What is Graphic Design? The Complete Overview

Camren Browne, contributor to the CareerFoundry blog

It’s a profession, a field of study, an art form, and much more. But what is graphic design? 

Some designers say graphic design began in the 11th century with the introduction of moveable-type printing that allowed humans to reproduce language or drawings on paper. 

Others argue that the discipline started much earlier, around 35,000 BC when early cave drawings and hieroglyphs were believed to have been created. 

So what is graphic design in 2023, and how do you categorize something with such broad origins?

Graphic design contains many categories, sub-categories, and mediums. As technological advancements have developed, graphic design has grown from ancient pictographs to mass print publications, eye-catching advertisements, and intricate digital designs. 

To achieve its end goals, graphic design uses essential underlying principles and elements, many of which are equally as important for other disciplines, such as UX design or photography.  

It’s a wide, important field. To break things down a bit, we’ve created this extensive guide on what graphic design encompasses and how to define it. Here’s what we’ll cover:

1. What is graphic design?

Graphic design is the practice of creating and using visual or textual content to communicate ideas to an audience or elicit a specific effect.

That’s why graphic design is commonly categorized as a form of communication design.

Visuals in this context can take on many forms. From a company logo, event flyer, newspaper layout, business website, mobile app, or video game, graphic design encompasses many different media and sub-categories. 

Graphic designs are often created with a specific goal in mind, usually relating to a company or business plan.

The design choices should align with this goal to produce a visually pleasing yet practical creation: graphic design is like art but guided by business objectives.

For instance, someone may design a music festival flyer to advertise the bands that will perform and give viewers a sense of what type of vibe they can expect to experience if attending.

An upbeat, electronic music festival flyer will likely have very different text, color, image, and design choices than a country music festival flyer. 

So, graphic design is a way a company can connect to its customers or stakeholders to communicate the feeling, energy, or message of its brand, products, events, and projects.  

2. Graphic design basics

When asking “what is graphic design?” it’s crucial to understand the elements that comprise it.

Graphic designers approach their work using a set of elements and principles that help ensure their designs make sense to the viewers and convey the message(s) they intend. Here’s a quick breakdown of the basics.

Elements

Elements are the building blocks of graphic design.

Each category below is a basic unit that gives the design structure, form, and feeling. It is crucial to set the right tone, provide balance and hierarchy, and evoke emotion. 

Line

Lines connect two points in space and are used to divide space or bring the viewer’s eye to a specific part of the design.

Color 

Color is an essential element of design as it can quickly evoke certain moods or emotions. Used in typography, lines, backgrounds, images, or shapes, designers also consider hue, saturation, and value when selecting colors.

Shape

Shapes are combinations of lines to create a two-dimensional defined area. They can be abstract, geometrical, or organic and recognizable. Similar to color, shapes can elicit an emotional response.

shapes on books cover show graphic design principles

Size and scale

The size of an aspect is often used to stress its importance: Designing with contrasting sizes creates a visual hierarchy or adds emphasis to specific parts of the design.

Space

White, negative, or intentionally blank areas help with readability, prevent overcrowding, and emphasize different design parts.

Texture

Texture describes how something looks like it would feel if someone were to touch it, and might mimic things like stone, brick, fabric, paper, or sand.

Typography

Typography refers to how type is arranged in space to create legible, engaging designs. The size, weight, color, spacing, and font choice all significantly impact the design’s message.

Principles

Graphic design principles refer to the best practices designers use in arranging the elements above on the page in a way that is engaging and connects them.

Balance 

The balance of a design considers how elements are distributed, but it only sometimes means symmetry. In fact, graphic designers may use both symmetrical and asymmetrical design tactics to create stability for the former or dynamism with the latter.

Alignment

Good alignment keeps the design organized and the viewer’s eyes engaged. Generally, the design elements are aligned with the top, bottom, sides, and center to create a visual connection.

Designers also utilize alignment rules like the golden ratio or rule of thirds that help ensure effective communication.

Repetition 

Repeating some aspects throughout your design helps ensure consistency. It can tie together certain elements and keep things organized. Without it, the design can feel incohesive or confusing to the viewer. 

Proximity

Where elements are placed in relation to one another can help provide an area of focus, minimize clutter, and ensure that viewers know what message you’re trying to send.

