Graphic design as a field is quite vast, and when you hear that someone works as a graphic designer, your first guess about their day-to-day tasks will probably miss the mark. Explaining what graphic designers do isn’t quite like tackling the role of house painters—they paint houses—or even of mechanical engineers—they design or build machines. To better understand the role of a graphic designer, you’ll want to start by learning the basics of their craft: what a graphic designer is, a brief history of graphic design, the various popular career paths within the field, and which technical skills are required by most graphic design jobs. Here, we’ll cover all of that—along with some graphic design courses to help beginners get acquainted with graphic design themselves.
What is a graphic designer?
A graphic designer’s job is to use visuals to communicate an idea, whether that idea is a brand identity, a movie plot, or a rock album. It’s the designer’s job to organize these ideas into a visual story, formatting them in ways that look pleasing to the viewer.
Graphic designers are no longer limited to the old-fashioned pencil and paper to sketch the initial versions of their designs. Graphic design skills range from the very low-tech, like hand drawing, to highly technological skills, like coding. The rise of new technology has strongly impacted the graphic design profession over the years. Today, a graphic designer’s projects almost always involve the use of design software, such as Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop, or web design tools, such as Squarespace or Wix. But even as people adjust to new technologies, the old techniques don’t necessarily melt away. Instead, the toolkit for graphic designers continues to expand, and someone successful in the field likely holds some level of skill in several different categories.
Once graphic designers develop their core skills and build a strong portfolio, they can pursue careers as freelancers or go on to work for a company’s design team—they frequently do highly specialized work in advertising, printing, publishing, or entertainment. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, close to 20 percent of graphic designers were self-employed in 2016, but this number has likely increased since.
Even though graphic designers’ work often puts them in front of a computer, the job involves both technical and social skills: Whether graphic designers work solo or as part of a team, the job often requires that they collaborate with others. At an advertising agency or a publisher, designers frequently answer to art directors: The ADs come up with broader concepts, which designers then narrow down and execute. Designers need to be able to explain how their work interprets the client’s wishes, empowering the client services team—an ad agency department that serves as the intermediary between the design team and its clients—can in turn communicate those ideas to the client.
Of course, the structure around a design team differs from agency to agency Sometimes, the role of the client services team entails more vertical collaboration, where they might carry out the plans of head designers. Other times, the team participates in horizontal collaboration, which involves working side-by-side with colleagues who are tasked with telling the same story, but using different skill sets.
Meanwhile, graphic designers working in tech or entertainment tend to have a different professional setup. In entertainment, they work with other creators to generate graphics that will support the story that a product, game, or video is trying to tell. In technology, they support product designers at tech companies or writers at entertainment companies.
Even designers who work alone as freelancers or contractors have to collaborate: They generally deal directly with clients, working closely with them to develop and express their brand identity. When a project is finished, it must fit the client’s expectations and appeal to the clients’ potential customers—a feat easier said than done.
A (Very) Brief History of Graphic Design
The term “graphic design” was first used in 1922 by William Addison Dwiggins, who worked as a calligrapher, type designer, illustrator, and book designer. All of these jobs had one core aspect in common: They used graphics to communicate ideas. Thus, the term “graphic design” was born to describe his many jobs—and to describe a field that had been in practice for generations.
After all, long before Dwiggins coined the term, people were practicing graphic design all over the globe. From cave paintings to the Code of Hammurabi, people have been using graphics to communicate with one another for centuries. But the invention of the printing press significantly changed the game. It made formatting and layout easier to control, and eventually, it became more fun to play with, inspiring publishers to search for new typefaces that would make their publications stand out from the increasing number of papers being printed.
Mass printing techniques steadily grew more sophisticated until, centuries later, the home computer was born. This development completely changed the face of graphic design—again.
