Graphic design 101: what is graphic design?

If you’re not placing utmost importance on graphic design within your business, you’re doing it wrong. You see, graphic design is responsible for communicating tailored messages, establishing brand identity, attracting target audiences, and enhancing usability, all of which are vital for the future success of your business.

If you don’t know a lot about graphic design, including what it is or how you can implement it within your business, then you’re in luck. We’ve written this in-depth guide to tell you all there is to know about this practice, including how you can find the perfect graphic designer to help your business stand out.

What exactly is graphic design?

Graphic design uses visual and textual elements such as typography, photography, iconography, and illustration to communicate ideas or messages, which therefore influence our perceptions. It is most commonly utilized for projects, events, campaigns, or products, and aims to help the producer connect with their target consumer through these visual and textual cues.

Common examples of graphic design work you might see every day include:

  • Marketing materials, such as flyers, brochures, and posters
  • Product packaging and labels
  • Website layouts
  • Infographics
  • Web and social media advertisements
  • T-shirt and apparel designs
  • Magazines, newspapers, and catalogs

Graphic design can be broken down as serving two important functions: creating aesthetics that maximize usability and creating visuals that shape users’ emotions. Let’s look at each of these in more depth below.

#1. Graphic design creates aesthetics that maximize usability

On the surface, graphic design is about attracting a target audience using visual elements such as graphics, color, and typography, however, the craft must also take into consideration one vital element: user experience. This is particularly true for those working in the field of user experience (UX) design, as they must take on a human-centered approach with their work.

Along with considering the visual appeal of graphics, designers must aim to maximize usability to ensure what they design also serves a purpose. This means not only considering how a button on a sales page, for example, must look stylistically (including color, shape, outline, size, etc.), but also where it should be placed on the page to enhance both the user’s experience and conversion rates. Therefore, graphic design must consider a user’s visual processing abilities too.

#2. Graphic design creates visuals that shape users’ emotions

Graphic design also has strong ties with emotional design, as designers must take a viewer’s emotions, expectations, and beliefs into consideration when creating visuals. This is where color theory comes into play, as the chosen color palette will not only convey certain messages to a viewer but influence their emotional response to the design too. For example, red is a color that is often seen to signify danger or an alert, whereas blue is associated with the ocean and sky, and therefore encourages a more tranquil response.

Graphic design therefore must use elements, including typography, that match the tone of the piece and shape a user’s emotions as they interact with the overall design from start to finish. Essentially, graphic design is also about making design considerations with user psychology in mind.

As you can see, graphic design differs from visual arts in the fact that it doesn’t just concentrate on beauty; but rather, it ensures beauty and usability go hand-in-hand.  

The benefits of graphic design for your business

Graphic design uses graphical and textual elements to influence our perceptions of the world around us, and therefore provides a wide range of benefits to businesses both small and large. Along with informing, educating, or persuading your target audience, graphic design also assists your business in the following ways:

#1. Positive first impression

Visual elements of your branding, including your logo design, color palette, and more, are often the first sense a prospective client will gain of your business. Therefore, it’s important that these brand assets are unique, eye-catching, and communicate the right message to consumers. By following graphic design principles, your brand assets will be designed to create a positive first impression that drives more business your way. 

#2. Professional image

When your visual branding assets are used consistently and uniformly across your online presence, marketing materials, product packaging, and more, it helps you to boost your business’ professional image. Well-executed graphic design ensures your brand identity remains the same, no matter the context in which it’s being interacted with, thus becoming more memorable in consumers’ minds.

#3. Brand recognition

Graphic design is also an effective tool for establishing an instant connection between your brand’s values and the products or services you offer. When used successfully, graphic design should help to build brand recognition among consumers, allowing them to instantly recognize your business through visual cues such as your logo, color scheme, packaging, and more. This allows you to stand out in a consumer’s mind, separating you from your competitors. 

#4. Communication

Visual aids are great at communicating ideas, which is why graphic design is so vital for educating, informing, and persuading audiences. Often, when businesses want to communicate an idea or message more effectively, they look to expertly designed images to convey this successfully.

#5. Trust and credibility

When graphic design is used to foster effective communication, it can also help to boost a brand’s trust and credibility, as consumers feel informed. When a business is able to establish trust and credibility among their target audience, it also assists with convincing these consumers about the quality of their products or services, therefore increasing their sales. This knock-on effect from successful graphic design allows a business to thrive in the long run. 

