I am a graphic design instructor and web designer. I love technology, art, and information.
What Exactly Is Graphic Design?
I am often asked this question. In the past, graphic designers were called commercial artists. In my humble opinion, the term commercial artist is still very fitting, and probably even more concise.
Graphic design can cover a wide range of commercial artistry but most often refers to the application of design to things like printed materials, company branding, logos, signage, designs for web, social media channels, and things most people never notice but look at every single day. Things like product packaging, billboard designs, and nearly everything you look at on a daily basis that has images and words occurring together (and sometimes only one or the other) was created by a graphic designer.
Everything from that adorable clothing tag to the brochure at your dentist's office—and everything in between. That is graphic design.
Samples of Graphic Design Work
What Is Graphic Design Like as a Job?
Designers become designers in many different ways. Not all of us were drawn to art from day one. Graphic design is usually learned out of necessity. You need a flyer for your business or your kids' bake sale and suddenly you're choosing silly fonts, photos, and colors, trying to make the template look presentable. (Though most professional designers rarely use a template!)
Graphic design is a career of problem solving and organization. The problem solving portion of what a graphic designer does involves meeting a challenge. Our client generally tells us what that challenge is without us having to ask, "I need to sell more books."
Graphic design is form and function working together. That may sound like a cliche, but really, it's a formula for success. The form is one half of what a designer does, we create or choose imagery that tells a story. This may be by way of great photography or illustrations, iconography, texture, type, or any combination of these things. Along with the aesthetics of the design (or the "pretty" stuff), we are also challenged with sending the message that our client needs to send.
Part two of what a designer does is organize: Hierarchy of the elements on a page helps the viewer get the message. Things like a headline, call to action, and remembering to put contact information fall within the range of this often grey area of design. A professional designer knows to ask questions, and to educate the client when they fail to provide such details. Remember, form and function. If you allow your client to forget the website or 800 number and nobody can buy their product, you've failed.
"I need to sell more books," is the message. With an attention grabbing website, an expertly designed book cover, and well designed social media presence, the graphic designer truly becomes a cog in the marketing machine. We may not be the marketing team, but we are an integral part of the execution of a marketing strategy, and quite often that strategy is born with the design team first.
As a job, designers quite often spend more hours executing the creative idea. What this means is that as an actual career, in hours spent per day, you may often spend less time being creative and more time creating. What that means is that often the "fun" part happens early on. Once you have your base design, elements are reused throughout a campaign, so your actual time spent on a job is spent laying out pages, creating assets for different social media channels, website elements, and other functions that require an entirely different skill set.
While you may view graphic design as a career where your time is entirely spent making beautiful things, truly much of our time is spent organizing information, checking margins and specs, and nitpicking details. Choosing the perfect typeface that is easily readable yet complimentary to the look and feel of the overall composition is imperative. Choosing the right display fonts is even more critical.
Inexperienced designers often overcompensate with poor typography choices, and forget to give equal attention to things like leading (line spacing), kerning (letter spacing), margins and gutters, widows and orphans, grammar, spelling, spacing, and overall page composition. These items are imperative, and these aspects of design are what separate the novice from the pro.
I would estimate that design is 20% problem solving and creativity and 80% execution. Of course, this will vary from project to project, but I feel this is a fair assessment.
Specialties in Graphic Design
Graphic designers quite often do varied work, but sometimes they are highly specialized in one specific area. Job availability will generally be regional, and some highly specialized jobs may be unavailable in some areas, while some career paths will have more flexibility. A great example of this would be a print designer versus a video game designer.
If you live in a rural area that has two print shops and zero video game developers, you may need to relocate to find your dream job! However, if you're a web designer, you can literally work from anywhere with a web connection. Your clients can be anywhere in the world—and you have almost no limitations. More and more, with the advances in technology, work can be done remotely. However, group creativity is often imperative.
Branding: Naturally I begin here, since nearly everyone thinks of a graphic designer as someone who creates logos. A logo is just a small part of branding. It should also be stated that design is also only a small part of branding, albeit a truly fun part! Branding design specialty includes things like logo, color palette, mood board creation, creating branding standards, etc. Branding gives a company a voice—and is not just the logo but the entire customer experience. Designers get to help with the look and the feel of a brand.
