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.

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.

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.

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.

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).