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What Is Graphic Design?

May 30, 2023

The term “graphic design” first came to prominence in 1920s America to describe the discipline of the print publication industry. Back then, the words referred to anything written in or designed for physical media like newspapers or magazines. Nowadays, we commonly define graphic design as the practice of composing and arranging visual and textual elements within a project. However, graphic design as a concept has existed for much longer than a mere century.

As far back as in ancient times, cultures relied on visual and textual art to communicate ideas, express feelings, and tell stories. And over time, it has evolved and adapted to different mediums to serve different purposes.

 Today, graphic design is a means of visual communication in all kinds of industries, and designers use it to help sell products, render services, describe items, or simply convey artistic ideas.

 Whether it’s incorporating static images on an ad, typeface on a book cover, or motion graphics in a video, graphic design remains an indispensable function in the way we engage with media. But it also plays an important role for business organizations in particular as it allows them to create a unique brand identity and advertise to consumers.

Definitions of Graphic Design

Because graphic design is such a broad discipline, it can be defined in different ways based on how and where it’s being used.

 For example, in a business context, graphic design plays an important role in marketing a specific message to sell a product or service. An art director or creative director might employ a team of designers to develop an ad campaign. Graphic design in this sense could comprise digital banner ads or landing pages on that company’s website.

 Business-related graphic design might also come in the form of packaging for a snack food, a poster for an upcoming film, or a logo on a business card. Any type of business can use graphic design to convey or enhance their brand, and many do so by employing web designers, copywriters, user interface (UI) designers, and more.

Graphic design can also be defined as an art form. Different types of artists, from animators to illustrators, use their design skills to help beautify and enliven anything from children’s clothing to social media apps. Many individuals adopt graphic design as an artistic hobby and use many different traditional or digital design tools to express themselves. In this context, designers work to communicate their message by manipulating words or shapes of varying colors and styles.

Elements of Graphic Design

The composition of graphic design includes several specific elements. Together, these building blocks make up the whole of the visual message. They include the following:

  • Color. Color has a large bearing on the mood of a particular project. Light hues of red or orange might communicate energy and vibrancy while dark blues or black might express a more muted or serious attitude.
  • Form. Form describes how a shape occupies space. Designers use form to keep viewers’ attention as they interpret the message.
  • Line. Lines are the primary means of directing the eye to what needs to be seen. They can be straight or curved, depending on the designer’s intent.
  • Shape. This is the form that designers tinker with to develop something meaningful within the piece.
  • Size. How big or small a shape, line, or word is determines its importance in the overall message.
  • Space. Graphic designers need to determine how space plays a role in their project as it helps direct where viewers focus their attention.
  • Texture. Texture helps give a tactile feeling to a composition, whether it’s physical or digital. Designers may need to use clever methods to effectively convey texture in a digital medium.

Principles of Graphic Design

Successful graphic designers don’t rely on intuition alone when they create visual messages. Usually, established principles govern the way designers approach their work. These basic principles can help a designer convert an initial concept to a finished product.

  •  Balance. Balance imparts structure and coherence to a design as a whole. Without proper attention given to balance, designers can confuse their viewers.
  • Contrast. This principle gives a dynamic quality to a composition, whether it’s light against dark, large against small, or soft against harsh.
  • Emphasis. Think of emphasis as the order of importance among design elements. Elements with the most emphasis are designed to be the ones that viewers see first.
  • Movement. The principle of movement suggests that viewers should have an easy time navigating from one part to the next.
  • Proportion. Essentially, the larger an element is in a design, the more important it is in relation to smaller elements.
  • Rhythm. Rhythm in a piece of graphic design is important to consider because it influences an audience’s level of engagement.

