Graphic design is the practice of visual communication, using imagery to convey information and concepts to a viewer. But it is also a fairly nebulous term. Depending on whom you ask, it might exclusively refer to analog (or printed) design products. To some, it is the overriding label to describe almost any other discipline containing the word “design.” And for others, it can even encompass art itself. So what is graphic design anyway?
Given that graphic design intersects with so many aspects of a business —marketing, sales, branding, and customer relations to name a few—it is important to understand what exactly it is we are talking about when we reference this term. That task is made extra difficult when so many new design roles and niche terms are constantly being added to the pool. To make things easier, we’ve put together this guide delving into what the word “graphic design” does and does not mean.
What is graphic design?
Graphic design is an interdisciplinary profession that involves strategically using aesthetic principles to give order and meaning to visual content. It can describe both a concept and a physical thing: specifically, it is an academic subject, a practice, an industry, a product and a purchasable service.
Graphic design is about leveraging aesthetics to help an audience digest sometimes complex content. To better understand this, let’s take a look at some common examples of graphic design’s sub-disciplines and the different information being conveyed:
- Logo design – communicates a brand’s identity
- Web/app design – communicates navigational cues, interactions, and written content
- Print design – communicates order and importance of written information
- Cover design – communicates the contents of a book/album/magazine
- Advertisement design – communicates the intended experience of a product for sale
- Label/packaging design – communicates product information
A brief history of the word “graphic design”
In the grand scheme of human history, art and communication, “graphic design” is a relatively recent concept. The first recorded usage of the term was in a 1908 San Francisco educational trade manual for printers and a 1918 California School of Arts and Crafts, Berkeley advertisement for a course on “Graphic Design and Lettering.”
Graphic design as an unnamed concept, of course, existed long before then. But when the term first showed up in an academic context, this foundation was laid for graphic design to become a formalized process, strategy, and even philosophy that could be learned. Many of the conventions that would become associated with the term—how to handle form, material, typography, and color—would also be established in academia, notably the famed Bauhaus school in the 1920s.
The early 1900s was also not that long after the advent of big corporations, rising out of the Industrial Revolution of the previous century. Thus, the formal practice of graphic design emerged alongside a growing commercial economy, and it has been most often used for the purpose of advertising and branding ever since.
The digital age brought about a subtle shift to the way we define graphic design. Now, it no longer describes a fixed thing, but something that can change, something that the viewer can literally interact with. While this has brought many new disciplines into the graphic design field, the underlying principles and purpose of visual communication have remained the same through the ages.
How graphic design works
We’ve talked about how graphic design uses visuals to convey information, but how does it accomplish this? If information is what we are after, a block of explanatory text would get the job done. But graphic designers will take that block of raw text and use their expertise to creatively style and format the information. The effect is to make the content aesthetically pleasing, meaning it is more likely that a viewer will read and retain the information.
This gets to the heart of the advantage visual communication has: it immediately engages the emotions of the viewer. People understand visuals on an intuitive level whereas words build meaning over time, forming into sentences and paragraphs in order to get a point across. Essentially, visual communication is all about a relationship with the audience and understanding what visuals will make them pay attention to.
In order to harness the power of visuals, designers break them down into their most fundamental elements and apply tried and true principles to make them speak.
Elements of graphic design
Graphic designers sort the different kinds of visuals they have to work with into what is called the elements of design.
- Color – Colors are strongly associated with emotions but they are also grounded in science.
- Type – In addition to what the words themselves say, the form and styling of the letters create a specific impression.
- Shape – Shape is the foundation of all things visible, and it can be molded into its own language.
- Line – Lines can enclose, direct attention, and create movement.
Principles of graphic design
The principles of design describe techniques for ordering the above design elements into an aesthetically pleasing composition.
- Balance and alignment – Design creates order using symmetry and positioning on the canvas.
- Contrast – Design elements must interact with one another, and their differences can be exaggerated for effect.
- Emphasis – Design must choose which pieces of information to prioritize over others (usually through contrast and proportion).
- Movement – Design (even when static) can suggest movement and energy.
- Proportion – Design uses size and weight (thickness) to differentiate elements.
