What is graphic design?
Article by Juliette Cezzar October 05, 2017
Filed Under: Tools and Resources , design educators , students , graphic design , Career Guide
Graphic design, also known as communication design, is the art and practice of planning and projecting ideas and experiences with visual and textual content. The form it takes can be physical or virtual and can include images, words, or graphics. The experience can take place in an instant or over a long period of time. The work can happen at any scale, from the design of a single postage stamp to a national postal signage system. It can be intended for a small number of people, such as a one-off or limited-edition book or exhibition design, or can be seen by millions, as with the interlinked digital and physical content of an international news organization. It can also be for any purpose, whether commercial, educational, cultural, or political.
Design that’s to be experienced in an instant is the easiest to recognize. Designers arrange type, form, and image on posters, advertisements, packages, and other printed matter, as well as information visualizations and graphics for newspapers and magazines.
This kind of design is often confused with illustration, but while an illustrator creates or draws an image in response to an idea, a designer combines illustrations, photographs, and type in order to communicate an idea. One way to understand this is to consider the difference between a furniture maker and an interior designer. One makes a specific object for a specific purpose, while the other thinks about how all of the objects and surfaces of a room create an environment for the person moving through it. Good illustrators are often capable designers and vice versa, making it harder to distinguish between the two practices.
Motion graphics are equally predetermined and crafted but are meant to be experienced over a fixed time span, like the opening credits of a movie or an online video that explains part of a newspaper article. They usually go beyond the visual, curating and cueing sound to moving vector graphics, photographs, and video. The difference between motion graphics and videography or animation is the same as the difference between two-dimensional graphics and illustration. Motion graphics combine animation, videography, and typography for a communicative purpose, and this combination over time and the space of the screen constitutes the design.
Whether physical or digital, books and magazines are meant to be enjoyed over time, during which the reader has control over the pace and sequence of the experience. In books, the content usually comes before the design, while in magazines, the design is a structure that anticipates written and visual content that hasn’t yet been created. Some commercial websites or exhibition catalogues also fit in this category, as do digital or physical museum displays that show information that doesn’t change. All have content in a suggested order that has been thought about ahead of time, but the user or reader finds his or her own path through the material.
Many designers also produce systems that are meant to be experienced over time but aren’t confined to the making of objects. Wayﬁnding, a form of environmental graphics, refers to branding and signage applied throughout and on buildings or outdoor areas like parks or highways. While each sign or symbol in wayfinding is a work of design, together they form a larger system that helps people navigate while maintaining a sense of the character of where they are. The design of the system—the relationships among all of those parts—is where the designer brings greatest value.
The larger category of environmental graphics includes any design that connects a person to a place, extending to and overlapping with dynamic displays, didactic type and imagery, and creative placemaking. A wall of terminals that show arriving and departing flights, a digital display on the facade of a building that shows stock prices, an inspirational quote in a building lobby, and a placard explaining a historical place or landmark are all examples of environmental graphics.
Similar to wayfinding, branding pulls together all of the artifacts of a commercial or institutional brand, like a business card, a sign, a logo, or an advertisement, into a visual system. How those are experienced over time is the design work. No part is created without considering the other parts or without thinking about how the target customer will first encounter the brand and then develop a relationship with that brand over time. In the twentieth century, a consumer often had just a few touchpoints for a brand. For example, if you were to fly somewhere, you would see expressions of the airline on your ticket, at the gate, on the plane, on the uniforms of the flight attendants, and on various printed items on the plane, like the blankets, napkins, or in-flight magazines. Perhaps you would have seen a print or television ad. Today, your experience still includes all of these items, but now it begins well before you arrive at the airport, when you buy your ticket on the airline’s website and receive an email confirmation, and carries through to a safety video and interactive options on board. Once you’ve arrived at your destination, you may also receive follow-ups by email asking about your experience on the trip or inviting you to further interact with the brand. This expansion of touchpoints overlaps with almost every medium and considers a much longer span of engagement with the customer.*
Designers are also responsible for interactive designs where the content changes as it gets updated, as well as screen interfaces that help people navigate through a lot of information. Interaction design differentiates itself from other kinds of design by adding another consideration: responding to the actions of the viewer or user. Editorial design for web and mobile is the most tangible example, including websites and mobile apps for publication. Some digital design involves the presentation of rapidly changing streaming information, also known as data visualization, creating both interactive and non-interactive interfaces. Product design refers to the design of digital products, which are digital services, tools, or platforms that can be brought to market. The term is confusing because for several decades “product design” has referred only to industrially produced physical items like radios, benches, and bicycles and has been used interchangeably with “industrial design.” Related to software design, product design requires knowledge both about how computers process, sort, and display information as well as how humans interface with computers. Many companies and the designers who work for them aim for their products to be used by large numbers of people around the world, so they often rely on widely accepted design patterns and metaphors and prioritize usability and functionality over aesthetic expression. For large or complex projects, different designers may work on the user interface (UI), which refers to the affect and layout of what the user sees in the moment, and the user experience (UX), or the total experience of users over time as they move through websites or mobile apps.
