What Does a Graphic Designer Do? | Skillshare Projects



What Does a Graphic Designer Do?

“What do graphic designers do?” This question is extremely broad, since the realm of graphic designers is really vast. It’s not like asking what house painters do (they paint houses), or even what mechanical engineers do (they design or build machines). When you hear that someone works as a graphic designer, your first guess about their day-to-day will probably miss the mark.

So before asking what graphic designers do, we have to ask this question first:

What is a graphic designer?

A graphic designer’s job is to use visuals to communicate an idea. That idea could be a brand identity, a movie plot, or a company’s mission. Integral parts of a graphic designer’s work include organizing these ideas into a visual story and formatting them in ways that look pleasing to the viewer.

Nowadays, a graphic designer’s projects almost always involve the use of design software (such as Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop) or even basic website-design tools (such as Squarespace or Wix). So graphic designers no longer use an old-fashioned pencil, pen, and paper to sketch the initial versions of their designs.

Graphic designers can get plenty of work as freelancers, or they can work for a company’s design team. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that close to 20% of graphic designers were self-employed in 2016, but this number has likely increased over the past year. Graphic designers frequently do highly specialized work in advertising, printing, publishing, or entertainment.


Whether graphic designers work solo or as part of a team, they have to collaborate with others throughout their processes. At an advertising agency or a publisher, designers often answer to art directors. These directors come up with broader concepts, which designers then have to narrow down and execute.

Designers need to explain how their work interprets the client’s wishes, so that the client services team can communicate those ideas to the client. A client services team serves as an intermediary between the design team and the clients.  

Of course, this glimpse at an agency’s structure is also broad.

Sometimes, the role of the client services team entails vertical collaboration, such as carrying 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.

For instance, graphic designers working in tech or entertainment tend to have a different professional setup. They work with other creators to create graphics that will support the story that a product, game, or video is trying to tell. They support product designers at tech companies or writers at entertainment companies.

Working alone, graphic designers have to deal directly with clients. Therefore, they often closely with collaborate with individuals or companies to find their brand identity and develop ways to express it. This interpretation should both please the graphic designers’ clients and appeal to the clients’ potential customers.

Ultimately, even though graphic designers’ work often puts them in front of a computer, the job involves social skills. Graphic designers need to be able to work well alone and with others.


A (very) brief history of graphic design

Graphic-design skills range from the very low-tech (hand drawing) to the highly technological (coding). Therefore, the advent of new technology has strongly impacted the graphic-design profession over the years. However, the great thing about this profession is that as people create new technologies, the old techniques don’t necessarily melt away. Instead, the toolkit for graphic designers continues to expand.

The term “graphic design” was first used in 1922. William Addison Dwiggins created it to describe his various jobs. He 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.

Before Dwiggins coined the term, people were practicing graphic design all over the globe. From cave paintings to the Code of Hammurabi (a stone statue that ancient Mesopotamians carved their laws on), people have been using graphics to communicate with one another for centuries.

However, the invention of the printing press significantly changed the game. It inspired publishers to search for new typefaces that would make their publications stand out from the increasing number of papers being printed. It made formatting and layout easier to control, and eventually, it became more fun to play with.

Mass printing techniques grew more sophisticated, and years 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. And digital media is now an increasingly common way for the average person to catch up on news, interact with businesses, play games, and present themselves to others. Digital spaces demand graphics and layouts that are distinct from the visuals we see in print magazines and on billboards. In general, digital media lacks the spatial confines of printed materials.

Thanks to digital media, graphic designers have more opportunities to create interactive content and mixed media by 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.

The many different types of graphic design work

Graphic-design jobs can take a number of forms, including designing company logos, formatting email campaigns, and coming up with physical displays.

Here are some of the more prominent examples:

Creating a brand identity

While a brand transcends design to include attitude, emotions, and connotations, a graphic designer working on a brand needs to focus on 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.

Formatting for digital spaces

Some brand’s websites are purely visual. Others are more interactive, and play with the many possibilities that websites and apps have to offer. Graphic designers who work in this space focus on layout and graphics, as they would when creating a brand identity.

But they dive deeper into user experience (known as UX). At the base level, this experience involves designing how users navigate a site or app.

If you’ve ever gotten frustrated while trying to figure out how to contact a company via its website, or how to use the new app you just downloaded, you know how important it is to 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.

Making posters, papers, and prints

Compared to UX, posters might sound old-fashioned. But they are 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 (billboards) or online (banner ads), they require graphic design to make you look or click.

If graphic designers can make compelling posters by mastering a variety of layouts and visual techniques, they can apply those skills to book covers, greeting cards, mastheads, magazines, and all sorts of visual announcements. It’s worth noting that publications often require designers to 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. They only exist in a 3D space, so they need to stand out from a whole different set of visual stimuli.

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.

Coming up with characters

In the ever-evolving world of video games and visual entertainment, character design has become an increasingly useful skill. It involves creating fictional characters and objects. According to digital artist Hardy Fowler, “All kinds of entertainment industry clients create a huge demand for artists who can imagine and render awesome-looking machines.” Character design certainly denotes a niche genre of digital artistry, but it’s a growing discipline that involves typical graphic-design skills, such as 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 work to mobile-app layouts — sometimes for the same client.

Technical skills for graphic designers

As you can see from the wide variety of tasks that graphic designers can (and are often expected to) perform, the job requires a range of 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 abilities. Designers often need to find visual references that they can look at while sketching their designs. They also need to inform the graphics that will 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.


Next comes the sketching stage. During this part of the process, designers often put pencil to paper, and draw rough versions that they’ll later duplicate in Photoshop or another digital program. Even though much of the graphic-design work currently exists online, illustration skills remain important during the early stages of some graphic-design work.

Photography and 3D Design

Other physical skills include working with packaging materials. Fabrics and collage can also contribute to visual designs. Additionally, basic knowledge of photography can help graphic designers when they’re gathering images for their work.

Digital design

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.

Basic coding

Lastly, coding is a next-level skill for most graphic designers. But having this ability can give designers an edge when competing for work. Basic coding languages that graphic designers in the UX space know include HTML, CSS, and Javascript. If you know more complex programs, you probably have a different job title.

Staying competitive in graphic design

A graphic design career can be both rewarding and challenging. Two of the main challenges include fluidly working with clients and staying on top of new design technology.

Working with clients, or even collaborating with colleagues, can be difficult when graphic designers have their own specific visions for projects. The abilities to compromise and utilize others’ graphic design ideas are important for remaining competitive in this field. Ultimately, designers need to remember that the work they create isn’t about them. Rather, it’s about the people they’re designing for.

However, designers also need to know when to push backif a client comes up with an idea or a color palette that simply doesn’t work. Another key graphic-design skill involves sensitively exerting expertise. Some clients come to a graphic designer with a detailed blueprint of what they’re looking for. Others only come with abstract ideas. Graphic designers need to know how to work with a blueprint (and gently steer a client away from it, if need be), and 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 be unique and cutting-edge one day, then passé a month later. A graphic designer’s portfolio will stand out by getting 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 good students: They constantly keep learning about cutting-edge techniques.


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