Contrast

Emphasizing differences between elements helps certain design aspects stand out more than others. You can highlight critical features using color, shape, size, or even texture. 

If you’re interested in the underlying principles of graphic design, you might enjoy reading about the principles of design.

3. What are the different types of graphic design?

Part of what makes the question of “What is graphic design” such a broad one, is how many different subtypes there are.

We’ve laid out some of the most common graphic design specialties below. Remember that each discipline may utilize print, digital, or both types of mediums. 

Publication design 

Graphic designers in publication design generally create for things like books, newspapers, magazines, or newsletters. However, even these things have become digitized, and publication design now includes e-books, online newsletters, articles, etc.

Publication designers focus heavily on typography, illustration, and layouts that coincide with the desires of the authors and editors on the team. 

Packaging design 

This subtype of graphic design encompasses any label, sticker, or packaging used to contain and advertise physical products.

Packaging designers must be aware of current trends for similar products, the general feel and message the company wants to express about the product, the feasibility of their designs, and any regulations that need to be met. 

Environmental design

This graphic design specialty is less commonly known but is frequently encountered. Environmental design curates elements in specific locations that help people interact with the space, make their experience memorable, or enhance the natural, social, or cultural habitat.

Some examples are murals, urban planning, road signs and other signage, architecture, event space planning, and interior design

Marketing, advertising, and corporate design

This graphic design specialty is what most people consider when graphic design comes to mind. Products used in brand marketing, like company logos, newsletters, email templates, magazine ads, flyers, and brochures, are the most well-known types of graphic designs.

Any visual element that helps advertise and communicate a company’s identity or services falls under this sub-specialty. 

15 examples of simple logos show how graphic design is used in marketing

Motion graphics

Motion graphics takes graphic design elements and brings them to life via animations, special effects, GIFs, games, or videos. These could be in movies, TV shows, commercials and advertising, video games, or even app and website features

Compared to print and publication design, motion graphics is still a relatively new subset of design. However, this field is expected to grow with more things becoming entertainment-based and digitized. 

Web and UX/UI design

While not a branch of graphic design per se, web and UX/UI design share a lot of overlap as many elements and principles are the same. For instance, web and UX/UI designers are very focused on layouts, color theory, typography, animations, and illustrations when designing pleasing to look at web pages and apps

However, in contrast to graphic design, web and UX design focus more on ease of use and navigation, intuitiveness, desirability, and engagement. We’ll get into this overlap between the disciplines a bit more below.

4. Where graphic design meets UX design

Graphic design and UX have a lot in common. Both aim to inform the viewer and communicate a message or idea to them in a way that’s effective and visually pleasing. 

Graphic designers and UX designers may even work on the same teams or the same projects. However, there is a difference between these two disciplines that is important to keep in mind. 

To explore this difference, let’s think of a hypothetical situation where both a graphic designer and a UX designer design a company website separately. 

Because a graphic designer’s focus is visual messages, they will likely focus on ensuring the brand’s feel is communicated well and the elements on each page are visually appealing. 

The UX designer will usually focus more on functionality, usability, and the overall flow of the site. 

You’ll likely end up with a captivating, visually stunning website from the graphic designer and an intuitive, easy-to-navigate site from the UX designer.

However, something aesthetically wonderful to look at still needs to serve a purpose and have functionality. Conversely, a highly-intuitive product might not capture a viewer’s eyes or appeal to their emotions if it is lacking in pleasing visuals.

The most successful product designs take the approach of both disciplines into account and combine usability with engaging visual designs

A website that’s nice to look at still needs to offer clear calls to action, smooth navigation processes, and uncomplicated accessibility features for a user’s needs to be met. 

Therefore, utilizing graphic design principles in UX offers users eye-catching, harmonious designs that are still easy to use and help users achieve their goals. 

5. Key takeaways

So, what is graphic design? Clearly, the answer is a big one.

Graphic design is a broad field that can significantly impact human behavior. How messages are presented and communicated to us influences our purchasing decisions, how we interpret the world, and how we interact with others and our environment.

There are many ways to become a graphic designer and many different sub-specialties. Other professions, like UX or marketing, rely on graphic design principles to create successful products. 

It’s an adaptive field with massive potential for growth as technology advances and further integrates into our way of life. 

If you’d like to learn more, check out the articles below. And if you’re interested in diving deeper into the world of UX design, try our free short course

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