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Last updated on 6/25/20

What Does a Graphic Designer Do?

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A graphic designer is who puts together all the elements on a page (or screen). Their goal is to present the content in a way where it can easily be understood by the audience. Design is like a puzzle where the designer's goal is to put together all the pieces in a way that makes sense to the viewer, and enhances the content (design can be guilty of being distracting, too). Let's look at some factors to consider when designing, or working with designers.

The secret sauce of graphic design: simplicity

Graphic design done right looks simple, easy, and seamless. That doesn’t mean no thought or work went into its creation. Graphic designers are visual communicators whose job is to put together elements, including words (also known as text or copy), typography (think headlines), images, illustrations, etc. 

In addition to designing the visuals, the designer also needs to think critically about the content as well in order to make sure that words and visuals are working together to effectively communicate the desired message.

Have you ever taken a close look at the FedEx logo? Look closely between the 'E' and 'x' – do you see the arrow pointing right? This is an excellent example of negative space. Simplicity can go a long way! 

The "I Love NY" logo was designed by Milton Glaser in the 1970s and remains one of the most long lasting and well known logos in the world. He sketched it on a crumpled envelope in a taxi on the way to a meeting – further proof that you don't need fancy tools to have big ideas! 

Every decision a designer makes should be intentional. Just because something looks pretty, does not necessarily mean that it is effective as a design. A designer needs to think like an editor to make sure key ideas are communicated. 

Design for the times

Throughout time, different design trends have come and gone. Whether it's through use of space, choice of typography, or integration of embellishments, graphic design often makes references to moments in the past can help communicate a message. Different visual styles are found throughout history. Here are just a few:

Each of these periods in design were impacted by the technology available at the time, from tools, to techniques, and digital innovations. For instance, consider the differences between letterpress printing where each letter had to be individually set, to the way that modern printers spit out copies in a matter of seconds. These technological changes help explain how design styles have changed over time. 

Graphic Design today

Graphic designers may work freelance, be part of a small studio, or large agency. They may design books, magazines, brochures, posters, billboards, websites or apps. The term “in-house designer” refers to a full-time designer at a company that doesn’t necessarily do design work (for instance, I worked as a graphic designer at a regional theater and architecture firm, where I designed marketing materials, but also “environmental” [building] signage and wayfinding [directional] signage).

Here are some job titles*  in the realm of graphic design you may find yourself  working as, or collaborating with one day. Depending on the workplace, these titles may have different meanings. Also, often times roles include several types of design.

  • Graphic designer – creates visual designs, primarily print (in many forms, even packaging design, but not necessarily web design)

  • Communications designer – similar to a graphic designer, but often involves cross-over into other disciplines or backgrounds such as marketing or communications

  • Publications designer – primarily works on design specific for magazine or books

  • Web designer – designs websites and interactive experiences

  • Production designer – manages the visual aspects (typically in film)

  • Environmental designer – focuses on designing signage and exterior graphics

  • Art director – oversees a team of designers, and may pull in additional illustrators, animators, stylists, coders, etc. to execute the design

  • Creative director – oversees the entire creative vision (most often in an agency setting)

  • Illustrator – creates individual illustrations (for instance, an art director for The New York Times may hire an illustrator to create a visual in a particular style for a specific article)

  • UI [User Interface] designer – designs the graphic look and style of apps and websites
     designers these days may have one title but fulfill several of these roles.

UI is the top of the iceberg which is everything visible, visual, graphic. UX is below the water and hidden – it's the design research, information architecture, understanding the problem,  wireframes, prototypes, and usability testing.
UI vs. UX as an iceberg.

Where can I go for graphic design inspiration?

  • AIGA is the [American] professional association for graphic design (they also have handy resources for contracts, copyright, spec work, etc.)

  • AIGA on Eye on Design is a fun blog and newsletter exploring design

  • Design Observer is a website composed of writings on design and visual culture

  • UnderConsideration Brand New blog examines corporate and brand identity work (aka logos)

  • It's Nice That is a UK-based website championing creativity

  • AdobeCreate blog introduces you to professionals across creative industries

  • SwissMiss is the blog of Swiss-born designer Tina Roth Eisenberg who curates her favorite examples of design in the world

  • Pinterest (Warning: not all design is created equal. Just because it's on Pinterest doesn't make it good.) 

Cost of software ≠ quality of ideas

The majority of professional graphic designers use the Adobe Creative Suite (now often referred to as the Creative Cloud) as their software of choice. Graphic designers are most likely to use:

  • InDesign – page layout software for integrating text and images (multi-page documents)

  • Illustrator* – ideal for illustrations and creating vector images; artboards allow designers to work with multiple pages or screens

  • Photoshop – image editing platform

  • Adobe XD* is Adobe’s UX design platform that showcases interactions between screens

You can watch free tutorials on the Adobe website. Depending on what kind of company you work for, the Adobe Creative Suite can be a valuable skill set to have on your résumé.

Other (cheaper) programs you can use for graphic design:

  • Pages - good for document layout (Mac only)

  • Powerpoint or Keynote – good for designing presentations

  • Canva (online tool aimed at non-designers)

  • Sketch (Mac only) is popular with UX designers *

  • Figma

* Software that you may encounter in UX design. More UX specific software, tools and resources will be introduced in later courses.

Example of certificate of achievement
Example of certificate of achievement