Today, specialized programs help designers produce their work in a way that is faster and more precise than ever before. Digital media is now the standard way for a person to catch up on news, interact with businesses, play games, and present themselves to others. Digital media lacks the spatial confines of printed materials: Its spaces demand graphics and layouts that are distinct from the visuals we see in print magazines and on billboards.
Online spaces allow graphic designers more opportunities to create interactive content and mixed media, combining graphics and sound or motion and text. Overall, the internet has opened up the world of graphic design to an unprecedented level of possibilities and media types.
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Popular Types of Graphic Design Work
Graphic design jobs can take a number of forms, from designing company logos to formatting email campaigns to developing physical displays. Here are some of the more prominent examples.
Creating a Brand Identity
Branding is about more than design: It can include attitude, emotions, voice, and connotations. A graphic designer’s focus when developing a brand is brand identity, which is essentially the visual language of the brand. It consists of a logo, color palette, typography, and cohesive system of graphics.
These aspects need to appear consistent throughout a brand’s website, advertisements, business cards, email newsletters, and other means that the brand uses to communicate to the public. Graphic designers may specialize in logo design, or they may work on crafting brand identities as a whole.
“People fall in love with brands for the same reason they fall in love with other people. They’re trustworthy, they’re friendly, they’re funny, they’re really good looking, and they have a purpose,” says designer Alex Center, whose Skillshare Original Brand Identity: How to Design Brands People Care About instructs new designers on how to approach a branding project strategically. “A brand is more than a logo. A brand is feeling. So as designers, we need to sell ourselves as more than just the people that make things beautiful.”
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Making Posters, Papers, and Prints
Posters might sound old-fashioned, but they’re a part of graphic design that may never go away. Just think about all the advertisements you see on a daily basis: Whether they’re physical, like billboards), or online, like banner ads, they require graphic design to make you look or click.
“Sometimes people say, ‘Oh, the poster is dead, it doesn’t exist anymore.’ If you’re saying that, then your eyes aren’t open because posters are everywhere,” says Ellen Lupton, curator at the Smithsonian Design Museum and instructor of the Skillshare Original Demystifying Graphic Design: How Posters Work. “Pay attention to how they grab us, to how they bring us into a special world, even for just a few seconds.”
To make compelling posters, designers master a variety of layouts and visual techniques—skills they can apply to book covers, greeting cards, mastheads, magazines, and all sorts of other visual announcements. Where publications require that designers work with standardized layouts, while projects like posters and greeting cards offer more freedom.
Designing in Three Dimensions
Graphic design jobs don’t just exist on paper or online. Product manufacturers often call upon graphic designers to create packaging. Like posters or advertisements, packages have to catch consumers’ eyes. And since they exist in a 3D space, they also need to stand out from a whole different set of visual stimuli.
“I absolutely love package design,” says Trina Bentley, owner of branding shop Make & Matter in Austin, Texas. “You have to figure out how to interweave a number of design elements into a really tight, crafted, well-considered space.”
Graphic designers who work in this realm require familiarity with materials that are used to package consumer goods. They work on paper to sketch, design software to add polish, and physical materials to ensure that their designs will look good on shelves.
Bentley’s Skillshare Original Package Design I: The Basic Why and How makes a great introduction to the field for beginners—and explains why this field can be particularly thrilling. “There’s no other format that allows you to stack up products all side-by-side and ask the buyer to make a split-second decision based off of impact,” she explains. “So much of that impact is dependent on design. To me, that is really, really exciting.”
Packaging Design Basics
Learn how to make a product stand out on the shelves with Trina Bentley, the Texas-based designer behind branding firm Make & Matter.
Formatting for Digital Audiences
Some brand’s websites are purely informational, but others are more interactive, utilizing the many options that websites and apps have to offer. Graphic designers who work in the web design space focus on layout and graphics, just as they would when creating a brand identity. But they also dive deeper into user experience, or UX. At the base level, this field involves designing how users navigate a site or app.
