What is Graphic Design? A Beginner's Guide to this Creative Career

What Is Graphic Design

When you think of graphic design, do you think of artistic advertisements? Eye-grabbing graphics on websites? Stunningly arranged spreads in magazines? While these are all examples of graphic design, the term encompasses a lot; posters, infographics, book covers, product labels, logos, business cards, signs, website layouts, mobile apps, software interfaces—the list goes on.

So what is graphic design? Examples of things created by graphic designers is a nice start, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. While covering the details and intricacies of the entire graphic design field might not be possible in one article, this handy, high-level overview will help you better understand this creative career field—particularly if you’re interested in becoming a professional graphic designer. Read on to learn more.

What is graphic design?

According to the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), graphic design is defined as the “art and practice of planning and projecting ideas and experiences with visual and textual content.” In other terms, graphic design communicates certain ideas or messages through visuals. These visuals can be as simple as a business logo, or as complex as pages of web design.

“Graphic design takes graphical and textual elements and implements them into multiple types of media,” says Alexandros Clufetos, creative designer at Vertex Innovations. “It helps the producer connect with the consumer. It conveys the message of the project, event, campaign or product.”

Graphic design can be used by companies to promote and sell products through advertising, by websites to convey complicated information in a clear way through infographics, or by businesses to develop an identity through branding, among other things.

“Every day, we take many of the subtly artistic things around us for granted. But hidden in every magazine corner, exit sign or textbook lies a set of design ideas that influence our perceptions,” says Jacob Smith, founder of illustration studio ProductViz.

It’s also important to remember that although many graphic design projects have commercial purposes like advertisements and logos, graphic design is used in other contexts and graphic design work is often created purely as a means for artistic expression.

Elements of graphic design

To better understand graphic design, it is important to have an understanding of the elements and principals that make up design. These elements include:

  • Color
  • Line
  • Shape
  • Texture
  • Space
  • Form
  • Size

These elements are used in conjunction or opposition with each other to create visually striking and impactful designs. Graphic designers also use principals of design, which include balance, emphasis, movement, pattern, repetition, proportion, rhythm, variety and unity. Understanding how and when to use these elements and principals are essential to good design.

Types of graphic design

As mentioned earlier, graphic design isn’t a catch-all term. Graphic design is composed of many fields and specializations, ranging from print design to web design to animation and motion graphics. Graphic design offers opportunities and options for almost any interest.

One of the most popular and fast-growing specialties is web design. Web designers are tasked with creating easy-to-use, yet visually pleasing pages for websites. They are also responsible for making sites accessible and adaptive to different kinds of devices. As more and more businesses move online, web designers are needed to create compelling sites for consumer use.

If web design isn’t quite your thing, there are many more options. Animators, for instance, create special effects, TV shows, video games and movies. Mobile designers collaborate with programmers to create and design usable, visually appealing apps. Multimedia designers work with sounds, pictures, videos, graphics and more. So no matter where your interests lay—in print, web, video or beyond—graphic design may have a specialization for you.

Graphic design jobs

Technology has brought massive changes to how business are run, with much more emphasis now being placed on an online presence. This change in thinking has led to big changes in graphic design, as well. Demand for “traditional” graphic designers who work primarily for print publishers has fallen substantially, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.

Employment of graphic designers in computer systems design services is projected to grow by 20 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Much of this demand is spurred by business’ and organizations’ increased need for digital graphics and imagery as they turn their focus to the internet.

So with that said, what are some common graphic design job titles? We analyzed over 12,000 job postings that require a graphic design degree and found the following titles were most common:*

  • Graphic designer
  • Web designer
  • Art director
  • Visual designer
  • User experience (UX designer)
  • Graphic artist

Graphic design tools

Now that you know what type of jobs and specializations are out there, you can begin by obtaining the right tools to get started. One of the first, and most inexpensive, tools you can get to try your hand at graphic design is a sketchbook. Graphic designers will often sketch out ideas or rough drafts on paper before turning to a computer to complete the process.

That being said, computers and design software are essentials in today’s digital climate, even if you are designing for print. The type of computer you need is based on preference, but when it comes to software, Adobe products such as Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign are mainstays in the graphic design world. If you are just beginning and don’t want to commit to the high price tag Adobe products often carry, free open-source software such as GIMP can help you master the basics.

Lastly, ideas and inspiration are what a graphic designer needs most. “You need to have a solid concept serving as the foundation of your design and communication,” says Chad Birenbaum, co-founder of Duckpin Design. “This concept and idea needs to work on paper first and then the computer should be used as a tool to bring the concept to life.” Graphic designers get inspiration from the world around them, so if you are worried you aren’t creative enough, go outside, bounce ideas off your peers or seek ideas from the internet.

Do you have a future in graphic design?

Graphic design is growing more and more important as businesses and consumers alike begin to turn to the internet for quick and easy service. Knowing how to create visually compelling graphics will boost your potential in the marketplace.

“Design, like all creative fields, requires both a craftsman’s approach and an artist’s eye,” says Smith. “You need to have the patience to work on your skill, and the eye for detail to see the beauty in everyday bits of life.”

Having an eye for design is a great start—but you’ll need to refine this talent to make it in a graphic design career. Check out our article, “7 Things Self-Taught Graphic Designers Don’t Know They’re Missing,” to learn more about the value of a formal graphic design education.


*Burning-Glass.com analysis of 12,445 graphic design job postings (Jul. 1, 2016 – Jun. 30, 2017)


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Anna Heinrich

Anna is a Copywriter at Collegis Education who researches and writes student-focused content on behalf of Rasmussen College. She believes the power of the written word can help educate and assist students on their way to a rewarding education. 

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