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What is Graphic Design? A Beginner's Guide for 2024

May 27, 2024

what is graphic design

When I walked into my Design 101 class sophomore year of college, I thought I knew everything I needed to know about the basics of graphic design. 

I wanted to bypass the boring lessons on colors, shapes, and easy Adobe Photoshop and graphic design software tutorials that were ahead of me and jump right into the nitty gritty of the advanced graphic design process.

The joke was on me. Graphic design is actually quite complicated, and I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I did.

Billboards, logos, magazines, video games, vector graphics, and raster graphics are all things that come to mind when I think of graphic design. 

But what is it, really? It’s a profession, yes, but if we dig a little deeper, it’s truly an art – an expression of one’s aesthetic – for many.

Elements of graphic design

Elements of art are the basic units of any visual design that form the design’s structure and convey its visual messages. The elements of graphic design are:

Line

Lines are the most basic design elements. They can be curved, straight, thick, thin, two-dimensional, or three–dimensional—whatever, really! A line is simply an element of design defined by a point moving in space.

Shape

A shape is a two-dimensional defined area created by lines. Different types of shapes include geometric, abstract, and organic shapes, all of which are basic elements of design.

Color

Color is an element that is especially important in attracting attention because there is psychology behind the feelings that color can evoke. Color has three main characteristics: hue (the color family), value (how light or dark the color is), and saturation (the purity of the color).

Typography

Typography is the art of arranging type. This one is critically important as it can greatly affect the design’s messaging. Different weights (bold, regular, or light), combined with varied sizing, colors, and spacing, can add power to the concept the designer is trying to communicate.

Texture

Texture in design refers to how things look and feel when touched. For example, texture can be rough, smooth, glossy, soft, hard, etc. Texture is another element used to draw attention. It can be added to other elements like shapes, colors, images, and types.

Size

Size is simply how small or large something is. In design, size is used to indicate importance, and contrasting sizes can also create visual interest.

Space

Space refers to the areas of the design that are left blank. These areas include any distance or areas between, around, below, or above other design elements. Designers intentionally place spaces in the design to add emphasis to areas of the design.

Principles of graphic design

The principles of design suggest how the designer should best arrange the various components of a page layout to ensure the elements of the overall design are connected to one another. The principles of design include the following:

Balance

Achieving visual balance in graphic design involves using symmetry and asymmetry. This is achieved by balancing the design in weight, meaning shapes, lines, and other elements are distributed evenly. So even if the two sides of the design aren’t the exact same, they have similar elements. Balance is important because it provides structure and stability to a design.

Alignment

Alignment is about keeping the design organized. All aspects of the design should be aligned with the top, bottom, center, or sides to create a visual connection between the elements.

Proximity

Proximity creates a visual relationship between the design elements. It minimizes clutter, increases viewer comprehension, and provides a focal point for viewers. It doesn’t necessarily mean similar elements need to be placed right next to each other; it just means they should be connected visually.

Repetition

Once you’ve chosen how to use your elements, repeat those patterns to establish consistency throughout the design. This repetition ties together individual elements and strengthens the design creating a feeling of organized movement.

Contrast 

Contrasting emphasizes certain aspects of the design. It allows you to stress differences between elements, ultimately highlighting the key elements of your design that you want to stand out.

Types of graphic design

Over time, graphic design has become pretty multifaceted. The overall concept is composed of different fields and specializations. Here are some of the most common types of graphic design:

Corporate design

Corporate design refers to a company's visual identity. Any visual elements that make up a brand's identity, such as a logo (made with logo design software), can be associated with corporate design. This type of graphic design is used in brand marketing to communicate brand values through images, shapes, and colors.

Marketing and advertising design

One of the most widely known types of graphic design is marketing and advertising. When most people think of graphic design, they’re most likely thinking of marketing and advertising design. Social media graphics, magazine ads, billboards, brochures, email marketing templates, and content marketing are all examples of this widely used type of graphic design.

Publication design

Publication design traditionally refers to print media, but again, with our generation's constant digitalization, it has crossed over to digital publishing. Publication designers need to work closely with editors and publishers to ensure layouts, typography, and illustrations are tastefully combined to produce the best possible end result. Examples of publication graphic designs include books, newspapers, newsletters, magazines, and eBooks.

Environmental design

This type of graphic design is commonly overlooked, in my opinion at least. Environmental graphic design is the use of visual elements in environments to connect people to those places. The purpose of environmental design is to improve people’s experiences in those places, whether it makes the experience more memorable or informs the viewer. Architecture, road signs, signage, event spaces, and wall murals are all examples of environmental design.

Packaging design

When you buy a new product, it most likely has some form of packaging or visual element, such as a label, sticker, or wrapping that is used to prepare the product for distribution or sale; these elements are created by packaging designers. It’s crucial that these designers are aware of current trends within the marketplace to ensure successful product marketing.

Motion design  

Motion graphic design is a subset of graphic design, and it’s exactly what it sounds like graphics that are in motion. This can include animation, video games, apps, GIFs, website features, etc. It is still a somewhat new area in graphic design, as technological advancements have allowed designers to explore new mediums.