#6. Higher conversions

Eye-catching graphic design attracts more traffic to a business’ website, online store, or physical store, which increases their chances of conversions – whether it’s through product or service sales, email subscribers, digital downloads, and more. When benefits such as a positive first impression, professional image, brand recognition, effective communication, and a boost in trust and credibility are combined, this is also a surefire way to improve sales and revenue. 

What is the purpose of graphic design?

The purpose of graphic design is to communicate visually; however, it also serves numerous other purposes, all of which we explore below.

#1. Lays the foundation for branding strategy

A company’s brand image is extremely important, as it is the perception of the brand in the mind of the consumer. Graphic design serves the important purpose of laying the foundation for this brand image through creating visual branding assets such as logos, website design, business cards, banners, social media graphics, and more.

Graphic design combines principles such as color psychology, artistic harmony, market research, target audience demographics, and the mission and vision of the business to design and create assets that adhere to a company’s branding strategy.

#2. Beautifies

Another purpose of graphic design is to focus on the aesthetics of visual content, ensuring it is pleasing to look at. An eye-catching visual asset, such as a flyer, poster, or social media graphic, will perform better than one that isn’t, so the visual appeal of content should never be underestimated.

Creating beautiful imagery also ties in with establishing a positive brand image, as you want your customers to associate your brand with a pleasing visual experience too.

#3. Enhances user experience

Imagine if content was only created in large blocks of text that were difficult to read through, let alone grasp the overall message. This is where graphic design enhances user experience, as it uses design principles such as typography, color, and images to convey information in a more appealing, and often condensed, way.

#4. Improves navigation

Graphic design also plays a large role in enhancing the navigation and usability of websites and other applications as it uses visual cues such as arrows, symbols, lines, and more, to direct users. Not only do users enjoy harmonious composition and stylish navigational features, but including these visual assets can also improve customer retention and conversions.

The elements and principles that make up design

Now that you know what graphic design is, as well as its purpose, it’s important to learn the elements and principles that make up design, as these serve a vital role within the field.

The elements of graphic design include:

  • Color
  • Size
  • Shape
  • Line
  • Form
  • Texture
  • Space

These elements can be used in combination or contrast to each other in order to create visuals that are eye-catching and highly effective.

The principles of graphic design include:

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

Think of these as a set of guidelines that help a designer to achieve the perfect composition in a piece.

Types of graphic design

As you’ve probably realized by now, graphic design is quite broad. Although it contains a set of general ‘rules’ or guidelines, the industry is made up of several specializations, each focusing on a different type of graphic design.

Let’s look at the various types of graphic design in more detail.

#1. Visual identity graphic design

A brand identity is the collection of elements a business uses to portray its desired image to the consumer, including its:

  • logo
  • color palette
  • typography
  • other visual elements

This is where visual identity graphic design comes into play, as it is responsible for designing the elements that form the brand’s visual identity.

Visual identity graphic designers will often create a set of brand guidelines (or ‘style guides’) which help to establish visual brand consistency across marketing or branding assets into the future. The visual identity of a brand is extremely important, which is why this sub-category is the most common type of graphic design.

#2. Marketing and advertising graphic design

Graphic design helps organizations promote and communicate their brand, products, and services in a more effective, visual manner. Marketing and advertising graphic design include:

  • magazine ads
  • vehicle wraps
  • flyers
  • brochures
  • billboards
  • web banners
  • social media ads
  • postcards
  • trade show displays

#3. User interface graphic design

A user interface refers to the things a person uses to interact with a device or application, including the keyboard, screen, or mouse. Therefore, when we refer to user interface graphic design, this involves the user’s visual experience with the interface and its design, such as the buttons, menus, and more.  Although a user interface must have technical functionality, it’s equally as important for it to have an aesthetic appeal that makes it enjoyable and easy to operate.

Examples of user interface graphic design include:

  • Web page design
  • Desktop app design
  • Game interfaces
  • Mobile app design
  • Theme design, such as for WordPress, Shopify, Squarespace, etc.

#4. Publication graphic design

Publication graphic design is the application of graphic design elements and principles to long-form pieces that are publicly distributed to communicate with an audience. Examples include:

  • Books
  • Magazines
  • Newspapers
  • Catalogs
  • Newsletters
  • Reports
  • Directories

Although publication graphic design once solely referred to print mediums, it now also refers to digital forms of publishing, an area that has dramatically increased in popularity within the last decade alone.