Depending on the scale of the context in which a designer works, the work may include one, some, or all of these things in the course of a year. Larger companies, agencies, teams, or studios may employ a number of specialists, while smaller studios and groups may need to have each individual capable, if not an expert, in multiple areas. Higher-level creative direction or managerial positions usually require expertise in at least two additional areas beyond basic competence in design: domain expertise (knowing what is happening in a particular business sector) and further knowledge and experience in team management or client relations. While having a job in design requires knowledge in only one area, having a career in design requires expertise in more than one medium and more than one area of the design process.
*This explanation about the difference between twentieth and twenty-first century design was given by Khoi Vinh during a lecture about his Mixel app in 2013 at Parsons.
Continue reading excerpts from The AIGA Guide to Careers in Graphic and Communication Design. Next up: Who becomes a graphic designer?
Illustration: Able Parris
WHAT DOES A Graphic Designer DO?
Graphic designers convey inspiring and informative ideas in advertisements, brochures and other marketing communications materials. Some graphic designers work for specialized design firms as part of a collaborative team, while others are self-employed and work independently. Print and digital designers use complex graphics tools to manipulate text, images, animations and color.
Most graphic designers work full-time to meet deadlines. Self-employed graphic designers must be flexible, as clients sometimes need to meet during evening and weekend hours. As with so many industries, customer service and client satisfaction are keys to success. Additionally, succeeding as a graphic designer includes learning how to bid on contracts, market services and develop an ongoing client base.
Communication lies at the heart of a graphic designer’s job. While their duties may involve extensive work with images, unlike artists they do not produce “art for art’s sake.” Graphic designers must get across a specific message and call-to-action or emotion based on their client’s objectives. For instance, a graphic designer may be tasked with creating a brand or logo that makes a lasting impression on consumers, incorporating a unique shape or color scheme.
Although much graphic design work is done on the computer, it can also be multimedia in nature, or employ motion graphics. Projects may need to be optimized for viewing on a range of digital platforms, including web browsers, tablet devices and mobile phones, which is the fastest growing sector in the field. In addition to mastering general all-around skills, designers may specialize in a particular graphics area. More common specialties include:
- Desktop Publishing
- Branding and Advertising (print,web,broadcast)
- Email Blasts and eNewsletters
- Interface or User Experience Design
- Web Design
- Product Packaging
- Book Design
- Print or Web Production
While designers may work more often in a favorite media, a specialization isn’t required for success. Most graphic designers enjoy working for a variety of clients to keep their career options open. Multiple specializations leads to flexibility, however, and can expand clientele and increase overall opportunities.
Graphic Design Salaries and Job Outlook
Graphic Design Salaries
Salaries for graphic designers are variable across the country, based on factors including experience, education, type of employer and geographical location. According to the BLS, the median national annual wage for graphic designers in 2014 was $45,900, while the top 10 percent of graphic designers earned over $77,490. Graphic designers with the highest salaries are generally those with advanced training and who work for specialized design firms. Payscale.com reports that the cities of San Francisco, Washington D.C. and New York pay the highest salaries, with San Francisco graphic artists earning a median wage of $54,711. Self-employed designers earn up to $20,000 more per year than those working in other settings, according to Payscale.
The BLS reports the top paying states and 2014 mean annual salaries of graphic designers as:
|District of Columbia||$72,820|
Use the map below to compare graphic design salary estimates by state:
Graphic Designer Salary Comparison Tool
Job Growth, Prospects and Outlook
Job rates for graphic designers are expected to grow by 7 percent during the 2012-2022 decade, according to the BLS. This growth rate is smaller than the national average for all jobs during the projection period, for a number of reasons. Due to the rapid development and deployment of digital media, the market for graphic designers in print media has severely slowed, making designers that can work both in digital and print more attractive. The BLS says jobs with “newspaper, periodical, book and directory publishers” will decline by 16 percent during the decade. On the flip side, jobs for graphics professionals in computer systems design and related services will find a strong 35 percent increase in job openings, especially in fields of web-based graphics production, portable devices and video entertainment. Competition for new jobs, the BLS predicts, will be stiff. In all, 17,400 new openings in the profession are anticipated over the projection decade.
The greatest number of regional hires are anticipated (in order) in the Northeast, Sunbelt, West Coast and Midwest. The BLS sites the following states with the largest growth potential and current greatest number of professionals in the graphic design field:
- New York
Top cities for employing graphic designers, according to The Atlantic Magazine’s City Lab, are:
- San Francisco
- New York
- Los Angeles
- Washington, D.C.
- Salt Lake City
Select a state below for more information about employment and job growth for graphic designers.
