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What is Graphic Design?

August 20, 2021 | Staff Writers

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As the name suggests, graphic design involves creating visual content to communicate a message to one or more viewers. Graphic designers use a combination of eye-catching imagery, typography, and colors to attract viewers’ attention. As you may suspect, this craft is incredibly useful for advertising and branding purposes.

Understanding Graphic Design

If you are still a little bit confused about what exactly graphic designers do, do not worry, we are here to help. To help you make sense of this creative field, we have provided this complete guide to graphic design. 

We will start by providing a clear and thorough explanation of what graphic design is. Then, we will explain what is involved in a graphic design program and highlight the differences between graphic design degrees and other visual arts degrees.

Once you understand what graphic design is, we will describe what graphic design degrees look like, which schools offer the best programs, and highlight some of the many career options out there. This information is useful for those that have a formal education in this exciting field.

If you are interested in becoming a professional graphic designer, read on and learn everything you need to know about getting started!

What Does the Field of Graphic Design Include?

According to the American Institute of Graphic Arts, or AIGA, graphic design can be defined as the art and practice of planning and projecting ideas and experiences with visual and textual content.

If this definition seems somewhat vague and confusing to you, you are not alone. The truth is graphic design is a far-reaching and diverse discipline that covers a wide variety of creative careers. This range is why it can be so difficult to come up with a concise definition that accurately explains what graphic design is and distinguishes it from other forms of visual art.

In simple terms, a graphic designer is a professional who uses their artistic talents to communicate visual messages and ideas. Essentially, graphic designers are visual communicators. They use their creative and artistic skills to create visual concepts by hand or by using computer software. 

What is the Difference Between Graphic Design and Other Visual Arts?

Separating graphic design from other visual arts can be a little confusing, but the differences boil down to how they are used. Traditional visual arts are emotive and used to communicate the artist’s feelings and personal opinions, but graphic design is used more for commercial applications and has found itself in the realms of practicality.

Where traditional visual artists and those that study fine arts create visual artwork for the sake of aesthetic value, graphic designers create visual imagery to promote and sell products and services. 

With the rise of digital technology and creative software, graphic design has now become its distinct area of study. Graphic design students now go to school to learn specialized skills that allow them to work as visual communication professionals in a variety of industries.

Companies used to hire those with a background in the visual arts so they could use their understanding of visual aesthetics for marketing and advertising purposes. Now, they specifically look for graphic designers because they understand the benefits of appealing imagery and have the skills to create it in a digital format. Not only that, most graphic designers have an understanding of relevant business concepts, like the importance of adhering to brand identity and basic advertising principles. 

While both graphic designers and traditional visual artists are creative, visual, and artistic, they usually have different motives for why they create. If you are naturally drawn towards the visual arts and have an interest in branding and advertising, a graphic design degree might be perfect for you.

What Do Graphic Designers Do?

As described above, graphic designers combine visual art with digital technology to communicate ideas and concepts through digital images, website layouts, and printed materials.

Graphic designers use an endless combination of design elements to achieve their aims. They work with both text and images to design digital and physical advertisements, brochures, magazine pages, and covers, corporate reports, logos, letterheads, product packages and labels, apparel designs, and so much more.

If a product or piece of promotional material features clear branding or was stylized to look a certain way, there is a good chance that a graphic designer was involved in its creation.

In addition to creating visual content that captures the eye, or adheres to a particular organization’s brand aesthetic, the work of a graphic designer can also include the following:

  • Meeting with clients, managers, and marketing directors to plan and prepare upcoming projects
  • Advise clients on branding and advertising strategies that will help them reach their target market
  • Meet with representatives of various departments within a particular company or organization to discuss the feasibility of upcoming visual content projects
  • Come up with ways to portray a product or service in an eye-catching and appealing way
  • Develop graphics and visual images that capture the attention of the desired audience, but do not stray from a brand’s established image
  • Sketch designs by hand or using computer software, so the graphic designer’s vision can be communicated with clients and managers
  • Select colors, images, text styles, and page layouts for approved designs
  • Present design samples to clients and project directors, while being willing to incorporate their feedback into future drafts
  • Review the work of peers to check for errors and imperfections before the design is sent off for printing or publishing

As you can see, graphic designers need to have the ability to work with others. While much of the actual design work is done independently, graphic designers must work closely with others that work in advertising, promotions, public relations, and marketing.