#5. Packaging graphic design

Packaging graphic design is built on the belief that every protective casing for a product can be an opportunity to delight consumers and tell the brand’s story. It includes choices in:

  • Material
  • Form
  • Texture
  • Graphics
  • Colors
  • Fonts

It aims to provide consumers with a sensual experience and engage them through sight, touch, sound, smell, and/or taste, depending on the product. Additionally, good packaging design should be able to convey the answers to the following questions, all within a glance:

  • What is the product?
  • Who is the product for?
  • How and why are people buying the product?

#6. Motion graphic design

As the term suggests, motion graphics just refers to graphics that are moving (or in motion). This can include animation, typography, video, illustrations, and other design elements that are used in online media, television, and film. Common examples include:

  • Lyric videos
  • Title sequences and end credits
  • Animated logos
  • Video games
  • GIFs
  • Tutorial videos
  • Banners

It takes the core components of graphic design, including its elements and principles, and adds movement to it. The aim is that through adding movement, it keeps the viewer engaged visually for longer, all while effectively illustrating an idea or message to them.

#7. Environmental graphic design

Environmental graphic design is a broad area of design that merges graphic, architectural, interior, landscape, and industrial design. Its main goal is to improve people’s experiences within their environment by making them more memorable, fascinating, helpful, or easier to navigate.

Examples include:

  • Wall murals
  • Signage
  • Interiors of retail stores, event spaces, offices, etc.
  • Museum exhibitions
  • Public transport navigation
  • Interactive displays

Ultimately, environmental graphic design provides visual cues that help people not only identify where they are but also get from their current destination to their desired destination without confusion.

#8. Art and illustration for graphic design

While graphic design involves the use of art and illustration, it’s important to note that these disciplines still remain separate. This is because, while graphic designers create and assemble visual pieces to communicate messages or enhance an individual’s experience, artists and illustrators create original artwork for purposes such as decoration, fine art, or storytelling.

Art and illustration, however, are often created for commercial use within graphic design and can be found in advertisements, packaging, branding, and marketing materials. Therefore, it is vital to include these mediums within this section.

The importance of graphic design in business today

There’s no denying how vital graphic design is for businesses, especially in today’s fast-paced, visually-driven society. Research indicates that:

  • 90% of the information transmitted in the human brain is visual
  • 65% of the population are classified as ‘visual learners’
  • Visuals are processed 60,000 times faster than text

To understand the critical importance graphic design plays in a business, it’s helpful to look at exactly which areas of a business rely on the practice.

#1. Custom Logo

Your logo is what separates your business from its competitors and it’s the most important design asset you have representing your brand. It’s often the first thing a target customer will see in relation to your company and therefore has the ability to set a great first impression and persuade them to do business with you. While typography plays a vital role in the success of your logo, so too does its color palette. Graphic design utilizes color theory to ensure your logo’s color palette communicates the right message to the right audience and evokes the emotions you want them to feel when interacting with your brand.

#2. Advertising

Without a hero image, bold typography, and a clear call to action, it is highly unlikely your advertisement will capture attention, let alone convert prospects. If you want to cut through the noise and deliver your advertising message quickly and effectively, then your advertisement needs to adhere to the elements and principles of graphic design that we discussed earlier. Remember, graphic design aims to condense large amounts of information and convey it visually for greater ease, both of which are necessary for advertising.

#3. Website

The aim of your brand’s website should be to attract, engage, and convert visitors, and this just isn’t possible without the visual cues and aesthetically pleasing organization of information that graphic design allows. You see, graphic design elements and principles allow us to enhance a user’s experience, all while successfully moving them from A to B on your website through navigational prompts, clear messaging, and expertly placed calls to action.

#4. Sales collateral

Materials developed to help boost the sales process, such as product catalogs or brochures, also rely heavily on graphic design to enhance a business’ brand and messaging. They incorporate visual elements such as pleasing typography, appropriate imagery, and cohesive formatting to ensure the brand’s aims, voice, and message isn’t lost on the page.

#5. Marketing collateral 

Similarly, with your advertising and sales collateral, your marketing collateral relies heavily on graphic design to capture attention, increase brand recognition, and attract sales. Remember, good marketing designs lead to a boost in credibility, and good credibility will encourage your customers to trust you with their wants and needs, therefore increasing conversions. Through the creation of a brand style guide, you can also ensure your marketing collateral remains cohesive and in line with your brand.

#6. Social media

Using custom branded visuals across your social media allows you to tie your online presence to your digital and physical branding, therefore further establishing cohesiveness. It also boosts the authenticity and integrity of your brands’ voice and encourages consumers to follow and interact with your brand on social media

#7. Presentations

Almost 85% of presentations are said to be highly visually focused, meaning that design plays a vital role in these projects. As we mentioned earlier, 90% of the information transmitted in the human brain is visual, so you’ll need to capitalize on this through the visual appearance of your presentation if you want to succeed. Through the use of colors, typography, and imagery, you can keep your audience engaged throughout the presentation and ensure it flows seamlessly from one slide to the next.

