Graphic design, also known as communication design, is the art and practice of planning and projecting ideas and experiences with visual and textual content. The form of the communication can be physical or virtual, and may include images, words, or graphic forms. The experience can take place in an instant or over a long period of time. The work can happen at any scale, from the design of a single postage stamp to a national postal signage system, or from a company’s digital avatar to the sprawling and interlinked digital and physical content of an international newspaper. It can also be for any purpose, whether commercial, educational, cultural, or political.
Design that’s meant to be experienced in an instant is the easiest to recognize and has been around the longest. For over a hundred years, designers have arranged type, form, and image on posters, advertisements, packages, and other printed matter, as well as information visualizations and graphics for newspapers and magazines. Motion graphics are equally predetermined and crafted, but are meant to be experienced over a fixed time span, such as for the opening credits of a movie or an online video meant to accompany a newspaper article.
The design of books and magazines also has a long history. Whether physical or digital, these are objects that are meant to be enjoyed over time, during which the reader has control over the pace and sequence of the experience. In books, the content usually comes before the design, while in magazines, the design is a structure that anticipates written and visual content that hasn’t yet been created. Some commercial websites or exhibition catalogues also fit in this category, as do digital or physical museum displays that show information that doesn’t change. All have fixed content, but the user or reader determines their own path through the material.
Many designers also produce systems that are meant to be experienced over time, but aren’t confined to the making of objects. Wayfinding, which is a form of environmental graphics, refers to the branding and signage applied throughout and on buildings. While each sign or symbol in a public or private building is a work of design, they’re all part of a larger system within the building. The design of the system—the relationships between all of those parts—is where the designer brings value. Similarly, while all of the artifacts of a commercial or institutional brand, such as a business card, sign, logo, or an advertisement are individual expressions of design, how those are experienced together and over time is the design work. No part of it has been created without considering the others, or without thinking through how a target customer will encounter and then develop a relationship with that brand.
Designers are also responsible for interactive designs where the content is fluid, sometimes changing minute to minute, as well as interfaces that help users navigate through complex digital experiences. This work differentiates itself by adding another element: responding to the actions of the viewer. Editorial design for web and mobile is the most tangible example of content-driven work in this area, including publication websites, mobile apps, and blogs. Some design involves the presentation of streaming information, also known as data visualization. Other designers work on digital products, which are digital services or platforms that can be brought to market. Product design for web and mobile is related to software design. Sometimes different designers work on the user interface design (UI), which mostly refers to the individual layouts of pages, and the user experience design (UX), or the total experience of the user as they move through a website or app.
Type design carries aspects of almost all of these things. While the form of a single letter has meaning, a typeface, like a brand, is also composed of the relationships between characters that work together to create meaning. And like software, typefaces are licensed and can be installed on individual computers.
Depending on the scale of the context in which a designer works, the work may include one, some, or all of these things in the course of a year. Larger companies, agencies, teams, or studios may lean towards specialization, while smaller studios and groups may need to have each individual capable, if not an expert, in multiple areas.
How to Become a Graphics Designer
Graphic design is a creative process that reaches into everything we do these days—from websites to application interfaces to product packaging, the talented hand of the graphic designer is seen everywhere. It can be a rewarding, challenging career. Here are some ideas to help set you on that path.
1. Choose an area of graphic design. Before you can call yourself a graphic designer, you have to make some decisions. For example, are you interested in advertising, web development, multimedia (ex. the TV industry), print design, or animation? These can all be considered different forms of graphic design. Narrow your focus on an area that appeals to you.
- While graphic design is fundamentally the same whether in print or online, there are also key differences in resolutions, color space, and other variables that are specific to the medium you want to focus on. Though you can certainly do both, it’s best to focus on one to begin with.
2. Acquire the tools. The industry standard applications for graphic design are Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator. (If you plan to go all-out, the full Adobe Creative Suite includes Acrobat, Dreamweaver, Illustrator, Premiere, Photoshop, InDesign and After Effects.) While both applications are designed to be easy to use from the start, they are very feature rich and will require a great deal of focused effort to master them.
- These programs aren’t cheap. To get started, play around with free alternatives like Gimp, Scribus, Inkscape, and Pixlr, all of which will help you learn the ropes until you’re willing and able to drop big bucks on the real thing.
3.Purchase textbooks. Focus on books that teach design fundamentals, then study as though you were taking a college course. Instead of working for a grade, however, your reward will be a career that you love.
4. Take a course in graphic design. It’s not just to become an expert in programs like Photoshop and Illustrator, but to learn how to use these valuable tools in conjunction with developing a marketable design sense.
5. Get involved with the design community. Practicing at home is a great, safe way to learn the ropes, but eventually, you need to put yourself out there so you can get feedback. Though it may be painful at first, keep your ego in check and take the tips seriously; the payoff will be enormous. Additionally, it’s important to see what other people are doing so that you’re exposed to more than just one or two styles.
- As with any business, networking is important in graphic design, especially if you intend to freelance. Make friends, keep in touch, be willing to learn, and you might just get work out of it.\
- If you want a degree that will lend you credibility but don’t have much time or money, get an associate’s. This is typically a two-year degree and can be acquired at a community college or trade school. The emphasis will be more on computer skills than art theory, but it’s a good place to start.
- If you want a degree with some weight to it, get a bachelor’s. This is typically a four-year degree that can be acquired at a college or university. In addition to learning all the necessary computer skills, you will also be trained in art and design.
- Not 100% sure that graphic design will be your career path? Get a bachelor’s of arts degree, not a bachelor’s of fine arts. Though both are great for this type of work, a B.A. is less focused than a B.F.A., covers more general education, and makes it easier for you to change to a wildly different major should you choose to pursue something else.
- If you already have a B.A. or B.S., do post-baccalaureate work in graphic design. These courses may even earn you a certificate, credential, or second bachelor’s degree.
- If you’re dead-set on being a graphic designer, get a graduate degree. If you haven’t done so already, you will first have to get a bachelor’s degree. Consider minoring or getting a second major in a business-related field if you’re also interested in freelancing.
Develop Your Style
- Don’t limit yourself to what is traditionally considered “graphic design,” but expand into other areas as well, such as industrial designers like Joey Roth or Makota Makita & Hiroshi Tsuzaki; or architects such as Santiago Calatrava or Frank Gehry. Draw inspiration to foster your own creativity.
- Don’t just look in the likely places. Check out wine stores, for example: label design is a key part of the industry. Also check out fashion websites, book stores, music labels, even product design packaging.