Steps to Becoming a Graphic Designer
Start Building Your Skills in High School
It never hurts to start early in any field, but it is particularly important when it comes to graphic design. While in high school, students should take classes in art history, drawing, graphic arts and website design. They can put their emerging skills to use designing and producing the school newspaper or yearbook. Graphic design requires a good eye and a creative mind, but also tantamount are the development of solid practical skills and software fluency. The sooner the student begins preparations, the better.
Earn a Degree in Graphic Design
There was a time when a graphic designer could get hired strictly on their creative portfolio. Today, however, most employers are looking for designers with a more complete and well-rounded education – the kind only a college degree can provide. A certificate in the field, or an associate’s degree, may be sufficient in some cases, but the U.S. Department of Labor reports that fledgling designers are much more likely to land a quality job only after earning a bachelor’s degree.
There are currently approximately 300 post-secondary institutions in the U.S. that offer degree programs accredited by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design. School options run the gamut from large public universities, to small private colleges, to prestigious art institutes. There are also a growing number of online programs available. Coursework covers a wide range of subjects, such as studio art, principles of design, commercial graphics, web design, advertising and graphics-related computer technology. Classes in marketing and business may be part of the curriculum as well, since designers must be able to compile and submit professional job proposals, and effectively sell themselves to potential clients.
Regardless of the specific degree they choose, graphic design students should look for an accredited program from a reputable school.
Not all college programs in graphic design require internships, but those that do offer students an exceptional opportunity to gain practical experience, to form professional relationships in the design community, and complete work suitable for presentation in their portfolio or design “book”.
Create a Compelling Portfolio
While a solid resume is an important aspect of any job search, the biggest asset to someone looking for a job in graphic design is an impressive portfolio. Though graphic designers will need a resume, the only way for a prospective employer to understand an applicant’s abilities is through a portfolio demonstrating a range of work and growth as a designer.
There was a time when a graphic design portfolio was a simple collection of a designer’s best newspaper and magazine advertisements. Professional portfolios today are much more sophisticated, consisting not only of print ads, but also including online advertisements, website graphics, and even a television commercial reel and animation demo. It is not uncommon for job seekers today to carry fully digital versions of their portfolio on CD or DVD with them to interviews – along with the more traditional paper version – and many designers also maintain their own up-to-date design portfolio websites.
For students just starting out, presenting a large and varied portfolio is difficult given the limited amount of completed work they’ll have done. In that case, they should focus on quality instead of quantity, presenting only their best design samples, and a portfolio arranged to meet a prospective employer’s specific needs.
Graphic design is a constantly changing and developing field. Designers must keep up with the commercial and artistic trends in the industry – or they may find themselves quickly left behind. They must also remain current on new and updated computer graphics and design software programs, which are in a near constant state of evolution. This is particularly true for designers working as freelancers, and for those interested in advancing to higher positions within their companies. Organizations such as the American Institute of Graphic Arts or the Graphic Artists Guild provide members with educational updates on new technology, software or methodology. Completing certification programs in vendor-specific design software can also help build credentials.
Return to School
Graphic designers may choose to advance their skills, creativity and deep knowledge of the field by adding a graduate degree or post-secondary certificate. There are master’s degree programs created specifically for designers wishing to advance in theoretical studies (MA) or concentrate their work on a studio degree (MFA).
Graphic Design Degree Options
Exploring Academic Paths
Before enrolling in any postsecondary education program, students should have a strong sense of their long- and short-term goals including why they’re pursuing this education; the level of schooling they’re prepared to undertake; and what they expect from the program. For some students, a degree is a means to an end: a new career, a better job, the advancement of skills. Degree programs are sequential in nature, and beginning students will focus on building a foundational skills and mastering key theories in visual communications at schools offering undergraduate certificates or associate degrees. Others may be ready to take on the total immersion of work required of a four-year baccalaureate degree. Professionals often return to school to master advanced techniques, explore a new specialty, or refine their crafts.
According to Education News, the number of postsecondary graphic design graduates in the U.S. increased by 57% between 2006 and 2010.
Overview of Available Degrees
The complexity of education and skills development in graphic design grows with each successive level. A two-year degree program may be the best place to start for first-time students. These degrees typically offer the lowest tuition rates and, for some students, are a financially prudent way to gain skills for entry-level roles in the graphic design field. Bachelor’s degree programs are the minimum educational attainment for many design professions. At the master’s degree level, students focus on studio skills and the development of expert technique, project management, and advanced design theory and applications.
The Associate of Arts and Associate of Sciences degrees in graphic arts combine arts studies with the general education coursework. Students must complete 65 credits to graduate, which takes approximately two years. The degree offers introductory graphic design courses and a well-rounded liberal arts and sciences curriculum, which may be transferrable to a four-year program. First semester curriculum may be based on introductory courses in design theory and technology, typography, color theory, computer graphics, electronic imaging, and print/digital production.
At the associate level, students may encounter courses such as:
Introductory course in the elements of design as an effective communication tool. Studies include concepts and applications of design elements and relationships.
- Understanding of design applications for lines, colors, textures, shapes, values, and white space principles applicable to most graphic design projects