- Repetition – Design uses rhyming elements to foster cohesion.
- Space – The empty (or negative) space on the canvas is important for separation.
How graphic design compares to other design disciplines
There are a number of creative disciplines that are related to graphic design (with more being added whenever new technology comes along). While there are many specialities that overlap with graphic design, there are some notable distinctions to be made.
Brand design is the process of strategically constructing a brand’s identity, from its look and feel to its values and tone. Although brand designers will use graphic design—largely in the visual identity design phase (logo, color scheme, brand typography, etc.)—branding is a holistic process that encompasses traits outside of the visual sphere (like brand voice and personality).
UX stands for User Experience, and this creative field is largely found in digital design. UX designers focus less on specific visuals and more on interactivity, which informational and interactive flows will work best for the user and make it easier for them to accomplish their tasks through an app.
Game design refers to the rules and systems of a game, how it works, what it takes to win or lose. Character and environment artists create the actual visuals of the game. Graphic designers are typically involved in visuals like in-game menus, the game’s logo and cover art.
Is graphic design art? The two share a lot in common: namely, the practice of using visuals to express concepts and emotions. But “art” itself is another one of those slippery terms, which is why this question deserves a bit more of an explanation.
The main difference is the idea of “art for art’s sake.” Art can eschew its audience in a way that design cannot. Consider, for example, architectural design: when creating a building, the architect can be creative in terms of the facade, the materials, the floorpan, etc., but at the end of the day, a building has to serve its function to house and be navigable to humans. No matter how avant garde the architect is, there is a boundary where a building will cease to be a building because that core function no longer applies to it. What, then, is it? Probably art.
Graphic design is the same way—its audience depends on it for a practical function. Hence the famous Bauhaus edict on design: “form follows function.”
Art, on the other hand, does not have a practical function in that same sense. Art in its purest form is born out of an artist’s vision and it focuses on evoking some aspect of their life experience and imagination, regardless of whether the final product might alienate an audience. Art can even be created with no intention of ever showing it to an audience.
The graphic design process
So how is a graphic design actually created? Each graphic designer will have their own process, but the following represents the most basic steps.
1. Project brief
At the very start of the process, the client is responsible for writing a creative brief that lays out the project scope, artistic direction, background information on the business, and expected deliverables. Most importantly, this should define the problem that the design is meant to solve.
Also during this phase, a client will search for a graphic designer, evaluate their portfolio, present the brief, and negotiate prices and terms.
While the client should provide information on the target audience and competitors, the graphic designer will also conduct research, merging this data with an understanding of graphic design history and trends. Because design is about visual communication, it is important to understand who exactly the design is meant to speak to.
The graphic designer will come up with potential design solutions to the brand’s stated problem. This often occurs in the form of listing out words related to key ideas from the brief (for example, in a mind map) and/or loosely sketching designs. Essentially, this phase is about coming up with the underlying concept of the design.
Once a concept has been chosen, the graphic designer will take their preferred sketch and render it into a presentable image. In other words, this is the stage where the actual design is created.
Although it is technically possible to render a design with real-world materials like paint and canvas, these days most designs are created in graphic design software in order to produce a shareable image file. A printer or software developer (depending on whether the content is physical or digital) will take that image file and create the finished product.
A finished design is never really finished. Once a presentable rendered version of the design is ready, the graphic designer will show it to the client to get feedback—notes for improvement based on their brand or general impression. This phase can also include audience feedback gathered from user testing (especially in the case of an interactive digital design).
If changes are requested, the graphic design process will start again (usually from around step #4, depending on how much change is needed).
Graphic design defined
Graphic design is an expansive concept, housing many different disciplines, elements and principles under its umbrella. In some ways, what it describes is straightforward: using visuals to communicate. But there are so many ways to accomplish this that there are endless possibilities for what graphic design can be.
At the end of the day, graphic design isn’t just about pretty pictures—it is a marriage of aesthetic principles, strategic planning, and psychology. That’s what makes it a practice that has been studied for over a century. So if you want to get a final product worthy of the name, make sure you’re working with a freelancer who knows their graphic design.