Graphic design is almost everywhere. Crammed into our homes, all over our cities and dotted around the countryside, its images, letters, colours and shapes are consciously put together to perform all sorts of functions.
Its roles range from directing travellers to the right check-in desk at an airport, to organising the layout and style of a magazine so that it catches that traveller’s eye and makes them buy it to read on the plane. Graphic design on the ticket they buy for the car park may advertise other products or services. The carton of juice they take for the flight has information organised so its appealing and understandable. The safety instructions aboard the plane are designed so they are clear and accessible, even to people who don’t speak English. Graphic design art is also emblazoned across the hull and tail wing of the aircraft itself.
In short, graphic design is visual communication. It employs lots of different techniques and modes, but is very seldom purely decorative: graphic design has a job to do and graphic designers are in the employ of their clients. The graphic designer may be briefed to create a piece of work which catches a customer’s eye in a busy supermarket, or they may be required to herald the formation of a new business. Their client may want their work to impart cultural knowledge at a museum or help foreign tourists find their way to the bus station. Or graphic designers could be employed for something as run of the mill as creating a new look for the company stationery. Using an array of visual elements – including type, colour, shape, photography, illustration, painting, digital imagery and so on – graphic designers work with their clients to deliver the required message in the most effective way.
A definition of graphic design
An exact definition of the term graphic design is difficult to come by.
We asked graphic designers including Neville Brody, Graphic Thought Facility and Quentin Newark how they define graphic design. Watch the film of their answers
Watch more. More graphic designers talking about what they do and the process they use
The winner of a 'What is graphic design?' poster competition described it thus: ‘Design is to make a synthesis of needs and information and colors in order to create something greater than the sum of its parts.’
Graphic designer Quentin Newark asks himself the question in his book ‘What is graphic design’ and explores whether graphic design is the same as advertising or whether graphic design is art.
The origins of graphic design
While it can be hard to find an exact definition of graphic design it is equally hard to pinpoint its origins: some say the invention of the mechanical printing press in the 15th century, while others point to the work of commercial artists in the 19th century or illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages. And although most graphic design is undertaken as a commercial service, visual art is sometimes included in its definition.
The discipline, already wide and varied, is also changing and expanding. Traditionally concerned with print, graphic design now includes other media, notably design for digital screens, as well as being a vital component in other specialist disciplines such as branding, packaging and information design. We’ll look at these in more detail later when examining the different ways graphic design can help businesses. And to put the ideas into reality, we will also turn to some specific examples of how graphic design has helped various organisations achieve their objectives.
But to start with, here is a small selection of designs to offer a feel for the many and varied areas in which graphic designers work. They span a wide range of industries, media, styles and objectives. In this set we have album artwork, the editorial design for a newspaper, a magazine layout, a corporate logo, road signage, a visual identity for an awards scheme, a transport map, packaging for bread, brochures for an arts centre, a poster and title sequences for a film and a mobile phone application. All draw on the skills of graphic designers and all meet commercial or functional, as well as aesthetic, needs.
Graphic design: Great examples
Some of these designs may appeal, others may not. But bear in mind that here they are all shown out of their context and with almost no information about the processes and objectives behind their creation. It’s important to remember that all graphic design is created as part of a process between the client and designer, with particular objectives (and probably a few limitations) informing the final outcome.
Browse through this selection of great graphic design
What isn’t graphic design?
Many communications disciplines blur into one another, as they are often components of a bigger picture. But the lines between graphic design and advertising are especially fuzzy. As Quentin Newark writes in his book What Is Graphic Design?, ‘on the surface they seem to do more or less exactly the same things: both employ type and images, both produce print and websites, both use logos.’
According to Newark, advertising is solely concerned with the promotion of a product or brand, while design usually has a broader remit, including the ‘organisation and articulation of many of the products and brands themselves’. In this organisation, graphic design takes on informational and categorising duties too complex for straight advertising. Another difference is that part of the advertising process is nearly always to generate its own content (as well as its form), whereas graphic design is more often concerned with the presentation of content, rather than its creation. Such distinctions are certainly not hard and fast, which is perhaps why we arrive at the encompassing phrase ‘visual communication’.