If you’ve ever gotten frustrated trying to find something on a website, or figuring out how to use the new app you just downloaded, you know how important it is for designers to create a clean, easy-to-navigate user interface. Graphic designers who work in this realm tend to have a basic understanding of simple coding languages.
Dreaming Up Characters
In the growing industry of video games and visual entertainment, character design has become an increasingly useful skill. It involves creating fictional characters and objects. “All kinds of entertainment industry clients create a huge demand for artists who can imagine and render awesome-looking machines,” says digital artist Hardy Fowler. Character design may be a niche genre of digital artistry, but it’s a growing discipline that involves typical graphic-design skills like illustration and expertise in design software.
All of the different tasks above can overlap to make up a single graphic designer’s job. Though graphic designers tend to specialize, some jack-of-all-trades designers easily transition from physical packaging to mobile-app layouts—occasionally for the same client.
Technical skills for Graphic Designers
As you may have gathered by the wide variety of tasks that graphic designers are often expected to perform, the job requires a number of technical skills. As a graphic designer, it is helpful to possess as many of them as possible.
Graphic design projects often begin with a brainstorming phase. This phase requires research: Designers often need to find visual references that they can consider while sketching their designs. Research informs the graphics that make up a client’s brand identity.
For instance, if a graphic designer’s task is to create a logo that looks like a bear, it’s important for that designer to see plenty of photos and drawings of bears. This viewing will give them a sense of what’s been done before, and which simple shapes will most effectively communicate the image of a bear to viewers.
Once the research phase is complete, it’s time to start sketching. During this part of the process, designers often draw rough versions of their ideas, the best of which they’ll later duplicate in Photoshop or another digital program. Even though most graphic design work ultimately takes shape on the screen, analog illustration skills remain important during the early stages of most graphic design projects.
Today, the most commonly used design software programs are Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. All graphic designers should have a basic handle on one or both of these programs. Other graphic-design programs include GIMP, Inkscape, Adobe Indesign, Corel Paintshop, Vectr, Gravit Designer, Sumo Paint, Krita, and more.
Get Started with Adobe Illustrator
Learn how to make a product stand out on the shelves with Trina Bentley, the Texas-based designer behind branding firm Make & Matter.
Photography, 3D Design, and Other Skills
Basic knowledge of photography can help graphic designers when they’re gathering images for their work, and a background working with fabrics and collage can also contribute to visual designs. Other valuable skills may include working with packaging materials, or working with a 3D printer to create functional new tools.
Staying competitive in graphic design
A graphic design career can be both rewarding and challenging. Common ongoing challenges include working with clients and staying on top of new design technology.
Working with clients, or even collaborating with colleagues, can be difficult when a graphic designers has their own specific vision for a project. The ability to compromise and occasionally embrace others’ graphic design ideas is important if you want to remain competitive in the field. Ultimately, designers need to remember that the work they create isn’t always about them—rather, it’s about the people they’re designing for.
But designers also need to know when to push back, especially when a client comes up with an idea or a color palette that simply doesn’t work. Sensitively exerting expertise is a skill all its own. Some clients come to a graphic designer with a detailed blueprint of what they’re looking for, while others only come with abstract ideas. Professional graphic designers need to know how to work with a blueprint (or gently steer a client away from it, if need be). They need to be intuitive when turning a client’s vague concept into creative, concrete visuals.
Design technology evolves quickly, so trends change quickly in this field. A design can feel innovative one day and grow passé a month later. To stand out, a graphic designer’s portfolio often needs to stay ahead of trends. The current market of modern graphic design offers a wide range of tools and media, and new ones keep cropping up every day.
That’s what makes a graphic-design career exciting: Good graphic designers are also perpetual students, constantly learning about cutting-edge techniques. Whether you’re looking to learn the basics, hoping to delve into a new realm like character design, or aiming to bring your ideas into the three-dimensional world with product design, it’s always a great time to grow your design skills. Get started by enrolling in a course today.