Graphic Design: Everything You Should Know About It

16 Minutes time to read

Quite a few of us think that just because we spend our subway commute looking at countless Pinterest accounts and liking artsy Ikebana posts on Instagram, it means we have an impeccable taste and if we get into a room full of designers right now, we’d crush it. But let’s be honest with ourselves here: we wouldn’t. Any kind of graphic design services involves intricate processes that most of the people wouldn’t be able to master on the spot.

What is graphic design?

Our mind is a complex thing: it’s hard for us to focus on any text for long periods of time and to process information quickly and accurately if it’s text-heavy. We perceive images way faster than words, and in the world where we are bombarded with huge amounts of data and information every day in various visual media, we become picky and desensitized to the variety of content. Naturally, we start to gravitate towards more nuanced and sophisticated forms of presenting that content – design.

Anyone would agree that most of the content nowadays is created and distributed through digital media, and the easiest way to grab people’s attention online is an engaging arrangement of photos or a colorful logo or anything visually compelling. Graphic design has rightly become one of the most popular and quickly developed design spheres for reacting to that insatiable need for visual content. But what exactly is graphic design? Is it a fancy term describing old-school drawings and illustrations? Or is it a new way of saying: “we will put some nice stuff on your product and make you mindlessly rich”?

Graphic design provides a chance to communicate certain ideas and concepts through images and visual compositions with the help of typography, photography, iconography, and illustration. Graphic design blends text, image, and symbols together to provide a visual representation of the message and to showcase the function of presented information. 

Therefore, another term that is often used to describe a graphic design is a communication design since its main purpose is to project a certain point to an audience and do it in a creative and engaging way. Many would argue that at this day and age graphic design is not merely a marketing tool – it is an art form and a modern means of artistic expression. As we get more and more entrenched in the digital world, graphic design begins to play a bigger role in our lives encompassing most of the spheres we engage in. Graphic design can be utilized anywhere: in advertising, on websites, in branding, printing, packaging, and its power lies in its inclusivity and range of use. 

Photo by KOBU Agency

Types of graphic design

The graphic design focuses on achieving the client’s objectives while optimizing the message to provide an enjoyable user experience. Since each case may entail a variety of problems to be solved, there are loads of different types of graphic design that can address those issues and support different strategic needs. However, there are 6 main areas in which graphic design is primarily employed.

  • Brand identity graphic design
    Brand identity design focuses on bringing a visual consistency for a company or organization by creating logos, typography, brand books, and visual style guides, utilizing the selected color scheme across all applications and media and establishing a brand’s visual voice.
  • Marketing graphic design
    Graphic design is a great tool for advertising and making a certain product or an idea stand out as it takes into account its specific and exclusive qualities and makes the most of them. It can take the form of a marketing presentation with creative infographics, social media ads and graphics, or other captivating visual elements.
  • Print graphic design
    Publications and print graphic design is concerned with creating pieces that are distributed via print media. Since the rise of digital publication companies, publication design addresses the needs of various digital publishing platforms.
  • Packaging graphic design
    Packaging design makes it easier for a customer to notice and identify the product which makes it a valuable marketing tool. Packaging has to be highly creative and as original as possible since it’s the first thing that customers associate the product with.
  • Motion graphic design
    Motion graphic design is among the newest types of graphic design and it mainly includes animation, video, audio materials, and features that can be used in television, film, and any online outlets.
  • Environmental graphic design
    The environmental graphic design incorporates elements of several disciplines: mainly, architecture, landscape, and graphic arts, which are utilized as a way to improve the user experience or inform the people about the specific place.

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Graphic design basics

Starting to work with graphic design is not possible without knowing its basic principles and elements. Graphic design can employ a countless number of elements, with a few of them regarded as base notes for the most graphic design works, forming a groundwork for each graphic designer.

  1. Lines
    The foundational element of any design is the line. It can be useful for dividing space or emphasizing a specific part of the visible area. Lines can also direct the viewers in their exploration through the general composition or serve as a “road” for their eyes to make it easier for them to get from one point of interest to another.
  2. Shapes
    Shapes allow you to fill the spaces and use them in a more creative and captivating way. They can enhance the visual arrangement of the content and add a fresh touch to the overall design.
  3. Color
    A color (and the lack of it) is one of the most noticeable elements of graphic design, and the first thing that viewers see when they look at the product. Colors can be experimented with in a variety of ways. When used appropriately, they can serve as a great tool for highlighting certain aspects of brand identity or for minimizing the importance of others.
  4. Type
    Like every other element, the fonts you use can guide your reader through the masses of information, allowing them to decipher the general “mood” of your website and work out a certain point of your brand message.
  5. Texture
    We don’t necessarily think of texture when we talk about graphic design, however, it can bring a certain gravity and weight to the visual configuration and make the viewing experience more immersive.
  6. Space
    Using space in an appropriate way can help to further a certain message or make the already existing design elements more prominent and striking.

