What is Graphic Design? Understanding the Career Path
Graphic design is the art of communication through layout, photos, color, and typography. Graphic designers craft authentic narratives with visuals so viewers can easily read and enjoy different digital and print content.
This art form also exists at the convergence of business and creativity. Traditionally, we tend to think of graphic design as a purely creative field consisting of artists and those who can draw. Although creativity is a big part of graphic design, strategic business thinking is just as valuable, as graphic design serves as a crucial function in crafting marketing messages for businesses.
So many aspects of the modern environment — the movie poster you walk by, the mail in your mailbox, the website you visit, the email you receive — are created by someone who understands and practices the art of graphic design. For the companies who commission these design projects, graphic design is a gateway to new clients, new viewers, and most importantly, more money.
Below, I break down the elements of graphic design as a form of visual communication and answer some of the most common questions people ask when considering a career as a graphic designer.
Understanding graphic design as visual communication
Graphic design plays a vital role in the marketing process as a way for businesses to communicate with their audiences. Rather than being solely creative people, graphic designers need to be both creative and business savvy. They need to have a solid understanding of how to craft visual experiences to drive sales, capture views, and engage with the desired target audience.
On the creative side, graphic designers brainstorm concepts, sketch, make color palette selections, choose typography, photo editing, and more. On the business side, graphic designers complete tasks like creating social media ads, coordinating with ad copy and headlines, working with product photography, and guiding businesses in branding themselves, just to name a few.
Skilled designers establish a look and unique identity for each business that helps them to connect with and resonate with their target audiences. Imagine Apple without its iconic logo, or Nike without the swoosh. Now imagine going to the store only to find every product box on the shelf is white with text that is the same size. How do you decide which product to buy?
Graphic design works to unify several graphic elements to communicate with viewers.
It may be easy to overlook the page layout on a website, a holiday card, or the page of a magazine. Yet behind every layout is a process and a purpose; one that seeks to capture the essence of the message and communicate that purpose.
Layout, or composition, gives us the opportunity to craft experiences for the viewer that effectively communicate our purpose for the design. Is it to sell a new car? Promote cleaning services? Raising awareness of a charity? Inspiring a great reading experience for a novel? The layout of a design is essential in creating the right experience.
How you use typography in a design becomes part of the message. Type, typography, text, words – these all communicate something with written language.
Can you have a design without the use of photos or other visual aids? Yes, it is possible. But, can you have a design without any written words or language? If graphic design is the art of communication, then what is it without typography?
Of all the main elements that build design projects, typography is the core factor that helps a designer communicate the message.
Unlike written language, color touches everyone instantly with a wide range of feelings, emotions, and messages. If typography is the mouth that communicates through sounds and words, then color is the eyes. Along with typography, color adds a layer of rich context.
Color can mean different things to different people. Yellow may bring up memories of your mother’s bright, yellow mixing bowl she used to bake cookies. Blue can also remind you of a sad memory, perhaps the blue of a worn scarf from a lost loved one.
Color can make a difference in whether your design is seen as drab, calm, energetic, harmonious, motivational, somber, or tired. Matching the right typography with the right color separates good design from excellent design.
Photos and illustrations
Another core component of graphic design is the use of photography and images. Designers have to decide how to use an image in a design, how many to use, and whether to use a photo, graphic, or illustration.
Photography supports the storytelling aspect of design, especially in advertising. The human eye automatically gravitates to images of people and real-world objects, and so using photos will instantly focus the viewer’s attention and evoke certain emotions. Designers can also provoke curiosity, surprise, or even amusement by cropping images creatively, making a photo full-color or black and white, or distorting and manipulating a photo to create something completely new and unique.
In the design process, graphic designers bring all of these visual elements together to communicate a brand’s message to an intended audience cohesively.
Deciding whether graphic design is the right career path for you
To help you discover if pursuing graphic design as a career might be right for you, I will answer some very common questions I get from students who are asking themselves those very questions.
What are the typical projects you might do as a graphic designer?
The great thing about graphic design is that there are so many different touchpoints and industries it touches. Some of the many graphic design specialties, or areas of focus, include:
- Logo design
- Brand design (or Visual Branding)
- Print design: large banners, posters, and billboards
- Digital design: social media graphics, display ads, and website images
- Communication design: direct mailing or email campaign design
- Publication design: books, magazines, etc.
- Illustration: pattern design and digital art
- Packaging design: boxes, bottles, cans, and product packaging
- Website design
- Stationery design
The only potential downside to the broad scope of possible design projects is that it may feel a little overwhelming. You can encounter one client who needs a logo design and branding work and another client who inquires if you design websites. You can be tasked with a social media campaign to create and a deadline for a magazine layout on the same day.
The good news is that with such a variety of design projects, each day never is the same! Every day brings something new and is an opportunity to stretch yourself creatively. The variety of your clients can be different too, with different styles, tastes, and production schedules. Indeed, graphic design is not for those looking to simply repeat the same tasks or projects over and over.
Let me offer some more good news to those who might still be intimidated: You don’t have to be the master of everything. You can learn to specialize in a handful of these design project types as you gain experience. Specializing in branding work, for example, can help you earn higher commissions on those projects, as your portfolio will be more focused and your experience will be more specific. It may take time to select your design focus of choice, and it could require taking on lots of different project types to figure it out. Some find they enjoy the illustration side of design and pursue creating T-shirts, hats, and graphics, while others discover their talent in creating logo marks and icons. Stay committed, never stop learning, and eventually, you will land in your sweet spot.
How else can graphic design skills be used?
Almost anyone who uses typography, photos, or color in their job can benefit from basic graphic design skills and foundations. You can see graphic elements implemented in website creation, page layouts, motion video or motion graphics, user interface (UI) design, and much more. I have a lot of students who take my beginner graphic design course so they can deploy design skills in their current jobs.
Do I have to be good at art or drawing to become a successful graphic designer?
Students ask me this all the time, and the short answer is: no. Drawing and illustration skills can come in handy, but these skills are not required. The biggest requirement is a knack for knowing how to communicate messages well with one clear, defined goal. You don’t need to be able to draw yourself to learn how to combine graphic elements to form a successful message.
Some may say that graphic design, in the traditional sense, is a profession in decline or dying. I love to disagree! Graphic design has so many touchpoints, not only in the print world but also in the digital world.
How long does it take to become a graphic designer?
This depends solely on you and your desire to learn new software and to grow. For me, to finally reach consistent, paid client work took me around one year of study. I earned a Bachelor’s degree in Marketing, but I had to teach myself from online sources the various design software and design fundamentals. Oh – and I practiced, practiced, practiced. I would do this every evening after work, sometimes until 2 in the morning.
Another blog post I wrote goes into more detail about the step-by-step process of becoming a graphic designer.
When I started, I had a real passion for design, and today, I still do. I think this passion helped to push me forward in my self-learning journey. Online courses were not popular back when I started, so I had to learn through reading books and getting inspiration from others online. That was the inspiration for creating the graphic design courses I have now on Udemy. Now I want my courses to make this process and journey accessible and inspiring to others!
Without great graphic design principles applied to everyday communications, the world would be a dull and uninspiring place. When used correctly, photos, typography, layout, and color can spark your emotions, lift your mood, and inspire people to focus on what is most important. So, the next time you engage the work of a graphic designer by picking up a magazine, checking your mail, or opening up an app on your phone, just think – the next great designer may be you!
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