Art Direction: Art direction and creative direction can have crossover with branding functions, but they often include the direction of multiple projects at once. Typically, an art director handles internal branding for a design firm, plus art direction or creative direction for clients within the firm. Sometimes art directors only manage a single brand. Again, this position can be widely varied, but a director is generally a decision maker, spending less time executing and more time overseeing entire projects.
3D: There are so many different areas of 3D that I'd need to write a separate article to cover this topic entirely. 3D can include character and asset development, or the modeling and texturing of characters as well as the objects needed in 3D applications. Clothes, weapons, furniture, and landscapes are all items that need to be created by someone; 3D designers get to do this fun work. Everything from the wireframing to creating the shape of an object, as well as mapping textures that bring the wire frame to life are applications of a 3D designer. Not only objects, but environments can be created.
3D design is used in many other applications outside of gaming, too. Think about architecture, mapping technology, interior design, and other areas that 3D is used. And now with the application of 3D printing, the career opportunities here are endless.
Package Design: This one should be self-explanatory, but again, if you're truly considering a job in the field and need some room to dream, think of the endless products that you touch in a single day. At present, I can see package design for all of the following, right from where I sit: supplement packaging, office supply design and packaging, cosmetic packaging, textile label packaging. You get the idea—package design is everywhere, and it can be really fun! Specialties within this field can be even more fun—think of things like beer and alcohol package design, beautiful wine labels, food packaging, textile packaging, and the thousands of items that you see in stores. Jobs in package design are somewhat specialized, but not highly rare.
Web & Print Magazine Design
Print: Print design can cover a huge range of items, and much like package design, it has its own specialties within the category. There are the obvious printed materials like business cards and stationery, brochures, and flyers. But there are other print specialites like thermography (raised ink), flexography (generally for plastic that stretches but also used for paper), letterpress printing, embossing, debossing, and die cuts—all of the wonderful applications that make designers like me excited about work! Print is absolutely worth exploring. I think that every designer should spend at least a year in print. It is invaluable as a skill, and jobs for this particular field are literally everywhere.
Other applications in print design include things like poster, book, catalog, flyer (think weekly Sunday ads), magazine, newspaper, and publication layout. Greeting card and children's toy manufacturers always need print designers for things like coloring and activity books, toys, toy packaging, etc. Print design is another career that can often be done remotely, depending on the position.
Web: Web design is in very high demand, and like any other specialty, it requires specific knowledge. In other design applications, the skills you learn are the skills you employ, and they may change slightly over time, but they remain relatively the same. With web design, you'll be learning something new every day and this will never change. Just as you master something, it will become obsolete and a new challenge will arise. Web designers often work in communities and rely on one another because of the pace that the industry evolves. This is a great career for the left-brained designer who enjoys the technical aspects of design.
So Is It for You?
Whether graphic design is a good career choice is not entirely up to you (or me). People who want to be designers usually find that they have no natural ability, no matter how much schooling they have. Others may pick it up as naturally as a musician picks up a tune. One thing is true, if you apply yourself and practice, you can become a great designer (but this also doesn't mean that you will become one).
Graphic design is not a career for everyone. As a job, we invite (and even require) criticism every single day. Our jobs require thick skin, great communication, intelligence, intuition, creativity, and technical skill. We do much more than "make things pretty" or "sit around and color all day." We truly give a face to your business, a feel to your web page, and do our best to create things to be remembered, whether sentimental or business. Our goal remains united: to make the world a more aesthetically pleasing, correctly spelled, well kerned place, and to show the world that being a great designer does not happen in the fx panel in Photoshop.
You'll have to answer this one on your own—or in a public critique of your work.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
MPenciltalk on November 12, 2019:
Great ,really i got proper idea from this article.
ipixeler on May 06, 2019:
I have also the same question. Now almost clear.Thanks for your great information.
PXLJOBS from Bangalore on July 18, 2017:
Thank you for your informative post keep sharing the valuable information like this..