If you’ve ever noticed a billboard, used a subway map, or appreciated an online infographic, you have a graphic designer to thank. A huge field with a wide variety of applications, graphic design is all about creating visual materials to communicate information to a specific audience. In the age of ecommerce, graphic design skills are invaluable, as good graphic design work can set your business apart from your competitors.
Here’s an overview of graphic design and popular tools you can use to make your own designs.
Table of Contents
What is graphic design?
Graphic design is the practice of creating visual content to communicate a particular message to a particular audience. It has applications in advertising, branding, print and digital media, product packaging, web development, and more.
Whether they’re working on print magazine ads, product labels, or webpage layouts, graphic designers typically use software programs to craft compelling visual assets. Using carefully chosen colors, images, typography, and other elements, graphic designers can help a company establish a cohesive brand identity and communicate that identity to its customers.
8 types of graphic design
Graphic designers are responsible for a wide array of print and digital projects. Here are eight common types of graphic design:
- Branding design
- UX design
- UI design
- Environmental design
- Information design
- Marketing and/or advertising design
- Packaging design
- Print design
1. Branding design
Brand graphic designers help shape a brand’s visual identity, including choice of color, typeface, use of iconography, and imagery style. They may also design logos and produce brand assets such as illustrations, simple infographics, and more. Branding design is typically a senior-level graphic design job.
2. UX design
User experience design (or UX design) concerns itself with how a user navigates a platform—typically a website, landing page, or app. They consider the hierarchy of information, user expectations, overall user journey, and, of course, visual elements. They work closely with product managers and developers and consider the technical implications of their designs (e.g. page load times). Overall, UX designers think critically about designing digital experiences that are easy and intuitive to use.
3. UI design
A subset of UX design, user interface design (or UI design) involves shaping the minute visual details that help people interact with digital surfaces. UI design aims to create a positive user experience by making interfaces like websites, landing pages, and apps simple, visually appealing, and effective. While UX designers focus on the holistic experience, UI designers primarily focus on elements like icons, buttons, typography, and menus.
4. Environmental design
Environmental graphic design is design work concerned with the visual identity of a physical space. Environmental designers create real-world products like banners, posters, window decals, and informational signs to guide viewers through a space. They often work with 3D models of physical spaces to ensure the right dimensions for their final products.
5. Information design
Information design is a subset of graphic design in which designers work specifically with numbers, data, and other technical information, crafting visuals that communicate the information in a clear, understandable way. Information designers may produce infographics, charts, diagrams, or custom visualizations to make complex data easily digestible.
6. Marketing and/or advertising design
Individuals working in marketing or advertising graphic design are responsible for creative directing and making assets for—you guessed it—marketing and advertising. This could include imagery for social media, blogs, digital ads, and print or out-of-home ads. They might also focus on email newsletter design or even landing page design that’s dedicated to promotions. The goal of these marketing materials is to communicate the client’s message in a cohesive, memorable, and visually appealing way.
Senior marketing and advertising designers are typically known as art directors.
7. Packaging design
This type of graphic design involves planning and implementing product packaging that matches a client’s overall brand identity. This can include shelf packaging, product labels, inserts, instructions, and shipping materials. Packaging designers consider technical aspects like product composition, printing and ink limitations, and sustainability.
8. Print design
Graphic artists who specialize in print produce printed and (often) bound goods like magazines, books, pamphlets, flyers, and signage. Print designers may focus on cover design or interior layouts, or both. They work in the CMYK color spectrum to ensure color-correct printing, and they may navigate additional variables like page bleeds, image DPI, paper quality, and binding options.
5 key graphic design elements
- Image and shape
Here are the five elements central to graphic design projects:
Designers consider color theory while creating visuals so that they communicate the right message. For instance, red and yellow can inspire hunger, while blue can communicate serenity.
2. Image and shape
A graphic designer creates or employs images to add visual interest, set a tone, and communicate complex ideas. Images may include icons, photos, infographics, and full-color illustrations.
Layout is the principle of choosing how to organize material, including where to place the title of a website, how text is laid out in a book or magazine, how images are sized, and how much white space to use.
