What Is Graphic Design? A Beginner's Guide to This Creative Career
By Brianna Flavin on 10/17/2023
When you think of graphic designers, what do you picture? Creative-looking, fashionable people with a tablet in one hand and a pen in the other? A lone professional using design software in a dark room? An artist?
And what does graphic design really mean? Eye-grabbing graphics on websites? While that can certainly fit under the scope of what a graphic designer might create, a career in graphic design could involve so many different things. Posters, infographics, book covers, product labels, logos, business cards, signs, website layouts, mobile apps, software interfaces—the list goes on.
“Every day, we take many of the subtly artistic things around us for granted,” says Jacob Smith, founder of illustration studio ProductViz. “But hidden in every magazine, exit sign and textbook lies a set of design ideas that influence our perceptions.”
Graphic designers work to communicate ideas in a visual format, guiding perception and informing their audience. Most graphic designers work on behalf of a client or company, creating designs to satisfy specific objectives. Graphic designers are also often considered artists.
Graphic design is a huge industry. And if you’re at all interested in becoming a professional graphic designer, there are so many options to explore!
First, what is graphic design?
Graphic design is “the art and practice of planning and projecting ideas and experiences with visual and textual content,” according to the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA®). In simple terms, graphic designers make visuals to communicate certain messages. These visuals can be as simple as a business logo, or as complex as page layouts on a website.
“Graphic design helps the producer connect with the consumer,” says graphic designer, Alexandros Clufetos. “It conveys the message of the project, event, campaign or product.”
Companies use the visual concepts of graphic design to promote and sell products through advertising, to convey complicated information in an easy-to-understand format (think of infographics), to develop a brand identity, and so much more.
While most companies are hiring graphic designers for commercial purposes, many designers also use their work for artistic expression.
What are the elements of graphic design?
A graphic designer creates work utilizing certain visual elements. Graphic designers can use these elements in conjunction or opposition with each other to create striking and impactful visuals.
These graphic design elements include:
Graphic designers also adhere to the principles of design, which are essentially a set of guidelines that help a design achieve appealing composition.
These visual concepts include:
A good graphic designer must first understand these principles, then use them (or discard them) with intention in each project.
What does a graphic designer do?
Graphic design offers opportunities and options for individuals of almost any interest. If you pursue a career in graphic design, you could work on multiple types of projects—or specialize in just one area you love.
Here’s a glimpse of the kind of tasks a graphic designer might work on.
Create engaging and intuitive web pages for users. This includes overall layout, color scheme and navigation.
If you’ve ever been on a website that doesn't make sense, buries the information you need, or looks so chaotic you can barely navigate—you’ll understand why careers in web design are so important!
User experience (UX) design
Make a website or application easy and satisfying to use. These designers emphasize value, usability, adoptability and desirability. This type of work can be both highly-technical (programming each pathway through a site) and creative (considering every part of how users interact with your platform).
User interface (UI) design
UI designers work toward the same overall goal as UX designers—making something easy for users to interact with. The interface aspect involves the visual design and layout of an application. For that reason, UI design can be a great career option for graphic designers.
Motion graphics design
Motion graphic designers and animators bring visual elements to life through special effects, video, TV shows, video games, movies and more.
Video and animated elements are becoming more and more common in advertising, and motion graphics designers have a specialized skill set for those mediums.
Print media design
Think of billboards, pamphlets, textbooks, restaurant menus, signage, print ads—print media is everywhere. And someone had to design it!
Visual communication in print can run the gamut from a gorgeous catalog that encourages readers to understand the plants they might purchase to a series of signs that guide travelers through a confusing airport terminal.
You might think of user interfaces as primarily digital—but they are physical too.
Marketing materials of all kinds
Graphic designers create visually appealing advertisements in almost every industry out there. Graphic designers working in healthcare might work on a commercial advertising the opening of a new clinic. A graphic designer working in manufacturing might create a brochure that explains their equipment to businesses considering a purchase.
Is the graphic design industry stable?
With technological advancements introducing new types of graphic design, there has also been an emergence of new graphic design jobs. At the same time, the rise of AI (artificial intelligence) may leave you wondering if the career is in trouble.
Employment of graphic designers is projected to grow by 3 percent from 2022 to 2032, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).1 This growth rate is about as fast as the average for all occupations. The BLS projects about 22,800 openings for graphic designers each year, on average, over the decade.1
The largest employers of graphic designers are companies offering specialized design services, and advertising, public relations and related services, according to the BLS.1
Graphic design skills are not as easily replaceable as people think. Powerful visual media that drives action needs to communicate with an audience—not merely look nice. Many graphic designers are excited about the advent of graphic design AI, foreseeing ways it can automate the less-interesting aspects of their jobs.
What tools do graphic designers use?
A graphic designer relies on many different tools. One of the most basic (and least expensive) tools designers use is a sketchbook. If you love studio art, you can certainly integrate those skills into your work as a graphic designer.
That said, most graphic design skills involve computer software.
A graphic designer needs to be able to use design software like Adobe Photoshop®, Adobe Illustrator® and Adobe InDesign®. Since the best graphic design software is computer-based, they also need to be comfortable using a computer (as opposed to a phone or tablet) to design.
But design elements are only part of the picture. A professional graphic designer does more than simply make designs. They have to manage their time, communicate with managers and clients, adjust to feedback and group collaboration and keep track of different projects.
Freelance graphic designers need to attract clients, budget, invoice and file taxes as well as building a professional portfolio that showcases the type of work they love.
As you can see, you need more than a good eye for color to work as a graphic designer. Technical skills, design principles and learning to use new kinds of software are all critical abilities for a graphic designer.
But you don't need to figure all of that out by yourself. Learning these skills are an essential part of a good graphic design program.
Create your future in graphic design
As you can see, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all definition of graphic design.
There are countless ways a graphic designer can solve business problems or evoke inspiration. The industry is wide enough to give you plenty of options in how you want to work.
It might surprise you to learn that some graphic designers don’t especially love art. Or that problem-solving is one of the most important soft skills for graphic designers. This field is easy to misunderstand, and many people have perceptions about graphic design that aren't based in reality.
But make no mistake—a career as a graphic designer can be wildly perfect for the right kind of person. Maybe that's you. Check out “Should I Be a Graphic Designer? 6 Questions to Help You Find Your Answer.”
AIGA® is a registered trademark of American Institute of Graphic Arts CORPORATION NEW YORK 19th Floor 222 Broadway New York NEW YORK 10038
Adobe InDesign® is a registered trademark of is a registered trademark of ADOBE SYSTEMS INCORPORATED CORPORATION CALIFORNIA 345 Park Avenue Legal Department San Jose CALIFORNIA 95110
Adobe Illustrator® is a registered trademark of ADOBE SYSTEMS INCORPORATED CORPORATION CALIFORNIA 345 Park Avenue Legal Department San Jose CALIFORNIA 95110
Adobe Photoshop® is a registered trademark of Adobe Systems Incorporated CORPORATION CALIFORNIA P.O. Box 7900 1585 Charleston Road Mountain View CALIFORNIA 940397900
1 Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [accessed 10/9/2023]. www.bls.gov/ooh Information represents national, averaged data for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries, and employment conditions in your area may vary.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published in 2017. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2023.