Graphic design principles

Apart from design elements, there are a few graphic design principles that tie all the elements together and ensure that the foundation of your design will be rock-solid. Those basic principles include:

  1. Balance
    Balance helps to bring a structure to the whole concept as it weighs the visual elements and coordinates them properly in the larger composition.
  2. AlignmentAlignment enhances the structure set by the right usage of balance and eliminates any disarrayed elements and cuts the irrelevant and redundant bits from the equation.
  3. HierarchyHierarchy emphasizes the power of the most visually charged elements and distributes them accordingly. Hierarchy is managed by bringing focus and attention to the elements you define as being the most important and relevant.
  4. ContrastContrast highlights the key elements in the layout and ensures that all contrasted sides are distinct.
  5. ConsistencyCreates a certain rhythm by reusing the same elements repeatedly, supporting the visual identity (examples of that – logos in packaging or a color scheme used across the website).
Basic graphic design principles

There is also a visual perception theory that implies that there is a set of rules that define the way we group visual elements together. Those rules form a set of Gestalt principles that graphic designers use to organize the composition in a way that would make the content fascinating and easy to navigate through. Those principles are:

  • Good figure
    People will simplify complex, asymmetrical, or unbalanced shapes into a single figure.
  • Similarity
    The elements are usually grouped together if they’re similar in shape, color, or form.
  • Closure
    The viewers will visually connect the elements that may have missing parts and fill in the gaps.
  • Proximity
    The elements that are physically closer to each other tend to be perceived as one entity.
  • Continuation
    The human eye is more likely to group the elements that are organized in one line or curve.
  • Symmetry 
    The elements that are symmetrical to each other are usually seen as one unified object.

Graphic design vs illustration: what’s the difference?

For an amateur, graphic design is nothing more than just a bunch of colorful illustrations or logos tossed together to liven up the website pages and make the user experience more enjoyable. Frequently the role of graphic design and illustrations can overlap, however, they differ largely in terms of their functionality.

Graphic design, while proving to be an emerging art form, is more commercially inclined and mainly used to bring the brand’s message across, whereas illustrations are pivotal for interpreting and decorating the text. Graphic design usually prompts immediate attention from the target audience since its main objective is to bring the focus to the created concepts and make them shine. To do that, graphic designers rely on color schemes, fonts, and images that can serve a specific purpose and evoke a precise emotion (e.g. blue color – to seem more formal or to appeal to a more conservative audience) that will support or develop the brand’s message further.

Illustrators have more freedom to explore and follow their creative aspirations without fixating on a cohesive brand message. Since the digital world becomes more and more prevalent in our culture, graphic design and illustrations become more intertwined and connected, and now illustrations can be easily used in graphic design as a marketing tool. On top of that, illustrations can also be used in guidelines, various manuals, and specifications, thus containing information rather than decorating it.

Ultimately, the graphic design aims to bring attention to a specific object, while illustrations create elements that support the whole composition, visually interpret the concept, and add an artful dimension. The real difference is in their commercial value – graphic design has a wider reach and is usually more attention-grabbing.

A series of illustrations

Web design, graphic design, web graphic design, what else?

Another misconception that some people might have is that graphic and web design are essentially the same thing and can be used interchangeably. However, there are several significant differences.

Web design is a broader term as it includes various disciplines. In short, a web designer’s work is mainly concerned with how the final solution would be implemented in digital form. In other words, web design makes sure that all elements of the future website are properly arranged and highly operational and usable and organized in a way that would address the user’s habits, needs, and attitudes.

Web designers are more restricted by the technical constraints of the website: file sizes, load performance, constant maintenance, resolution, and scale. They also need to be well-versed in coding and different programming languages and skills. Web design is more focused on responsive design and speed, so the primary task is to gain a balance between visually captivating design elements and the online usability of the product. Essentially web designers are tightrope walkers – they need to overcome every possible hurdle without falling on their faces. On top of that, unlike graphic designers, they have more direct and dynamic interaction with the users, that will take into account their behavioral attributes, so they can quickly accommodate design according to their feedback.

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What does a graphic designer do?

We’ve talked about graphic design but haven’t mentioned the main artist behind it – a graphic designer. Graphic designers vary greatly in terms of areas of specialization, industries, and scope of a skill set. Some of them work for a specific design agency and develop their specialization within one company, others are freelancers, who manage their workload and customers themselves. Even though it’s not a profession with a clearly defined job description, graphic designers still need to perform several tasks that can ensure bringing a client’s idea into reality.

If you’re not familiar with the technicalities of graphic design you might ask: what do graphic designers do precisely? Their first and foremost responsibility is to transmit a concept or an idea in a visual way and cut down excessive and unnecessary information and reduce it to a basic and digestible theme. The graphic designer’s ultimate goal is to blend form and function.

