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. To my dismay, I was going to spend a whole semester mulling over color psychology rather than learning how to master the art of graphic design.
Good news for you, though. You don’t have to spend a semester learning the basics of graphic design, you’ll only have to spend a few minutes here. That’s right, I’m here to tell you everything you need to know about graphic design, and then some.
What is graphic design?
If you’re like me, I’m sure many of you reading this think you have a pretty good understanding of what graphic design is. Billboards, logos, magazines, video games, vector graphics, raster graphics: 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.
For those of you who prefer a technical definition, we’ve got that for you too:
Graphic design definition
Graphic design is the art or profession of visual communication that combines images, words, and ideas to convey information to an audience, especially to produce a specific effect. In other words, graphic design is communication design; It’s a way of conveying ideas through visuals and design.
But believe it or not, graphic design isn’t a black and white concept. To fully grasp the concept of graphic design, it’s important to have a solid understanding of the elements and principles that make up design.
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 – The most basic of the design elements. Lines can be curved, straight, thick, thin, two-dimensional, three-dimensional – whatever really! A line is simply an element of design that is 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 one element that is especially important in attracting attention because there is psychology behind the feelings that color can evoke. There are three main characteristics to color: 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 like they’d feel if they were to be 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 type.
Size – Size is simply how small or large something is. In design, size is used as an indication of importance and it can also create visual interest in a design by using contrasting sizes.
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 is done by 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 elements of the design. It minimizes clutter, increases viewer comprehension, and provides a focal point for viewers. It doesn’t necessarily mean the similar elements need to be put 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 but creating a feeling of organized movement.
Contrast – Contrasting is used to emphasize certain aspects of the design. Using contrast allows you to stress differences between elements, ultimately highlighting the key elements of your design that you want to stand out.
Graphic design tools
The design process had 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 ol’ 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.
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 has to do with the visual identity of a company. Any visual elements that make up a brands identity, such as a brand’s 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 color.
Marketing and advertising design – Probably one of the most widely known types of graphic design: 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, content marketing – all examples of this widely used type of graphic design.
Publication design – Publication design traditionally refers to print medium, but again, with the constant digitalization of our generation, 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 producing 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. This 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? Because web designers must consider and combine a variety of the 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.
Years ago, chances are anytime anyone was talking about “design”, they were most likely referring to graphic design. But with 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 talk about two types of design that you have likely heard about, but aren’t exactly sure what they are: UX design and UI 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 a goal of maximizing customer satisfaction. This is done by performing both pain point and usability analyses post-product launch.
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.
What is a graphic designer?
Now that we’ve covered the different types of graphic design, let’s tackle the next big question:
What is a graphic designer?
To put it simply, graphic designers are visual communicators and problem solvers.
I give you this broad definition because, 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.
But for the sake of keeping things simple, let’s cover the basics of a career in graphic design.
If you choose to work in graphic design, you can work in a few different settings. You can,
Work for industry-related companies, like design consultancies or branding agencies (agency graphic designer)
Work with any company (in-house graphic designer)
Work remotely on your own (freelance graphic designer)
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 that 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, in my opinion, because not only are you expected to handle all design requests, but you’re also responsible for running 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 just graphic design.
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 identity, boost that company’s brand and communicate their messages through visually-pleasing content.
Graphic design is becoming increasingly important in the marketing and sales of both companies and products. That being said, graphic designers tend to work closely with public relations and marketing professionals to better understand how they can communicate the messages that they need to.
Design 101: Complete!
Well, that’s it! You’ve officially completed the Design 101 course about…..five months faster than I did. Lucky you.
While this article gives you a great idea of the basics of graphic design, we will continue to take a deeper dive into other areas of the design world. So, be sure to check back for more articles on graphic design soon!
Jordan Wahl is a former Content Marketing Manager at G2 who joined after graduating with her BBA in Marketing from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. She loves anything that puts her in her creative space – including writing, art, and music (her absolute favorite).