Graphic designers use lines—thick or thin, straight or curved, abstract or part of a larger illustration—to help separate information, guide viewers’ eyes, and create visual interest.
Designers consider a number of typographic variables when working with text, including typeface, font size, weight (e.g., bold or italic), leading (the distance between lines), and kerning (the distance between letters).
8 key principles of graphic design
Learn more about eight key principles that graphic designers keep in mind when working on a particular project.
Alignment means deciding where different elements go on a page, and whether or not they are visually grouped. For example, a designer isn’t likely to choose to left-align an article title and right-align the body text, because viewers may feel less of an association between these two elements.
Balance determines whether or not a design feels organized or chaotic. The ideal balance depends on the project; some projects may require simple symmetry, while others may necessitate a design that deliberately feels skewed.
Contrast is all about difference—big or small, bright or dull, crisp or blurry. Designers can use high contrast to draw attention to a particular spot or highlight the differences between images.
At its core, hierarchy is the principle of emphasis; it determines where viewers’ eyes go first. For instance, titles are usually larger than the body text, placing more emphasis on them.
Movement encompasses not only the movement of design elements but of the viewer’s eye. For instance, a curved line can draw the eye along a page, while a solid object can bring the eye to a halt.
Proportion determines the size of an element in relation to the rest of the elements in the design. Two images of the same size can communicate equal importance, while larger elements can feel more important than smaller ones.
Repeated elements in a design are an important part of cohesion, which is why some companies use a limited color palette for everything from logo design to packaging. Repeated elements can comfort and orient viewers while breaking a pattern can create a sense of disruption and surprise.
Blank space is just as important to graphic design as things like illustrations and color, because it allows a viewer’s eye to rest. It can also help a visual composition achieve balance.
4 popular graphic design tools
- Adobe Creative Suite
Graphic designers work with a number of tools during the creative process. Here are four of the most common ones:
1. Adobe Creative Suite
Adobe Creative Suite features several major players in the graphic design industry, including Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, and Adobe InDesign. These products have few limits to what they can do, making them mainstays for high-level designers. That said, the wide array of features can create a steeper learning curve for designers just starting out.
Photoshop and Illustrator have the most functionality for image-based designs, while InDesign is more popular for typography and text layouts. The Adobe products are the most expensive on this list, but a yearly membership to Adobe Creative Cloud gives you access to the entire suite of products.
Canva is an online tool that offers ready-made design elements (from icons to templates) that you can use to create digital compositions like social media posts, flyers, and even logos. It’s especially useful for beginners or designers who would rather begin with pre-made designs than create their own from scratch. Canva has a huge array of free content, and for designers who want more premium content, it offers a pro membership level with yearly payments.
GIMP, which stands for GNU Image Manipulation Program, is an online photo editor that allows designers to import and manipulate photos or illustrations. It’s completely free and open source, which means you can find user-made plug-ins and modifications for most of your custom needs. While you can use GIMP to draw your own images, most of its features are aimed at editing existing images.
Sketch is a collaborative online design platform that allows multiple designers to engage with a project at once. Its unique, real-time collaborative interface makes it particularly useful for design teams that want to work closely together, from working on prototypes to tweaking final proofs. Sketch offers a 30-day free trial and two different paid plans—one standard plan and a higher-priced business plan with increased capabilities.
Graphic design FAQ
What is the difference between UX design and graphic design?
UX design, short for “user experience design,” is a subset of graphic design. UX design concerns itself with the experience of a user as they interact with a product or website. UX designers think critically about designing platforms that are easy and intuitive to use.
What are the elements of graphic design?
The fundamental elements of graphic design include color, image, layout, line, and typography. With these five visual concepts, graphic designers can create any number of materials suited for a given audience.
What software do I need for graphic design?
There’s no one-size-fits-all graphic design software. In fact, many graphic designers prefer different programs or use a combination to suit their needs. Free programs like Canva and GIMP make graphic design work accessible to those with less (or no) experience. Adobe Creative Suite products like Illustrator and InDesign have more capabilities and are better suited to larger, more complex projects.