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What is graphic design

  • Published on October 1, 2021
Graphic Design

Graphic design presents visual communications for the purpose of conveying messages with specific objectives that may relate to a business, organization, or cause. Graphic design is a profession, academic discipline, and skill. Graphic design is used for communication purposes by graphic designers, visual designers, user interface designers, filmmakers, and others in design-related fields. Graphic design is often used for the purpose of advancing the communications objectives of businesses and organizations, although it can also be used purely for artistic purposes.

Using design principles, graphic design communicates ideas or messages to achieve specific objectives that may include conveying information, product promotion, or brand recognition. Those who create graphic designs interpret, organize, and present visual information. When creating graphic design, certain principles are considered, such as negative space, volume, value, color, and texture.

What graphic designers do

Graphic designers create art that serves a variety of purposes. Graphic designers work in a variety of roles. They may work in positions with titles such as art director, multimedia artist, or animator. Graphics designers find work at companies, organizations, brands, design, while other graphic designers are self-employed.

In-house graphic designers work exclusively within the marketing or creative departments of an organization or brand. Taihea Hurst, who worked as an in-house designer for Madonna University, said in a Medium blog that her role gave her branding experience, a consistent workload, and a laid-back work environment compared to graphic design agencies. However, Hurst also said working exclusively for one company may come with drawbacks like limited creative flexibility and opportunities for growth.

Working for agencies, which are contacted by clients to produce work, affords graphic designers the opportunity to work on a variety of projects and get paid well for their efforts. This type of fast-paced work environment may allow designers to collaborate, work in teams, and even find mentors. Some designers might seek out employment outside of graphic design agencies because of the rigorous speed of production and the inability to pick and choose their projects.

In comparison, graphic designers who freelance or do contract work enjoy a lot of freedoms, such as selecting projects, setting prices for their work, and creating their own schedule. Still, freelancing in any industry is challenging. Any graphic designer who wants to be their own boss will have to build a client base and portfolio, manage their own business, build a website, and file their taxes as a self-employed individual.

Regardless of how a graphic designer is employed, their responsibilities largely remain the same. Most graphic designers will start new projects by meeting clients virtually or in-person to discuss their vision, expectations, budget, and timeline. From there, proposals are drawn up and rough drafts are created. After absorbing feedback from clients and getting final approval, graphic designers also ensure that the quality of the content is maintained during its distribution, whether it is printed, mailed, or uploaded.

History of graphic design

Although William Addison Dwiggins is often credited with creating the term “graphic designer” in the 1920s, the concept and its practice were not new. They began to emerge alongside the Industrial Revolution and the invention of the printing press, which allowed for book design to evolve from a simple craft to an interpretive art, according to Rune Madsen, designer and author of “Programming Design Systems.”

New artistic movements like dadaism, art nouveau, and futurism were birthed from lithography, allowing artists to move beyond the restraints of the printing press and produce their own prints en masse. As computers emerged in the late 20th century, graphic designers digitized their trade using programs like SuperPaint, Quark, Illustrator, and Photoshop.

“Today, we stand on the precipice of a whole new chapter in graphic design history. The advent of augmented reality and virtual reality, the pervasiveness of smartphones, and the promise of 5G and the Internet of Things all point to yet another dramatic shift in the evolution of graphic design technology,” Kara Franco of Diace Designs wrote.

Specific graphic design skills

Graphic design is an incredibly vast field that incorporates a range of products, multimedia, and skills, including:

  • Visual design: Using the principles of design to improve a product’s aesthetic appeal, optimize user experiences, and drive brand recognition, brand loyalty, consumer engagement, and/or sales

  • Typography: Arranging a specific font style into a legible, pleasing composition in order to elicit certain emotions within its viewers and convey a specific message

  • Page layout: Formatting text, images, and graphics on a page in a balanced manner to emphasize a theme or deliver a message to viewers

  • Illustration: Using a visual medium, such as traditional gouache paints or modern digital artwork apps, to creatively interpret a text, prompt, or idea 

