What is graphic design?

In order to become a graphic designer, you first need to understand what graphic design is, what is it for, and under what circumstances is graphic design useful.  Before plunging into theories and principles of design, graphics software, and skills tutorials, take a moment to think about the nature of graphic design work.

Graphic design is a branch of design in the more abstract sense.  Design, as an all-encompassing discipline, has many levels of complexity, realms of application, and degrees of difficulty.  Design in this sense implies the full understanding and mastery of a process that applies to any act of human creation. That said, there are many sub-specializations of design: engineering design, interior design, information design, aeronautic design, etc.  Each has its own application and operation, each has its own level of complexity.

Design, most importantly, must be defined as a process of creation.  Inherently, design is always purpose-oriented: it seeks to accomplish some well-defined purpose.  The process of design, at the very least, implies strategy, hierarchy, selection, and manipulation.  In this sense, we cannot call every single act of creation “design,” since the act of designing implies a process of very specific operations.

What is graphic design then?  Simply put, it is the act of creating visual representations for the purpose of communication.  If we see graphic design as part of design in the broader sense, we can say that graphic design is the process through which elements and principles are strategically combined in order to create visual artifacts of high communicative value.

It is important to describe the task of graphic design in order to understand what it is and what it is not.  By doing this, we demystify graphic design as an essentially artistic activity, showing its procedural nature and, therefore, rendering the task of learning graphic design easier and more approachable.


Below, I discuss key characteristics of graphic design in order to show you that it is a process that can be learned.


Graphic design is different from art

Many times, we have heard that the artist works from the “heart.” This means that he or she follows some kind of instinctual voice, a “gut feeling,” that defines the creation as an inspired object.  If you watch an artist work, such as Jean Michel Basquiat, you will perceive a “spontaneous” act of creation, a process that never has a fixed or guaranteed outcome.  We often also hear that art is always “open for interpretation.” Its effect is closer to an experience than to a specific message.  Art “speaks” to us, but in ways that depend on context, history, frameworks of knowledge, and culture.  We can be both looking at a Pollock painting at the same place and time and yet experience different emotions and interpret different messages.

Even if most artists prepare themselves for the act of creation (in terms of planning, organization, or mapping), we tend to think of the artistic process as something that controls the artist, rather than the other way around.  Art will take you where it will take you.

The graphic designer is different from the artist, and graphic design is different from the work of art.  The main difference lies in the primary purpose of graphic design: communication.  The primary objective of graphic designs are to render ideas, concepts, and occurrences into a visual language for someone in some context.  This language cannot be open to different interpretations and must be created according to predetermined parameters.

A graphic designer can be an artist, but you do not have to be an artist to be a graphic designer.

Graphic design is a form of visual communication

To say that graphic design is a form of visual communication is to acknowledge the importance of images in everyday life.  In this visual culture we live in, images have become the primary way of receiving and interpreting information.  We rely on the visual for interpreting data, for making diagnoses, for expressing authority, and for selling stuff.  Screens surround us, and have become the quintessential channel for delivering images.

The image, for visual communicators and graphic designers, is a powerful vehicle for delivering messages because it is able to pack within emotion and complexity in the most immediate, effective way.

To design is always to communicate.  Communication, in this sense, is always a purposeful act, driven by clear objectives and processes.


Graphic design is strategy driven

Graphic designers create images that will accomplish a primary purpose, and this process of creation is guided by research, a specific message, technique, and an execution plan.

Graphic design does not occur by chance nor is the product of pure instinct.  It is not random.

On the contrary, graphic designers take care in studying and really understanding their source material.  They establish clear objectives based on a strategy for accomplishing their communication goals.  They follow a system of production and workflow.  They understand that simplicity and efficiency are integral elements of the creation process.


Graphic design is a hierarchical process of selection

Graphic design concentrates on the minimum conditions that will render a message effective, and no more.  In order to accomplish this, graphic designers select what is most suited to accomplish a task.  Excessive use of form, and the over-manipulation of visual elements, becomes an obstruction to clear communication.

A visual message carries within an intention.  This intention must be distilled and rendered into its purest form.  Selection thus becomes a crucial aspect of separating the important from the unimportant, the effective from the ineffective.

To select is to be able to choose.  Graphic designers are always choosing what is most effective to the task at hand.


Graphic design implies manipulation

The first crucial operation of graphic design is to “read”.  I define reading here as a conscious absorption of content, a systematic form of interpretation according to a code.

Design, as an objective-driven endeavor, implies the reading of the environment, the reading of messages (linguistic and otherwise), the reading of the world.

Once graphic designers have read their source material (that which must be represented visually), they must engage in the second most important operation: to translate.  To translate means to take that knowledge, that understanding of the world that has been absorbed from the source material and transport it to another plane of communication, the visual code.

In this sense, graphic designers manipulate language and code in order to communicate things in different ways.  They also manipulate form (objects, icons, colors, textures) in order to create messages that are effective in communicating visually.


Start to learn graphic design on your own (it is totally possible)

The main takeaway from this section is that you do not necessarily have to be an “artist” in order to become a graphic designer.  Graphic design is a systematic, repeatable process that is bound by specific principles, actions, and objectives.  These principles and processes can be learned.  With experience, practice, and understanding of what graphic design is and is not, you will be able to learn the basics of graphic design and start creating effective visual communication.

Remember these key points:

Graphic design is different from art: The product of graphic design should not be open for interpretation.

Graphic design is driven by processes: Graphic designers work according to specific rules and operations.

Graphic designers are visual communicators: Get your communication strategy first, then create graphics accordingly.

Graphic design involves “reading” and “translating”:  Graphic designers are really good at “reading,” or deeply absorbing, their environment.  They focus on the details of things.  The look at things very closely. Only then can they “translate” what they absorb into a visual language.

Graphic design can be learned: You do not have to be born an artist to be an effective visual communicator. Mostly, you will need knowledge, discipline, and experience.  If you keep practicing, you will develop an eye for graphic design.


Now that you understand some key premises of graphic design, you can start to learn about the main theoretical principles that power effective visual communication and composition.