Branding and advertising continue to play a vital role in the success of every business. As such, graphic designers hold valuable positions in just about every industry. 

Whether a graphic designer is hired full-time to work exclusively for one company or they prefer to work freelance and offer their services on a contract-basis, their design skill plays a significant role in how their client is perceived by the target market and the wider public.

What Must Graphic Designers Do to Stay Relevant?

Since most graphic design work is now done on computers, graphic designers must keep up to date with the latest hardware and design software. To stay relevant in an increasingly competitive industry, graphic designers must have the tools and skills to create artistic designs that are interesting and visually appealing to their clients and employers.

In addition to keeping up with the latest hardware and software, graphic designers must actively keep up with design trends, which is why graphic design can be such an interesting career path. Design styles go in and out of fashion, so the industry is constantly evolving.

For those who want to stand out and have successful graphic design careers, studying design trends and being willing to incorporate new styles into their work is key to success.

Types of Graphic Design Careers

The great thing about obtaining a degree in graphic design is the number of career doors it will open up. Since the skills you will learn in a graphic design program are so transferable and in-demand, pursuing a formal education in graphic design can lead to the following jobs:

  • Web designer 
  • Creative director
  • Photo editor
  • Animator
  • Illustrator
  • Commissioned artist
  • Film editor
  • Flash designer
  • Advertising art director
  • Concept artist

There are many more career options for those that hold degrees in graphic design. Of course, many work as full-time or contract graphic designers. Those who work as graphic designers are expected to be somewhat adaptable. They could be asked by their employers to complete any number of design tasks and must comply. Graphic designers who work for an employer must do what the employer asks of them.

What are Some of the Most Lucrative Graphic Design Careers?

While all of the graphic design careers listed above are interesting and rewarding, certain career options stand out from the rest. If you are looking for a lucrative graphic design career that offers plenty of potential for advancement, consider the following options:

Multimedia Designer

Multimedia designers combine art, sound, and design skills to complete complicated design tasks. In many ways, a multimedia designer is a sort of design handyman. They know how to combine text, audio, animation, photography, and video editing and create content that is more complicated than a single image.

Multimedia designers need to be tech-savvy, as well as creative and artistic. They are often responsible for multiple stages of the design process and need to have the skills necessary to contribute at each stage. 

You will find multimedia designers working for advertising companies and marketing agencies, film and television companies, and in the video game industry. Competent multimedia designers enjoy competitive salaries and plentiful employment opportunities. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the demand for multimedia designers will rise by at least 10 percent between now and 2026.

Logo Design Specialist

Logos play an integral role in branding, so those that can design visually appealing and recognizable logos are extremely valuable. A logo is much more than a graphic symbol, it is a visual image that helps distinguish one company or organization from the rest.

Companies are willing to spend a significant amount of money to create and update logos. Job opportunities for graphic designers that specialize in creating modern, innovative, and eye-catching logos are plentiful and they tend to pay very well.

If you want the job security of a full-time position at an advertising agency or the independence of freelance work, there are many opportunities in the graphic design field. Learning how to create unique, memorable, and aesthetically pleasing logos is a quick way to take your graphic design career to new heights.

Web Designer

Web designers play a vital role in the development and creation of web pages. They contribute to the layout and appearance of web pages. They also create website graphics and determine how visitors will navigate each page.

Not only do web designers determine the visual appearance of a web page, but they must also decide what sort of content will be featured and where it will be placed. A company’s web page is a reflection of the entire company, so every segment must adhere to that company’s branding.