#8. Packaging design

A popular saying goes, “we eat with our eyes,” but did you know that as humans, we shop with our eyes too? This is why it’s important for your product packaging to encompass graphic design elements and principles, as you’ll not only want to leave a lasting impression but also capture the attention of your target audience. Perfectly designed packaging adheres to the company’s branding and understands the visual hierarchy. Additionally, it is designed with your target customer’s desired aesthetic, taste, wants, and needs in mind.

Graphic designer: definition and jobs

Now that you have a broad understanding of what graphic design is and the importance it has within your business, it’s time to turn our attention to the role of a graphic designer and the various positions this industry entails. 

What is a graphic designer?

A graphic designer creates and assembles visual elements such as images and typography to produce a piece of design, whether by hand or by using computer software. Their main aims are to inspire, inform, and attract consumers, and they do this through using the elements and principles of design, both of which we outlined previously in this guide.

They are experts at communicating messages or ideas visually, hence why they are also sometimes referred to as communication designers. Graphic designers may sometimes collaborate with other creative professionals too, such as artists, illustrators, or animators, to bring their designs to life.

Along with having an excellent eye for design, graphic designers are also praised for being communication experts and visual-thinking problem solvers.

What does a graphic designer do?

Graphic designers are becoming increasingly important to businesses, as their role is vital to creating a professional brand image, conveying the right messages, attracting target audiences, and boosting brand recognition, trust, and credibility.

Graphic designers must:

  • Combine principles of art and technology to convey particular messages through their choice of imagery and layout
  • Use a wide variety of design elements to achieve the desired look or effect
  • Create the overall design and layout for marketing materials such as flyers, brochures, magazines, and advertisements
  • Choose and arrange textual elements, including font, font size, type, line length, text position, and more
  • Determine the relationship between imagery and text in a layout, including spacing
  • Work closely with copywriters to determine what text will be included in a design and how it will be displayed
  • Liaise with clients, customers, and management to ensure their designs reflect the intended message and information 

Typically, an average day for a graphic designer would include the following tasks:

  • Meeting with clients or an art director to discuss the scope of a project, including its goals, deliverables, tasks, deadlines, budget, and more
  • Creating designs through illustration or by using software
  • Creating visual elements such as logos, color palettes, typography, or illustrations to deliver a specific message
  • Designing layouts, including arranging color palettes, typography, or illustrations to adhere to a brand’s style guide
  • Presenting design concepts to management or clients
  • Incorporating recommended changes into design elements, as per the client’s or management’s feedback
  • Reviewing designs for flaws or mistakes before they are finalized

Of course, there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to describing the role of a graphic designer, particularly as their position may vary depending on what type of graphic designer they are, including an in-house graphic designer, an agency graphic designer, or a freelance graphic designer. Let’s look at the differences between each.

#1. In-house graphic designers 

When a graphic designer works in-house, it means they are employed by a single company to meet their creative needs and are therefore considered generalists in the graphic design work they focus on. Focusing on just one brand or a set of related brands from a single company allows an in-house graphic designer to develop a long-term strategy with their work, plus helps them to develop a solid understanding of their target audience and the brand’s preferred style and tone.

They must adhere to established brand guidelines and will often be collaborating with members of staff who aren’t designers themselves, such as copywriters, marketers, and management.

#2. Agency graphic designers

A graphic design agency is hired by independent organizations or clients and asked to create designs for a specific campaign or project, which is usually short-term. Therefore, graphic designers employed by an agency tend to work across multiple brands from various industries.

Agencies are known for their tight deadlines and fast-paced nature however, fewer communication issues may arise due to the graphic design-centered team. Additionally, this means, unlike in an in-house setting, daily tasks rarely fall outside of the graphic design realm.

#3. Freelance graphic designers

As with any freelance or self-employed role, being a freelance graphic designer requires a lot of motivation and self-discipline. This is because freelancers don’t have the luxury of having other team members to handle aspects of the business such as customer service, marketing, and accounting, and therefore, must also factor these tasks into their week.

The role does, of course, come with its creative freedom, and graphic designers can choose where they work when they work, and who they work with, as well as what their rate is. Running your own business can be hugely rewarding, but freelance graphic designers must also be prepared for potential downsides such as having no co-workers, having to actively seek out clients, and the ebb-and-flow of a freelancer’s income.

