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What is a Graphic Designer?

Sally Foster
Updated May 17, 2024
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A graphic designer is a person who specializes in creating and editing visual messages for businesses and other clients, usually for the purposes of making the company or individual better known and increasing sales. This work is very collaborative, and people with this job often team up with others who can contribute to the finished design, such as copywriters or photographers. They usually rely a great deal on modern technology, completing projects with computers and related equipment. Most are very creative, well-organized individuals who are excellent communicators, and who have at least a bachelor's degree.

Major Duties

The main duty of a graphic designer is to come up with a visual way to represent an idea or set of concepts. To do this, they first meet with clients to figure out the details of the project and what the clients want to convey. Then they make some rough sketches by hand or get an initial image using computer programs. Adjusting major elements such as font size or overall layout is part of this process. Over time, they consult with their clients to fine-tune the design.

Secondary Duties

It's often necessary for a graphic designer to present his drawings or computer-generated images formally to clients, which sometimes involves speaking in front of entire committees. They might also act as advisers for their clients, providing market information that will help them reach consumers more effectively. Many of these professionals spend a great deal of time proofing their own work, and some in more senior positions serve as editors for those they supervise.

Where They Work

Many different fields provide work for graphic designers, including print design (such as magazines or newspapers), website design, advertising, product development, logo design — even sign-making. They usually work in clean, well-lit office areas with plenty of tables and space to facilitate their projects, but some are able to telecommute, in some cases working with companies or clients in other countries. It's increasingly common for these workers to do this given the widespread use of the Internet.

In-House Versus Freelance

There are two basic kinds of these professionals: in-house or freelance. An in-house graphic designer is an artist that works for and is paid by a specific company on a long-term basis, and who is formally designated as an employee. Steady employment and more predictable income usually is the advantage here, with some businesses providing benefits, such as health insurance. Freelancers operate as independent contractors, so they usually can develop their own contracts and rates, but they have to cover more expenses on their own and typically don't get many perks aside from occasional bonuses. Approximately one third of all professional designers fall into the second category.

Education and Experience Requirements

Graphic design is a very competitive field, and many people who pursue work in this industry go to college to get formal, hands-on training and to network. In most cases, a bachelor's degree is necessary for entry-level positions, but the degree can be in a very closely-related subject, such as art or website design. Several years of experience is an acceptable alternative to a degree for some employers, however. After at least one to three years of work, it is often possible for someone to advance to a higher level, such as artistic supervisor or lead designer. Specialization is very common with advancement.

The Portfolio

A portfolio consists of examples of work created either in classes or for clients. These samples show prospective employers that a graphic designer is creative, competent, able to meet the needs of the client and can communicate to different groups of consumers. The portfolio, therefore, is critical to getting work. It is especially important if someone doesn't have a degree, because in this case, employers have to rely much more on the samples to judge whether a job applicant is qualified and experienced enough.

Required Skills

People who work as graphic designers must be well organized and have a good eye for detail. They should be comfortable working with computers, because much of the industry relies on computer-aided design (CAD) systems. The ability to communicate effectively in writing or through speech is also very important, and these individuals should be able to transfer even an intricate message into a clear, visual design. Related to this is being a team player — it is very common for graphic designers to collaborate with marketers, copyeditors and production specialists, just to name a few. Most employers and clients look for creative people who think outside the box and who can come up with entirely fresh images, because standing out from other companies relates directly to an increase in memorability and sales.

With markets constantly fluctuating, these professionals also have to be willing to adjust and change, adapting to current demand even as they try to develop their own artistic style and signature. Some individuals do a significant amount of market research to better understand trends, so it can be very helpful to develop good research and analytical skills. The dependence on technology means that people with this job must be able to shift quickly to new hardware and software systems.

Associated Technology

Computer programs such as Adobe®, Photoshop® or QuarkXPress® are fairly standard in the graphic design industry. In some cases, designers use these or other applications together with specially-designed robots or machines to create special effects. Many people still create original designs using tools like charcoal pencils or paints, but these usually eventually get converted into digital images through scanning software and hardware. As technology advances, the quality and styles of the work are getting more and more sophisticated.

Another big area is communications equipment. Simple chat and email platforms, for example, allow people to talk about or deliver project documents in real time over extreme distances. These are essential to freelancers, who often must take projects outside of their immediate area.

Graphic Design Versus Fine Art

Even though many fine artists are involved in graphic design, the industry differs greatly from the realm of traditional art in its commercial aspect and the frequent need to change the work at the request of the client. However, many fine artists have contributed to the evolution of this field, including Andy Warhol, Piet Mondrian and the Russian Constructivist artists of the 1920s. Some of the images created have become so well-recognized that they are iconic and have artistic value for what they represent, and many museums and art institutes are holding exhibits specifically for this type of work.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Sally Foster
By Sally Foster
Based in Istanbul, Turkey, Sarah is a freelance writer who has experience teaching English language courses and running an expat community blog. Since joining the WiseGeek team several years ago, Sarah has become a veritable fount of knowledge on many obscure topics. She holds a B.A. from the University of Oregon, where she majored in Romance Languages (Spanish and Italian) and Linguistics, and an M.A. in TESOL from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.
Discussion Comments
By anon257739 — On Mar 28, 2012

What qualifications do you need to become one?

By anon101863 — On Aug 05, 2010

There is a huge difference between a graffiti artist and a tagger. I've been all over the world and I have seen some pretty amazing graffiti. If the quality of the art is great, I don't see much wrong with graffiti. It's when the work is tasteless and pointless it becomes a problem. Otherwise it's just wall art. A big picture to cover up an already ugly wall! Much respect to the artist. It's not an easy job making that so called graffiti perfect.

By anon62378 — On Jan 26, 2010

Actually anon56740, I know many of graffiti writers who have many the transition from graffiti to graphic design and have started their own firms. Some are actually contracted through the city to work on building and art projects for the city as well.

To anon19356: if you can make the transition from street art to digital design, I'm sure you will have no problem getting into the industry. I have tons of respect for graf artist because of the artwork you do- regardless of the media you use. I've seen graf artist go from street corner art to having their own galleries as well.

By anon60737 — On Jan 15, 2010

I used to write graf, and it greatly helped when manipulating typography. I am a graphic designer and I love working for clients, but I am in the screen print field and it pays substantially lower. Screen Print pays 25-32K which is way to low. Stick with a firm/agency if you want to make more money.

Or start your own business like I did.

By anon56740 — On Dec 17, 2009

sorry, anon19356: work as a building defacer is hard to come by.

By anon46584 — On Sep 27, 2009

they get paid 35-50,000 a year.

By anon19356 — On Oct 10, 2008

i heard that if you are into graffiti then you should be going into this field or one like it is that true should you do this job if you like to paint graffiti?

By anon2930 — On Aug 01, 2007

How much do graphic designers roughly get paid per year?

Sally Foster
Sally Foster
Based in Istanbul, Turkey, Sarah is a freelance writer who has experience teaching English language courses and running...
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