Types of Graphic Design

Different types of graphic design exist to serve different needs, whether it’s to share statistics, sell products, persuade readers, or another goal. Some of the most common types include the following:

  •  Brand design. Brand design refers to the high-level design philosophy of an organization. It’s the blueprint for the way a business looks and feels to consumers. Most brand designers standardize the way they implement design practices to maintain consistency and create a strong brand identity. For example, a brand designer might produce a style guide that discusses how to properly use typefaces, fonts, colors, and logos.
  •  Web design. If a company has a website, then it most likely employs web designers to keep it looking sharp and working smoothly for visitors. These types of designers usually exercise their skills in user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) design to guide website visitors through a sales funnel. An example might be implementing a green call to action (CTA) button to encourage consumers to buy a product.
  •  Marketing design. Marketing design can include any graphic design meant to promote a campaign or sell a product or service. The main goal of a marketing designer might be to create a compelling social media ad or help produce a billboard. Most marketing design plays a key role in advertising.
  •  Type design. This branch of graphic design focuses on typography, or the way letters look and feel. Type designers experiment with fonts, lettering, and numbers to create headlines, logos, and more. The way that letters and numbers look can have a measurable impact on how readers and viewers react.
  •  Illustration design. Unlike type design, illustration design deals with imagery and how it can complement the written word. These types of designers commonly use dedicated tools like Adobe Illustrator, InDesign, or Photoshop to create digital images that pair with typography to relate a message.
  •  Infographic design. Infographic design takes complex data and statistics and turns it into digestible images or elements. Designers in this field use the principles of graphic design to create readable tables, charts, graphs, and more for their readers.
  •  Textile design. Textile design calls for interior and industrial designers to create things like fabrics, curtains, rugs, furniture, and wallpaper. Since many textile designers also build what they design, they usually learn additional skills outside of graphic design.
  •  Editorial design. Designers working in this area of graphic design discover ways to get the most out of written words. Editorial design involves creating and publishing the words we read in newspapers, magazines, and other digital publications. An example of editorial design at work could be the size and position of a caption underneath a photo in a newspaper.
  •  Packaging design. Graphic design constitutes not just a product itself but the packaging around the product too. Packaging designers spend their time creating inviting and appealing package designs to help sway consumers to buy and use products. For example, they might include images of fresh-squeezed oranges on a juice carton to elevate its appeal.

Careers in Graphic Design

Professional roles in graphic design are almost constantly in demand because businesses and organizations are always thinking of new ways to market their products or tell their stories. The graphic design field is quickly evolving, and many organizations are looking to hire designers particularly for digital systems and services. Below are some of the most common careers in that space.

  •  Graphic designer. Graphic designers arrange words and images to communicate ideas and messages. They work by hand or with digital software to create layouts, logos, typefaces, illustrations, and more, usually for the purpose of selling a product or service. In 2021, the average annual salary for graphic designers in the U.S. was about $51,000. Jobs for these designers are expected to grow by 3% from 2021 to 2031.
  •   Web designer. Web designers use their skills to improve the functionality of web pages and how these pages interlink. They test different web page layouts for performance and change layouts accordingly. The 2021 average annual salary for web designers was about $78,000, with a projected employment increase of 23%from 2021 to 2031.
  •  UX designer. User experience designers have skills and job responsibilities that are similar to those of web designers. UX designers also ensure that users have a smooth experience as they navigate websites. In 2021, the average annual salary for UX designers was the same as web designers at around $78,000, with a healthy employment increase of 23% from 2021 to 2031.
  •  Creative designer. Creative designers are essentially graphic designers with experience in illustration, type, or infographic design. They may work with UX and UI designers to optimize web pages. The average annual salary for creative designers in 2021 was about $51,000. Jobs for these designers are expected to grow by 3% from 2021 to 2031.
  •  Art director. Art directors are usually senior-level managers that oversee the visual style and tone of design in publications like magazines and in product packaging. They might work with a team of graphic designers, UX designers, and web designers. The average annual salary for this position in 2021 was about $101,000, with an employment growth rate of 4% from 2021 to 2031.

Interested in Graphic Design?

There’s no better time than now to begin—or continue—a career in graphic design. Demand for skilled designers is always high, and the sheer amount of variety in how you can apply your love for creativity is an exciting prospect. Plus, as technology grows, so will opportunities to use your design skills in increasingly innovative ways.

 Consider an education at WGU to help prepare you for the ingenuity and creativity you’ll need as a graphic designer. An accredited WGU bachelor’s program in marketing, for instance, can help you learn how to connect to consumers in an increasingly digital world. And as you study, our flexible, online structure with no set log-in times can help you balance your school with your home and work life.

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