Common graphic design jobs

The graphic design industry has changed rapidly over the last two decades alone, with a significant shift from print graphic design to digital graphic design. This reflects businesses’ growing reliance on digital forms of media and advertising, including through websites, eCommerce, and social media.

In fact, it is believed that by 2028 the employment of graphic designers in computer systems design services will grow by 24%.

Graphic design also encompasses several different roles within the industry, with each focusing on a specialized area or position. The other most common graphic design job titles include:

#1. Creative director

The creative director is the head of a creative team responsible for planning and designing the layout and visuals for print and digital assets. They determine the creative vision of the project and require excellent time management, leadership, team management, and budgeting skills.

Although they predominantly lead the creative team through the process of completing the project, they too often take part in the visual design process and collaborate with roles such as copywriters, art directors, and graphic designers.

#2. Art director

The art director is in charge of the overall production of an artistic project, whether it be in theater, marketing, publishing, fashion, film, or video games. Along with directing other artists to bring about the successful completion of the project, they too create the design and contribute their ideas.

It is important for an art director to work closely with the client or employer in order to create a finished project that not only meets the desired goals and overall design but the budget too.

#3. Web designer

A web designer designs and arranges the appearance and layout of a web page, including content and graphics. Their major goals are to make the web page aesthetically pleasing and highly functional, contributing to a positive customer experience. A web designer has immense knowledge of coding, as they must use this to lay out the website, and will keep things such as SEO and rankings in mind when designing the page, to increase its success.

#4. User experience (UX) designer

The user experience (UX) designer differs from the web designer, as their role is to focus solely on the experience of the user, therefore working on the ‘behind the scenes’ of the design. They aim to understand how a user thinks and feels, and rely heavily on user research, usability testing, content strategy, and related data. They are less about the visual elements of a web page or application and more about forming a strategy to deliver the best user experience possible. As a result, however, web designers and UX designers often work closely together.

How to hire a graphic designer

If you’re looking to hire a graphic designer to assist you with your branding or an upcoming project, then you’re in luck. We’ve outlined our top tips to help you find and hire the right graphic designer for the job.

Tip 1. Have an understanding of and respect for the craft

Some businesses fail to see the importance of hiring a qualified and experienced graphic designer, and instead, will outsource the work for free to someone with little graphic design skills or knowledge. Don’t set yourself up for failure, and instead, understand that professional graphic design work must come with fair compensation. Additionally, ensure you have a well-researched contract in place first, before embarking on the collaboration, as this will protect both you and the freelance graphic designer you’ve chosen to work with.

It’s also vital for you to understand why you’re hiring a graphic designer in the first place, and ensure you know exactly what it is that you’re trying to achieve. This will save a lot of back-and-forth between you both, and allow the graphic designer to bring your vision and goal to fruition.

Tip 2. Do your homework

It’s one thing to know what it is that you need from the graphic designer, as well as why, and another thing entirely to understand what your graphic design style is. This isn’t just important for narrowing down which graphic designer has the required expertise for the job but also helps you create a brief for the designer, which is the next vital step.

Seek inspiration online, from other businesses, and through physical sources such as magazines, billboards, flyers, and more to determine the following:

  • What design styles do you like?
  • What design styles do you dislike?
  • Why do you feel this way?

Keep records of these things so they can be used as references prior to the design stage.

Tip 3. Write a creative brief

As the business owner, you’re responsible for providing the graphic designer with a creative brief that focuses on your objectives and supplies the designer with additional guidance regarding who you are and what you do. In your brief, include the following:

  • Your relevant design ideas, which you found in the previous step
  • Specifications, including what type of designs you need, their required size, if they must follow a brand style guide, and more
  • Target audience
  • Brand personality, voice, vision, and mission
  • Competitors 
  • Expected project time frame or deadlines
  • Any other relevant information about your business

Tip 4. Look for extensions

It’s understandable that when you find a great graphic designer who understands your brand, you’ll want to work with them time and time again. Think about other ways your business can benefit from their services, even if it’s in the future. Developing a long term collaboration with a graphic designer will also save you time and money in the long run, as they will already know the ins and outs of your business, including your target audience, aims, and preferred design style. 

Conclusion

Graphic design serves an important role in the way consumers interact with, perceive, and experience your brand, so it’s vital that you not only understand the practice but also embrace it within your business.

Furthermore, the elements and principles of graphic design are applied to communicate specific messages, establish brand identity, attract target audiences, and enhance usability, all of which are necessary for your business to not only survive but thrive.

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