What skills do they need to achieve that? Well, apart from the obvious – having creative aspirations and basic knowledge of the design software – a graphic designer should have exceptional skills in visual communication and storytelling. The graphic designer’s job is not only to visually interpret the message but also to set the tone of the communication between the client and the audience while keeping an eye on the market. Graphic designers can’t be successful if they aren’t providing a fresh and original outlook on the product or an idea they’re promoting, that’s why they should have a very clear understanding of their target audience and business goals of the brand they’re working for.

In terms of soft skills, being flexible is of the highest importance for a graphic designer. Being able to constantly build bridges between function and beauty, the audience and the brand, assigned goals and end results wouldn’t be possible without adaptability, resilience, and inhumane capacity for collaboration.

A graphic designer is someone who can recognize both the needs of his client and the users and transform the message into something that can be appealing to everyone. This implies that graphic designers should have incredible attention to detail and great instincts for successful solutions to meet those needs. What they also need is a set of special tools and software that they use to turn an idea or a concept into something tangible and real.

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Graphic design software

Graphic design software and tools are essential and irreplaceable instruments for any graphic designer who aims to be efficient and productive. Which software is the best for graphic design? It depends on the stage you’re currently on in your journey as a graphic designer, how accessible and easy-to-use you would like that graphic design software to be, and the amount of money you’re willing to spend on your graphic design tools.

The best option would be, of course, well-tried and tested paid software that has been used for graphic designers for ages and already proved to be extremely useful and convenient such as Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, CorelDraw, Sketch, Affinity Designer, Procreate and others. Those graphic design tools are the gold standard of graphic design software: they have loads of useful features and elements, they are constantly updated and modified, which makes any bugs or errors almost impossible. They are not easy to master, but their functionality and the results are worth it.

If you’re on a budget or would like to try out a tool before using it full-time, then pay attention to free graphic design software. Some of the free software is even available online, so you don’t have to buy, download, and install anything – just open the tool in your browser, and you’re ready to go. Among the most common and widely used free online graphic design software are such popular programs as Design Wizard, BeFunky, Easelly, Crello, Snappa, etc. They provide templates, illustrations, graphics options, help to quickly create infographics, animations, collages, posters, both for print and online use.

Another criterion for distinguishing graphic design software is functionality – there are vector graphics editors and image editors. The former include such tools as Vectr, Gravit Design, SVG Edit, Inkscape, and others. They are useful for dealing with any kind of vector design task as they provide a wide range of mechanisms, vector features, filters, fonts, formats, as well as cross-platform integration and quick and failure-free work. Such image editors like Canva, Pixlr, GIMP, and others allow you to use easily customizable templates, provide a range of tools to edit photos and pictures and a variety of fonts and graphics to play with.

When we say “graphic design tools” we primarily imagine various online and digital programs, but in practice design tools can also include “real-life” tools that might seem less obvious, but which still remain essential for a lot of creators. A lot of designers start off with sketching out their ideas on paper before getting started to work on a digital version. Such things as photographs, drawings, sketches, collages on paper, pencils, inks, graphite sticks, and many more may become a sudden source of inspiration or prompt to continue creating in various media, styles, and formats. If you are ready to fall down a rabbit hole and get acquainted with real-life tools in more detail, leave the comments below and we will cover this topic in one of our next blog posts.

Photo by Lubos Volkov

What about graphic design inspiration?

Graphic design, as most creative spheres, is closely linked with inspiration and getting acquainted with the works of other graphic designers to get new ideas or find potential collaborators. Looking for inspiring graphic design artists is possible via several social media platforms for creatives, such as Dribbble and Behance. There you can check out the portfolios of other famous graphic designers, self-promote your own work or get valuable feedback from your colleagues. Such platforms are very useful if you seek inspiration or motivation to move forward in your career or if you want to find out the graphic design trends and developments.

The Ester Digital team is not an exception when it comes to needing inspiration and looking for other graphic designers to look up to. Our personal favorites are Pentagram, Ueno, Design Studio, and Stockholm Design Lab. We admire their subtle elegance, confidence in following their own style, and adhering to a simple and transparent design while creating memorable and instantly recognizable brand identities. There are also several graphic design artists who have transformed our perception of what graphic design is and who became graphic design celebrities and rock stars for us. Among them are Ariane Spanier, Sascha Lobe, Tobias van Schneider, Chris Do, and many others.

On a final note

Ester team believes that graphic design is not only a cold and calculated marketing tool with a clearly defined strategic plan but also an art form that involves a lot of challenges and relies heavily on teamwork. However, graphic design is a special kind of art form – it’s a problem-solving area that combines art and creation with a technical side, emphasizing the importance of communication slightly more than the importance of expression – but only slightly. We think that graphic design can and should be original and authentic, like any other creative endeavor. After all, no matter what media you choose to create in, the only thing all creators should do is to push the boundaries and constantly raise their game.

In this post, we’ve talked in depth about graphic design since it’s one of the cornerstones of what we do and something we are extremely passionate about (as you can tell from the length of this text, seriously, we can’t stop talking about it). If you’re interested in delving into a magical world of graphic design that can help your business grow and expand your reach feel free to contact us.

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