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What Is Graphic Design? A Beginner’s Guide to This Creative Career

male designer standing at desk working on computer

When you think of graphic design, do you think of artistic advertisements? Eye-grabbing graphics on websites? Stunningly arranged spreads in magazines? While these examples certainly fit under the graphic design definition, 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, exactly? Listing these graphic design examples is a good start, but it doesn’t paint the full picture. While covering the details and intricacies of the entire graphic design field might not be possible in one article, this high-level overview will help you better understand this creative career field.

If you’re at all interested in becoming a professional graphic designer, keep reading to learn the basics of the field.

First, 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 in a visual way. These visuals can be as simple as a business logo, or as complex as page layouts on a website.

“Graphic design takes graphical and textual elements and implements them into multiple types of media,” says designer Alexandros Clufetos, when asked to elaborate on the graphic design definition. “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 digestible 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, it is also used in other contexts and graphic design work is often created purely as a means for artistic expression.

Graphic design basics

To better understand the meaning of graphic design, it is important to be aware of the elements and principles that make up design. Elements are used in conjunction or opposition with each other to create visually striking and impactful designs.

These graphic design elements include:

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

Graphic designers also adhere to the principles of design, which are essentially a set of guidelines that help a design achieve effective composition. These basic principles aid in creating balance and stability for the piece of work.

These graphic design principles include:

  • Balance
  • Contrast
  • Emphasis
  • Movement
  • Proportion
  • Rhythm

You’ve heard the old saying that “rules are meant to be broken,” which can certainly ring true in this case. But a good graphic designer must first understand these principles before making the conscious decision to break them.

Types of graphic design

As mentioned earlier, there is no single graphic design meaning. Graphic design is composed of many fields and specializations, ranging from print and web design to animation and motion graphics. Graphic design offers opportunities and options for individuals of almost any interest.

If you’d asked someone 30 years ago to define graphic design, their answer would have likely been focused on print-related examples like magazines, movie posters and advertisements. Now we’re living in the digital age, which has given birth to several new types of graphic design.

Some of the most notable modern-day graphic design examples stem from advancements in technology. Here’s a glimpse of some of these types of graphic design:

  • Website design involves creating engaging and intuitive web pages for users. This includes overall layout, color scheme and navigation.
  • User experience (UX) design is focused on ensuring a website or application is easy and satisfying to use. These designers emphasize value, usability, adoptability and desirability.
  • Motion graphics design—or animation—brings visual elements to life through special effects, TV shows, video games and movies.

Common graphic design jobs

With technological advancements introducing new types of graphic design, there has also been an emergence of new graphic design jobs. This evolution has changed the entire landscape of careers in this field.

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 24 percent through 2028, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).1 Much of this demand is spurred by business’ and organizations’ increased need for digital graphics and imagery as they aim to increase their digital presence.

So with that said, what are some common graphic design job titles? We analyzed more than 30,000 job postings calling for a graphic design degree over the past year.2 The data helped us determine the most common job titles:

  • Graphic designer
  • User experience (UX) designer
  • Web designer
  • Art director
  • Creative director

As you can see, once armed with the proper knowledge and training, there are several graphic design job options out there. You have the ability to cater your career to your personal skills and interests.

Popular graphic design tools

Now that you know what type of jobs and specializations are out there, it’s helpful to familiarize yourself with the graphic design tools that help get the job done. One of the most basic, and least expensive, tools designers use 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, similar free open-source software such as GIMP can help you begin to 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,” explains 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 gain 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. There plenty of inspiring graphic design blogs that can help get your creative juices flowing.

Create your future in graphic design

What is graphic design, exactly? As you’ve just learned, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all definition. There are countless ways to use graphic design to solve business problems or evoke inspiration. It’s up to you to determine what graphic design means to you and your future career.

Having an eye for design is a great start, but do you possess the other natural traits of a graphic designer? Find out in our article, “Should I Be a Graphic Designer? 6 Questions You Should Be Asking First.”

1Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [accessed February 2020]. 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. Employment conditions in your area may vary.
2Burning-Glass.com (analysis of 32,238 graphic design degree job postings, Feb. 01, 2019 – Jan. 31, 2020).

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published in 2017. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2020.

Callie Malvik

Callie is the Content Manager at Collegis Education, overseeing blog content on behalf of Rasmussen College. She is passionate about creating quality resources that empower others to improve their lives through education.

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