Web design

While web design isn’t necessarily a type of graphic design, graphic design is one element of web design, so it’s worth mentioning here. Why? Web designers must consider and combine a variety of design elements – such as layout, images, and typography – to create a user-friendly, pleasant front-end web design. So, if you can't figure out how to make a website on your own, it's worth reaching out to a web designer. Web design also ties closely with UX and UI design, which I’ll dive into next.

Graphic design tools

The design process has evolved tremendously with the continuous digitalization in our world today. But just because these processes have changed over the years doesn’t mean designers aren’t still using traditional graphic design tools, like the old pencil and paper.

Most graphic designers use a hybrid process that includes both traditional and digital technologies. It’s common for designers to start the design process by sketching out concepts with traditional graphic design tools before hitting the ground running on the computer for finalization.

Many designers start directly on computers using graphic design software. These tools have enhanced the creative process by allowing designers to explore ideas and achieve designs more quickly rather than completely hand-rendering designs.

What does a graphic designer do?

A graphic designer’s primary job is to create visual concepts that communicate solutions and ideas that inspire, inform, and captivate consumers. To do this, graphic designers combine art and technology to produce end results that resonate with their target audience.

While goals can be dependent upon the type of graphic design, graphic designers are primarily focused on making whatever organization they are designing for recognizable. They’re there to help build a brand language, boost that company’s footprint, and communicate their messages through visually pleasing content.

Graphic design is becoming increasingly important in the marketing and sales of companies and products. That being said, graphic designers tend to work closely with public relations and marketing professionals to understand better how to communicate the messages that they need to.

Types of graphic designers

Considering there are many different types of graphic design, a career in graphic design can mean many different things. And quite frankly, the profession can tie back to any of those specializations.

If you choose to work in graphic design, you can work in a few different settings. 

Agency graphic designer

Many companies hire graphic design agencies to handle their designs for them. So if you’re working as an agency graphic designer, chances are you’ll be receiving a creative brief from companies to work on projects for many different brands. If you’re working as an agency designer, you’re expected to be a design expert. Often times, agency graphic designers are very specialized in areas of graphic design.

In-house graphic designer

If you’re working as an in-house graphic designer, you’re employed by an established company, and your work revolves around that single brand only. In this scenario, you’re more of a graphic design generalist, so you can meet all the creative needs of your organization.

Freelance graphic designer

Working as a freelance graphic designer is quite possibly the most difficult job, in my opinion, because you are expected to handle all design requests and run every aspect of your business. Sure, there are perks like working on your own time and in your own space, but you will need knowledge in more areas than graphic design. 

UI vs. UX design

Years ago, chances were anytime anyone talked about “design,” they were most likely referring to graphic design. But in the digital world, we live in today, filled with interactive screens and devices, that idea has changed a bit. It has introduced different kinds of design that can often be confusing for those outside the design industry.

That being said, let’s discuss two types of design that you have likely heard about but aren’t exactly sure what they are: UX design and UI design.

UX design

What is UX, exactly? UX design, also known as user experience design, is about enhancing – you guessed it – user experience. This specific type of design focuses on the structure and logic of the design elements that users interact with. UX designers work to improve a product’s usability, accessibility, and users’ pleasant interaction with the product, with the goal of maximizing customer satisfaction. This is done by performing both pain points and usability analyses post-product launch.

UI Design

UI Design, or User interface design, pertains to the interactive elements of a design. This type of design requires a good understanding of users’ needs because it focuses on anticipating what users will need to do on the device and ensuring that the interface has the elements that make those actions possible. These elements include things like dropdown lists, toggles, breadcrumbs, notifications, progress bars, etc. Basically, UI design is expanding the graphic design definition; designs that have any interactivity are UI, even if they incorporate static images.  

Design 101: Complete!

Well, that’s it! You’ve officially completed the Design 101 course about…..five months faster than I did. Lucky you.

Graphic design isn't just about making things pretty (although that's definitely a perk). It's about using visual communication to grab attention, tell stories, and evoke emotions. It's the secret sauce that can take your brand from bland to BAM!

Keen to explore more? Check out the top graphic design skills you need to make a successful career in this creative field.


This article was originally published in 2018. It has been updated with new information.

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Ink-credible designs await!

Get the best graphic design software to turn your ideas into art.

graphic design software
Ink-credible designs await!

Get the best graphic design software to turn your ideas into art.

What is Graphic Design? A Beginner's Guide for 2024 Learn how graphic design can elevate your brand, tell your story, and grab attention in a visually driven world. Explore basics, types, tools, and more! https://learn.g2.com/hubfs/G2CM_FI978_Learn_Article_Images_%5BGraphic_Design%5D_V1b.png
Jordan Wahl Jordan Wahl is a former content manager at G2. She holds a BBA in Marketing from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. She loves anything that puts her in her creative space. including writing, art, and music. https://learn.g2crowd.com/hubfs/jordan-wahl-g2crowd.jpg https://www.linkedin.com/in/jordanmwahl/

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