What Is Graphic Design: Our Complete Guide

Meta: Learn the definition of what graphic design is and what it is not along with some insight in graphic design as a career.

Graphics are a visual way of communicating with someone. Billboard along highways try to sell us things or get us to stop at some location while images online work in much the same way. Somewhere at some point in time, a person designed everything we see that’s not part of nature.

Graphic design is an art that uses graphical and textual things to communicate with other people. It may include text, images, or graphics, and you will find it in physical forms or digital forms nearly everywhere you look. Graphic designers use their skills as an artist to create many of the things we see every day including:

  • Posters
  • Billboards
  • Product packaging
  • Magazines
  • Websites
  • Soda Cans

Graphic artists use color, shapes, and layout techniques to create visually appealing advertisements and websites along with some mundane items we take for granted like a soup can label and cereal boxes. Graphic design can be simple like a plain business card or complex as your favorite comic book. The list of graphic design related items is vast. 

Some schools and colleges have entire departments devoted to graphics and art like SCAD. Don’t get all artforms confused with graphic design. An illustrator may look at a landscape or photo and recreate it using pens or pencils. A painter may do the same thing except they’ll use paint to recreate the idea or image. A photographer may capture a sunset that a graphic artist might use as a background.

A graphic artist or designer combines things created by illustrators, photographers, and other artists to communicate an idea or message visually. An excellent way to understand the difference is by comparing someone that creates a violin using woodworking tools and skills to the person that plays the violin. The crafter may not know how to play, and the violinist probably can’t make a violin. 

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A Deeper Look at Graphic Design

Modern graphic designers use software and tools to make their job easier. Long gone are the days of storyboarding where illustrators, photographers, and graphic designers created a visual representation of something by hand. However, modern tools use the same principles of design that graphic artists have used for centuries. 

Part of good graphic design is striking an emotional note with the viewer. You want to grab their attention and make them want to learn more about the design or the product. Aside from marketing, graphic arts should leave the viewer feeling like they just saw something remarkable. For instance, consider how many times you saw a specific ad online and ignored it because it was dull.

Graphic designers must understand all the pieces of graphic design and how to use them. Color is crucial, and all colors evoke some kind of emotional response from most people. Blue is formal or business oriented while green may mean proceed. Red and orange are attention-grabbing colors. Graphic design uses this knowledge to present a visual image to a viewer that gives them a message.

Some fonts create emotions as well. Fun ones help tell the viewer there may be a fun activity related to a graphic. Sans serif fonts usually get used to note excitement or happiness because the font has a clean look to it. San serif fonts like Arial get used online a lot because science says they are better for digital reading. Fonts like Times New Roman are used in print more than they get used online. 

Color theory and typography are probably the most critical tools available in graphic design. A designer must know how to use them well if they want to create visual art or designs that work and create psychological responses from viewers. The key elements graphic designers focus on include:

  • The size of things
  • Shapes and forms
  • Textures
  • Available space
  • Color
  • Lines

Designers use these elements to create visually appealing graphics meant to sway a person’s emotions toward a goal like buying a car or shopping at a specific store. Again, it’s not all about marketing, but a large part of what graphic designers do is create for advertising. Sadly, this often leaves their impactful and amazing art overlooked while its value in sales gets highlighted. 

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Types of Graphic Design

When most people think about graphic design, they immediately think about advertising. All graphic designers get lumped into one category when the field is much more diverse. If you forced us to break it into three main groups, graphic design gets split into web design, print design, and motion graphics. Animation could make a plea for a category but for now, let’s keep it with motion graphics. 

Web design needs very little introduction because everyone is familiar with websites and how they work. However, a site’s design does much more than look pretty or get your attention. Well-designed websites lead visitors to the product or section the site’s owner wishes for them to see above all the others. A lot of graphic design talent goes into making this possible.

Print design is literally everything you see in physical form from newspapers and magazines to your child’s birthday party invitations. Business cards, movie posters, and even coffee mugs or t-shirts all fall into the print design category. Someone created all of these designs to give you a message on whether it’s a funny slogan on a shirt or a striking movie poster that makes you want to see the movie. 

Motion graphics include all the extra stuff we overlook in movies and videos. The credits, logos, and those bars you see at the bottom of the screen when you’re watching the news are graphic design. The graphics featuring drinks and popcorn before a movie starts will make you want to head back to the concession area at the movies and get popcorn which is part of their graphic design. 

Graphic design requires a lot of tools and some advanced knowledge of each one. Graphic designers typically use things like sketch pads for drafting designs and sophisticated computer software like Adobe Illustrator and Adobe InDesign.

If you’re unfamiliar with Adobe software, the learning curve for most Adobe products is pretty sharp, and it takes a lot of time to get the most out of them. 

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What Graphic Design is Not

We mentioned it a time or two, but graphic design is not marketing. Graphics are a crucial part of a good marketing strategy, but that’s where the relationship ends. Churning out logos and letterheads is not all there is to graphic design. Those are technically just jobs, or orders a graphic designer might fill. Graphic design is not creating art to hang in a gallery. 

It’s essential to know the difference between graphic design and the things a graphic designer might do or create. Graphic design goes much deeper and requires the skill to see the essence of a brand or product and develop graphics that perfectly match its marketing goals. Again, graphic design is visual communication that helps guide you or piques your interest in something. 

Should You Become a Graphic Designer?

Some people are born with creativity etched into them. They just seem to see things in a way many people never notice. That said, most people can learn how to use the basics of design and graphic design tools to create things that tell a story or help guide people. However, to truly find the answer to this question, you need to decide if you’ll be happy creating amazing designs without getting much fanfare.

You can figure out if the career is right for you by examining yourself from a creative perspective and looking for traits that most designers share. Start by looking at your habits. Do you spend a lot of time on Pinterest or Instagram marveling over cool designs or creative ideas? Do you have tons of pins on Pinterest of things you thought were cool to look at?

Do you buy things because you think the packaging looks nice? Do you find yourself critiquing packaging or wondering why they didn’t use another font you think might look better in the design? Recognizing poor or weak typography and understanding how to fix it is a reliable indicator that you have a creative spirit lurking within you.

Another thing to consider is color. Do you get asked to help coordinate colorful things because you do such a good job? Weddings, flowers, rooms, or anything else that needs its colors to work well together can be excellent tests of your creative abilities. Like we mentioned above, some people are simply born to create. That said, you can learn how to be a graphic designer, so don’t give up on it if it’s a dream.

Does the branding and aesthetics of everything you come in contact with each day have an impact on you? Understanding branding is critical to graphic design, so if you see errors in branding or think you can do a better job on something you might be a graphic designer at heart.

You have to love to learn and wear a thick skin if you want to break into graphic design. Your early work will be bad. Instead of getting upset about a bad critique or giving up, a graphic designer will learn from their errors, and they’ll understand that bad reviews are learning experiences.

If you’re still not sure, talk to your teachers, parents, spouse, or friends and ask them if you have certain traits. Trust us; they’ll know if you see the world differently from the average person. People tend to pick up on the creative side of others, especially if they lack any creative abilities themselves. That said, be prepared to get bad news as well just in case you don’t display a lot of creativity.


All graphic design is created using very basic ideas balance, contrast, repetition, alignment, and a hierarchy to give the design a direction or reason for existing. Shapes, colors, images, illustrations, and their cousins are combined with these ideas to show you a message and attempt to guide your thoughts. In short, graphic design is art with a goal.

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