Essentially, web designers must have graphic design skills as well as a thorough understanding of the latest computer and internet technology. With the rise of e-commerce transactions, websites and company apps are becoming vitally important, and in many ways, they will determine how well a company can compete, which is why there is a growing need for talented web designers and employment opportunities seem set to increase. Companies are also willing to pay top dollar for those that can create a visually appealing, intuitive, and highly functional website.

What to Expect from a Graphic Design Degree Program

As will be explained in further detail below, there are many graphic design degree options out there. While the level of understanding a student will learn during their graphic design program will differ depending on the type of degree they have chosen to pursue, all graphic design programs will teach students how to use the following basic design elements:

  • Form
  • Lines
  • Shapes
  • Use of space
  • Textures
  • Colors
  • Size

Students will also learn the basic principles of design, which will help them create eye-catching and visually appealing designs. The graphic design principles students will learn how to incorporate into their works include the following:

  • Balance
  • Contrast
  • Movement
  • Emphasis
  • Proportion
  • Rhythm

While natural artistic abilities are certainly a valuable asset for any aspiring graphic designer, graphic design programs can give students a working knowledge of how aesthetically appealing designs are made.

Graphic Design Degree Options

If you are interested in any of the many careers you can pursue with an education in graphic design, the first decision you will have to make is what sort of degree you will earn. 

While it was once possible to get hired as a graphic designer just with a professional portfolio, modern-day employers are looking to hire graphic designers with formal and specialized education. It is important to earn some sort of degree in graphic design if you plan to pursue a career in the industry.

There are various specialty degrees that you can pursue that will prepare you for specific careers related to graphic design, but graphic design degrees can be put into three distinct categories: associate’s degrees, bachelor’s degrees, and master’s degrees.

The three types of degrees are ordered in terms of their complexity and how difficult they are to earn. While graphic design associate’s degree programs are the most affordable and easiest to get accepted into, many employers view a bachelor’s degree as the minimum level of education they will accept for entry-level positions.

Associate’s Degrees in Graphic Design

Associate’s degrees in graphic design are usually offered at community colleges and technical schools. They typically involve two years of studies. Students must complete 65 credits over those two years, and the program itself will combine graphic arts studies with more general education coursework. 

Students will take introductory courses in design theory, typography, color theory, computer science, digital media production, visual arts, and design software.

Since these programs are the shortest of the three options and offer the lowest tuition rates, they can be a practical and financially appealing way to gain basic graphic design skills. For students who are unsure if they want to commit to a career in graphic design or want to gain a basic level of graphic design competency to apply those skills to complement other jobs or their entrepreneurial endeavors, an associate’s degree in graphic design can be a useful option. 

An associate’s degree is also a useful option for those who would like to transfer to a four-year bachelor’s program after having gained a basic understanding of graphic design. Many traditional colleges and universities accept the grades from an associate’s program during their own admissions process.

Bachelor’s Degrees in Graphic Design

As with most bachelor’s programs, graphic arts bachelor’s programs almost always take four years to complete. The credits required to graduate are divided into general education studies, electives, and core studies in graphic design and related disciplines.

An associate’s degree in graphic arts offers students an introduction to the field and gives them basic-level skills they can use for simple projects, bachelor’s degree programs cater to those that are looking to enter the field as professionals.

This distinction means that applicants are expected to already have some degree of design skill and a basic understanding of how to use popular design programs.

Throughout the program, students gain hands-on experience and learn how to deliver production-ready graphics in both print and digital forms. They will learn industry-standard project management protocols and learn how to competently use the same design software that professional graphic designers use in the field.

In the first two years of most programs, the student takes general education courses as well as classes that teach design theory. In their senior year, students learn how to apply those theories and take several courses in media management, digital design, and even graphic design entrepreneurship. 

Before a student graduates, they will have an understanding of portfolio development and presentation.  They will have assembled all of the best projects they created during the program into a working portfolio they can use to apply for their first jobs.

