be a patent illustrator position?
Thane: That is the case and I had never heard of the industry before. Based on a lot of the work, it seems to me that most people doing patent illustration aren’t really illustrators or artist per se, they seem to come more from an engineering background. That kind of makes sense because if you’re going to engineer something, well then you learn about the patent process, and from there you learn about this industry. As an artist this is something that I guess most people overlook, because it’s not something that’s really publicized.
Lisa: You touched on your background a little but did you have some formal education before you even started your first patent illustration job? For example, did you take classes in college or get a degree? Do you feel like you need to have formal education to start a career as a patent illustrator?
Thane: I don’t know that you necessarily have to have a degree but I doubt that you could attain the skills necessary without going through the process of getting a degree. I have a Bachelor’s degree from the Art Institute in Las Vegas in 3D animation and special effects. I worked in the industry for eight years and made commercials, made videos, did post production and compositing, and did green screen removal for commercial use.
Lisa: So you had the degree and you had a lot of background in visual arts. I would imagine it would be a lot easier for someone else if they want to get into this career field if they have a degree in art or like you’ve said engineering maybe?
Thane: Well this is going a bit beyond that, in my opinion. I mean I have been doing art ever since I was a child and I do all kinds of other media on the side. But even if you went to school for this stuff, if you haven’t been drawing or doing some kind of art since you were young, I don’t know that you would necessarily have a good chance in this industry because of the nature of it.
The nature of patent drawing requires the illustrations to be perfect. If they are not, you might find yourself in a litigation circumstance where your drawings are the thing that lets you down. If you don’t follow the rules or have the skills necessary to execute it in a perfect fashion it seems the drawings won’t hold up unfortunately.
So I can’t say that there is any set standard, any set skill set, or degree that’s going to prepare you for all of the nuances and circumstances that are presented by this type of work. For instance medical devices are probably at the top of the list as far as difficulty because they are usually combining some form of organic structure be it a human or animal or something like that, along with something mechanical.
And I find that people with an engineering background have trouble drawing the organic material. That is going to present a problem. As a patent illustrator, sometimes you get figurines or toys or things that are not mechanical in nature and to have somebody with an engineering degree do all that stuff free hand and to make it perfect, is I think beyond them in many cases.
Lisa: Do you have any employees at this point?
Thane: I have three artists working for me and I would only hire artists with my background. It’s easier to teach them the tools as most of the time they use the same software that I use. But I try to get people with a background in 3D so that works as well. With some people we can be involved in the development stage of your product if necessary. It’s not something that we really advertise or try to do, but for those clients who come to us and have that need we can fulfill that option as well.
Lisa: When you say clients is it mostly patent practitioners, individual inventors, or a mix?
Thane: I would say mostly I’m working with attorneys. I don’t have a giant database of inventors in this country. I do have a database of all the attorneys who are registered with the USPTO so that’s who my sales efforts are geared towards. I would say I’m trying to sell the attorneys but the inventors find me and regardless of the methods I have a decent mix even though there are probably more attorneys than inventors.
Lisa: Do you have any advice on communicating with attorneys to produce the best illustration possible?
Thane: In my experience intellectual property attorneys are some of the most educated and confident individuals in this country. They have multiple degrees usually in engineering, apart from their degree in law and they probably understand your invention better than you do.
Lisa: So you are finding that most of them know exactly what to communicate to you. I would assume working with a patent attorney is probably a lot easier than working with an inventor who doesn’t understand patent law.
Thane: Absolutely. I mean the lawyers are there to help you with the legal aspect. I would say from the drawing stand point the one thing that comes across my desk that could create difficulty for me is when I have photos for a design patent but they have not been taken at a correct angle.
Lisa: What do you like most about your job?
Thane: Most orders for patent drawings do not really take all that much time. Usually one to three days for one set of drawings, so I like the quick turnaround. You are constantly working on something new but truly the greatest aspect of it is, being able to see what all kinds of people in this country are working on.
Sometimes we see technology that is not going to be brought to the market place for many years. And to see those ideas and inventions come across my desk everyday is what keeps it interesting and keeps it fun.
I take the work a lot more seriously after getting to know the industry better, you just understand that you’re dealing with people’s intellectual property which may be their most valuable asset. It’s a circumstance where, they probably had the idea for years and years before they even started working on it.
So for them to trust you and work with you to help get their patent approved and make sure it’s properly protected through adequate renderings is a true pleasure.
Lisa: Definitely, it’s an important job. What’s a typical day like for you?
Thane: It’s a little varied. When it was just me I could tell you most of my day was spent drawing but because the drawings had to get done I would do other tasks in the early mornings. I would start at 5 or 6am and that way by 9 or 10am I could have all of my business activities accomplished and then I could move onto drawing. Now my morning activities are somewhat geared towards marketing then in the morning when my people get here I am working with them on their orders, just checking in, doing quality control and training.
