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As new opportunities for designers have multiplied, so have the job titles and terminologies to describe them. It can be tough to figure out the difference between a graphic designer a graphic artist or a visual designer and a web designer: To an outsider, they all may seem to use the same methods, work with the same tools, and create similar products.
In some cases, the terms may even be used interchangeably, which can make it hard to figure out what each job actually does—or which field might be the best fit for you.
So what is the difference between these four jobs? Who does what, exactly? And how does your work fit into the mix? Follow along as we break down the big differences between four commonly confused creative jobs—graphic designer, graphic artist, visual designer, and web designer—and discuss exactly what they create.
Graphic designers are communicators first and visual artists second. Graphic designers can have their own look or style, but as a general rule, the best graphic designers are less concerned about personal expression and more focused on solving a problem or communicating an idea in the service of a brand, client, or project.
Graphic design has been around since the printing press, but it came into its own after the industrial revolution when increased commercialization and new forms of communication necessitated visually appealing advertisements, products, and brand logos. In the twentieth century, the field exploded in popularity, and many of the classic techniques for creating effective and beautiful graphic designs were developed and codified. Today, graphic designers work on printed materials just like graphic artists, but they are also more readily associated with advertisements, brochures, packaging design, logo design, signage, commercial posters, and editorial projects such as magazine layouts.
Because graphic designers are primarily concerned with getting a message across, they must be much more careful about what they say and how they say it. Graphic designers have less fluidity in their creative process than graphic artists do and are more apt to plan their work before they begin. Graphic designers often include common elements such as line, shape, type, and image, but they also might include:
- Color: a particularly useful tool to communicate a specific message to an audience. Different colors can suggest different ideas including stability, immaturity, youthfulness, peace, harmony, or opposition. Color combinations can be visually pleasing or discordant, depending on what a graphic designer wants to convey.
- Texture: the visual (and sometimes literal) “feel” of a surface, which can help graphic designers make a statement about their brand or idea. Organic textures like fur, flowers, gravel, sand, and feathers—or abstract textures like patterns and photography—can communicate vastly different ideas.
- Space: a useful tool to communicate the importance of a particular visual element, organize a design, offer balance and “breathing room,” or convey isolation and loneliness.
- Transparency and overlap: useful tools to create multiple planes within a design, or a single, visually interesting plane.
- Diagonal: a way to position images, text, or other visual elements to imbue a design with more dynamism, suggest movement, or direct the audience’s eye.
Graphic artists may use the same techniques, but only in the service of self-expression or to evoke a mood rather than specifically to communicate an idea.
Because they are most concerned with communicating effectively—and thus may be more beholden to new technology—the tools for graphic designers have evolved more rapidly than those that many graphic artists use. One hundred years ago, the field relied on sketching by hand. Now, it primarily involves digital services like Adobe Photoshop and InDesign instead. As the preferred programs for graphic designers have concentrated in the digital realm, so too have job opportunities. While there are still plenty of graphic designers who work in editorial or poster design, there are also many who spend their careers designing online icons, vector logos, animation designs, and other digital objects.
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A graphic artist is traditionally a fine art designation. Using the broadest definition, it means anyone who works on a two-dimensional (flat) surface and primarily relies on line and tone (more than color) to add life and feeling to their work. People who create illustrations, draw type on paper (sketch artists and calligraphers), engrave images or words into stone, or use carved woodblocks to illustrate manuscripts are all graphic artists of some kind. Most often, though, the term “graphic artist” refers to someone who is a printmaker—whether they use ancient or modern printing techniques—and works primarily in black and white or grayscale. Figuring out the difference between a graphic artist and a graphic designer can feel tricky, but you can steer clear of confusion by focusing on the “art” part of the job description.
Two major distinctions keep a graphic artist from being a graphic designer. First, a graphic artist always sets out, first and foremost, to evoke a feeling or set a mood. They are artists in the sense that they don’t necessarily begin their projects with a plan or final product in mind. They may or may not care if the audience receives a specific message or whether their work solves a specific problem—if they do, that’s great, but it’s never the primary purpose of their work. Their goal is self-expression, creation, and emotional resonance or ambiguity.
Because conveying a specific idea is not their primary goal, graphic artists are less likely than graphic designers to be tethered to new technologies or methods of communication. That’s not to say that they don’t (or can’t) make full use of digital design tools: Rather, they can freely stray into more primitive practices if they feel that doing so would benefit their creative process.