Master’s Degrees in Graphic Design:

While it is certainly possible to land a respectable graphic design job with a bachelor’s degree, many aspiring graphic designers continue their education with the hope it will land them a more lucrative position and set them up for a career in management. Most design schools will only accept applicants that already hold a bachelor’s degree in graphic design. Not only that, applicants hoping to be accepted must have graduated with adequate grades and must be able to submit impressive samples of their work. 

While some apply to master’s programs immediately after they graduate from their bachelor’s program, many choose to enter the workforce and develop their skills before applying for a higher level of education.

Master’s-level programs are academically advanced and take the student understanding of design theory to a higher level. Master’s degree programs in graphic design also usually involve some sort of specialization, which means the student will select a particular form of graphic design and tailor their studies towards mastering that subject.

A master’s degree will usually take between two and three years to complete. In addition to taking advanced-level classes, students are expected to work on a creative dissertation or a specialized portfolio, which will be assessed before they graduate to determine if the student has an advanced understanding of the area of specialization and the practical skills to back that knowledge up. Following graduation, this portfolio can then be used to apply to upper-level graphic designer positions.

Top Degree Programs for Graphic Design

Given the fact that graphic designers now occupy increasingly important roles within just about every industry, more schools are beginning to offer their graphic design-specific programs and degrees.

The schools listed below are considered to be some of the top schools in the country. Given how prestigious these programs are, admissions are incredibly competitive. Do not worry if you do not have the grades or portfolio to get accepted to the schools listed below. Colleges and universities all over the country now offer respectable graphic design programs!

1. Rhode Island School of Design (RISD)

Providence, Rhode Island

www.risd.edu

RISD is considered the top school for most art programs. The school boasts an impressive list of famous alumni and its graduates have a reputation for going on to have prestigious careers in their fields.

Their undergraduate graphic design program is one of the RISD’s largest. Students learn from highly accomplished professors and those lucky enough to be accepted will graduate with a BFA in Graphic Design.

2. The Pratt Institute

Brooklyn, New York

www.pratt.edu

The Pratt Institute offers one of the country’s most prestigious graphic design programs. The school takes pride in its ability to teach students the perfect mixture of artistic vision and practical skills, which is why most of the school’s teaching staff are working professionals that only teach one or two classes at a time.

The Pratt Institute offers a BFA in Communications Design, which is an interdisciplinary program that allows students to focus on advertising, illustration, or graphic design. Given that the program balances theory and practice so well, many of the program’s graduates can quickly land jobs in their desired fields.

3. California Institute of the Arts (CalArts)

Valencia, Santa Clarita, California

www.calarts.edu

The California Institute of the Arts was founded by Walt Disney. It is no wonder that it is one of the most prestigious and respected multi-discipline arts schools in the United States.

The school’s graphic design program is relatively small, but its focus on teaching design skills from a variety of artistic disciplines is part of the reason why its graduates almost always go on to have impressive careers. 

The school has close ties with several Hollywood studios. It’s no surprise that their graphic design program is the ideal choice for those interested in applying their graphic design skills to the movie and television industries.

How Do You Know if Graphic Design is Right for You?

While nobody can decide for you, there are plenty of good reasons why a career in graphic design can be a great decision. For starters, professional graphic designers are in high demand. Luckily, this means that salaries and job prospects are both on the rise.

However, if you are curious about more than financial rewards and job stability, you should determine how much the idea of a creative career appeals to you. As you would suspect, those that enjoy being creative and using their natural artistic abilities tend to get the most out of the field. While traditional artistic abilities are not mandatory, indeed, those who enjoy the visual arts usually find the field to be more rewarding than those who do not.

It is also important to understand that many graphic design jobs are not all fun and games. Graphic designers have to take directions from their clients and managers when they are coming up with designs, which can be somewhat stifling, especially if you do not agree with those design notes. Then, of course, there are strict deadlines and the logistic complexities of dealing with multiple projects at the same time.

That said, if you enjoy being creative and desire a career that offers inspiration and the ability to grow your skills, becoming a graphic designer could be perfect for you!

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