So the newer they are the more time I spend training in the mornings and then my afternoons are mostly devoted to sales and client relations. I accept all the orders and communicate with the clients but mostly my time is divided amongst training and sales.
Lisa: When you were working for someone else did you communicate with the clients?
Thane: No maybe a manager would, but just like as a production artist you’re probably not going to deal with clients. You really want to let the manager have the conversation and figure everything out so that he can put it in a short email and send it to you.
And I would think it is the nature of the business that many small operations in the patent illustration world hold their client list protectively.
Lisa: So often the people actually doing the drawings don’t actually know who the clients are?
Thane: Absolutely, I didn’t know who any of my clients were except when I recognized one of the products.
Lisa: That must be exciting! Do you have a lot of clients come to you with tight deadlines or do most of your clients give you enough time?
Thane: Most of the time I’m left with adequate time as it doesn’t take entirely that long to execute the drawings. Sometimes for a design series you need to make sure all the views correspond to one another and can reconcile. It can be much more challenging for organic shapes. There have been a couple of jobs that I’ve come across that could literally take 3 or 4 weeks from the moment you start them.
Almost every other scenario leaves me with enough time even if you need it in a day or two.
Lisa: Is being a patent illustrator a highly stressful job? Are there often tight deadlines?
Thane: I try to have it set up in a way that stress is not necessary. Once in a while we need to stay a few hours and maybe work till nine or ten but I’m getting a little older now, I don’t want to have to work through the night. Proper planning helps us meet the deadlines of our clients.
Lisa: Is this a high stress type of job for employees?
Thane: It is a high stress job if you get stressed out, but if you can meet your deadlines all you need to do is just breathe and keep on drawing.
Lisa: How do you stay-up-to-date with the requirements and all the changes to the laws and rules? Where are you getting that information from?
Thane: From many different sources. I signed up for countless newsletters across the industry and went to almost every convention and organization that is related to the industry. I read almost every article that anyone in my LinkedIn group publishes which is almost 1800 people. I generally find most of the rules and laws are not actually having an effect on the work that we do. Nevertheless I do try to keep up with it just in case there is something that is going to affect us down the road. Even a new ruling is going to require time for implementation as the USPTO publishes those rules before it goes into effect.
So I feel like there is adequate time for us to meet all the requirements in the drawings. What I would like to learn from attorneys are the cases where the drawings were the deciding factor in a litigation scenario. Because it would be very interesting to see what happens and what the drawings look like and be able to have a more relevant commentary on some of the things that might potentially take place in the courtroom. Where those people went wrong and how it should have been done.
If you follow the rules to the tee you really can’t go wrong. But you have to have the skills to apply these rules and regulations to the drawing and for some shapes it is not that easy.
Lisa: When you took that first job did you have a teacher help you learn what you needed to know about patent law to create your first patent drawing?
Thane: We started that way and then a couple of weeks into it I went to the USPTO website and started reading all the regulations that pertained to drawings. You have to read it five or six times before you totally understand what exactly they are saying. But once you go through it it’s really quite simple to execute the drawings in the fashion that they should be drawn.
What I find is when there are elements drawn incorrectly it often comes down to a contour line. Where the outline of this object was drawn correctly but the definition of the contour line is an irregularly broken line that is not as thick as your standard line. It starts where the curve starts and it ends where the curve ends. Therefore you should be able to define any curvature of any aspect of any feature of that object with two simple contour lines. What I see all the time is, there’s just way too many contour lines, rather than shading lines.
And sometimes too many shading lines, often times it when it comes to art, less is more. And I see a lot of unnecessary lines or I don’t see lines in the place that they should be.
Lisa: As far as the claims go, it’s important for them to be as broad as possible so it seems by adding in extra lines the further you are moving away from that.
Thane: And the more you’re defining a shape that isn’t really there. The more lines you add in, especially when it’s a contour line, well now you are creating a wavy surface. Technically you are saying this curve starts here and ends there. So the only kind of shape that I see when you put too many contour lines close together is an irregularly unsmooth surface, which I know that is not the case most of the time.
Lisa: It sounds like most of the time it comes down to experience.
Thane: That and it’s just really raw talent.
Lisa: Well I really appreciate you answering all these questions for me. I’ve learned a lot which really kind of helps me round out more about different careers in patent law. So thank-you.
Thane: Absolutely, I’m really excited to be part of the industry and doing patent drawings. We are trying to be the most comprehensive service in the industry, I know we are a small company and we just started but we’ve got big dreams.
Lisa: Yeah sounds like it, that’s awesome.