Often, confusion sets in because many of the same visual tools that graphic artists depend on to express themselves are the same or similar to those that graphic designers use. Because they are just as concerned with keeping their audience’s eye engaged, graphic artists use things like:
- Line—a simple element of design that, depending on its form, weight, length, and context, organizes other visual elements, implies movement, or conveys emotion.
- Shape—a set of points connected by curved or straight lines that can connote anything from chaos to order, friendliness to aggression, or power to fun.
- Type—a style of lettering that sets a mood, creates balance (or imbalance), and can suggest an artist’s intent.
- Image—an illustration or photograph that helps artists express themselves and evoke an emotion or mood.
Similarly, because graphic artists can use their work to serve a client, a brand, or another commercial purpose, the lines between their work and that of a graphic designer are often blurry. Graphic artists’ work can be found on anything from paper cups to packaging, but their important distinction from designers is that the initial motivation for creation is about expressing themselves artistically. Graphic artists may ultimately solve a problem or communicate an idea, but they don’t begin work with the intention of doing those things.
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Visual designers’ jobs combine graphic art, graphic design, and user interface (UI) design, or the design behind how audiences experience and engage with the digital realm.
Visual design is a relatively new field, one that developed in recent years with the advent of high-speed internet. Visual designers are similar to graphic artists in that they are interested in visually appealing and engaging design. They are also similar to graphic designers, in that they work to solve problems with visual solutions. But visual designers apply their skills and ideas digitally to ensure that audiences, or “users,” get the most out of a client’s website, online game, or branded internet experience. As a result, visual designers use some of the same tools as graphic artists and designers but require a broader skillset to effectively conceptualize and build digital experiences.
Like graphic designers, visual designers use type, line, shape, image, color, texture, and space to convey certain ideas about a brand or web product. They also follow specific principles of graphic design:
- Balance: used by designers to ensure that their project is visually pleasing, balance motivates the viewer’s eye to move around their arrangement.
- Scale: a way to convey how important specific visual elements are, as well as communicate a sense of visual excitement and surprise. In design, scale measures how big or small items are relative to one another.
- Framing: a tool to underline the critically important visual elements of a given project with margins, borders, bleeds, and cropping.
- Hierarchy: a way to give order to information so that audiences or users do not have to try to navigate complex content by themselves. Designers might use weight, color, or different kinds of type to indicate hierarchy in a piece of work.
Unlike graphic designers, visual designers are less concerned with imparting a particular message—though that may be part of their work in some specific cases—and more interested in how intuitively users interact with a specific brand and its digital platform. In that sense, they are more like user interface designers. Visual designers must have a firm grasp not only on digital toolkits such as Adobe Photoshop and InDesign, but also on how to wireframe websites (though not necessarily how to code). Visual designers must understand how to apply concepts that are closely related to identity design, branding, visual messaging, and visual communications to fully flesh out and explain their work.
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Web designers don’t just consider the design behind websites—they build them, too. Web designers are both creative and technologically savvy. A specialized web developer uses the same design elements that a visual designer does to create websites that are effective and beautiful. Web designers also rely on the same tools that graphic artists, graphic designers, and visual designers, do—the same ideas about color, line, shape, typography, texture, space, balance, scale, framing, and hierarchy. But their ultimate goal is to create a website that is as easy to use as it is visually appealing and brand-appropriate.
Just like visual design, web design is a fairly new creative profession, and the emphasis is on creating intuitive, appealing designs. Like graphic design, web design relies on digital programs like Adobe Photoshop and InDesign to create logos and icons for digital platforms. The key distinction is that unlike other designers, web designers need a command of coding languages like HTML and CSS: After all, they are often employed to build websites from the ground up. Web designers rarely work on any other print or other digital projects.
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Although there is a significant overlap between graphic design, graphic art, visual design, and web design, each profession is distinguished by its creative intentions, goals, skillsets, toolkits, industry history, and final product. Regardless of the path you choose, you must continue to develop your techniques, trust your creative instincts, and establish your signature style. Whether you set out to make fine art, unique packaging, or a spectacular web experience, you’ll bring the best, most appealing designs to life when you embrace your strengths and remain open to learning new things. Enroll in a class today to grow your skills and continue your career journey.