  • Data visualization: Transmuting complex information or data into a simple, digestible graphic that engages viewers

  • Web design: Using a combination of programming skills and design principles to draft, code, and create a website and its subsequent pages

  • User experience (UX) design: creating, testing, and editing a product with the needs of its users in mind to optimize the usefulness of the product

  • User interface (UI) design: creating graphical layouts with seamless compositions that prioritize usability and user experience

  • Digital design: producing any kind of multimedia designed for digital format, including icons, banners, online ads, and animation 

Individual graphic designers may not use all of these skills in their daily work. However, many degree programs, certificate programs, books, and tutorials cover these skills to help graphic designers develop specialty skills that they can use to find employment.

Where graphic design is used

Graphic design is used in many fields and is seen from the time a person wakes up each day until they go to sleep. From the design of a cofee label to the appearance of a magazine, advertisement on a billboard, or the layout of a magazine, graphic design is visible across these forms. From posters and advertisements, to package designs and in-store displays, graphic design reaches individuals in many environments. From watching movies to reading news articles, graphic design is visible in many forms. Data visualization and information graphics have become popularized tools of news media as individuals increasingly seek out information online, and are other forms of graphic design. The entertainment industry employs graphic designers to create designs for television and movies, as well as draft promotional materials. Our digital environments are not exempt from the pervasive nature of graphic design, as applications and web interfaces leverage principles of user experience design, which incorprates many graphic design principles.

What you can do with a graphic design degree

A graphic design degree provides opportunities to work in many of the fields that utilize visual communication, including digital and analog design roles. Available roles for those with a graphic design degree include many professional jobs in good paying careers:

  • Graphic designer

  • User experience (UX) designer

  • User interface (UI) designer

  • Art director

  • Photo editor

  • Apparel graphic designer

  • Logo designer

  • Illustrator

  • Packaging developer

  • Multimedia artist

  • Animator

  • Desktop publisher

Because graphic design is a broad craft, many degree programs in this concentration will offer classes for students to develop specialized skill sets related to these career paths.

How you can learn graphic design

There is no one way to learn graphic design. While some may opt for obtaining a degree, it is not feasible financially or personally for others. Tutorials, books, certificate programs, and online or in-person classes are also great ways for beginners to establish a foundation and explore areas of personal interest within graphic design.
However, classes offer valuable benefits that other learning methods do not: one-on-one instruction, guided learning, and collaboration with other students. The American Graphics Institute offers both online and in-person graphic design courses that cover everything from design principles to the latest features and programs. Whether you’re interested in a graphic design workshop, other graphic design classes, or a graphic design certificate, there are many options for learning graphic design.

Graphic design jobs

In May 2020, the median annual wage for graphic designers was $53,380, or $25.66 per hour, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. While employment of graphic designers is projected to decline over the next decade, this projection may fluctuate depending on the employer.

For example, the employment of graphic designers in computer systems design is projected to grow, and the employment of graphic designers in newspaper, periodical, book, and directory publishers is projected to significantly decline. Competition will be strong for any available position.

Despite the saturated job market, graphic design is a strong career choice because it will always be in demand. If you harness your creative abilities and stay on top of the latest design trends, technologies, and techniques, a career in graphic design could be the perfect fit for you.


About the author

Christopher Smith is president of American Graphics Institute in Boston, Massachusetts. He is the publisher and editor of the Digital Classroom book series, which have sold more than one million copies. At American Graphics Institute, he provides strategic technology consulting to marketing professionals, publishers and to large technology companies including Google, Apple, Microsoft, and HP. An expert on web analytics and digital marketing, he delivers Google Analytics classes along with workshops on digital marketing topics. He is also the author of more than 10 books on electronic publishing tools and technologies, including the Adobe Creative Cloud for Dummies. Christopher did his undergraduate studies the at the University of Minnesota, and then worked for Quark, Inc. prior to joining American Graphics Institute where he has worked for 20 years.