What is graphic design? and what is a good graphic designer?

A lot of people ask me what I do. When I tell them I'm a graphic designer they stare at me with a blank face, say "huh?" and then ask "but what does that mean?" 

I've tried explaining it to them in words they'll understand but the explanation becomes long-winded and filled with hand gestures and they still don't really know what I mean. 

So, I decided to look it up and create a 15 second "elevator" speech for when I'm asked.

These are some of the definitions I found:


Graphic design: noun
the art or profession of visual communication that combines images, words, and ideas to convey information to an audience, esp. to produce a specific effect.
~Dictionary.com Unabridged, Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2010.

visual communication by a skillful combination of text and pictures in advertisements, magazines, books, etc.
~ wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn

visual communication intended to be used with commercial printing/reproductive processes in both two- and three-dimensional presentations.

Visual communication using text or images to represent an idea or concept. It is also a term used for all activities relating to visual design, including web design, logo design, etc.

The branch of visual arts concerned with the aesthetics and production of layout, design and typography. ...

The use of graphic elements and text to communicate an idea or concept.

The use of visual elements to express a message


But these definitions don't describe, in layman's terms, what, exactly, it is that I do. People still think I'm a computer geek or I design web sites. 

I guess to some degree I am a computer geek but only in that I use a computer and I know how to use the tools on it very well.... that is, design and create visual materials that communicate to an intended audience. I can, and do, design web sites but that's only a fraction of what I do as a graphic designer.

The Dictionary.com definition of a graphic designer is "someone who specializes in graphic design."

But what does this mean?

Everywhere you look you see pictures combined with words. You see them on billboards, in theatre programs, on ticket stubs, in books and reports, brochures, business cards, ads, signs and on cars and buses, clothing labels and sale tags, text books, magazines, newspapers and websites, package labels, user instructions, decals, stickers, bumper stickers, movie posters and DVD covers, on bubble gum machines and even at the side of the road giving you directions. 

Anywhere there are typeset words or words combined with pictures you know someone, a graphic designer, has created what you're looking at using graphic design skills.

These days lots of people put words and pictures together using the software that came with their computers. Thanks to Microsoft most people now think they can "design" something that looks great. Often they can. More often, though, they can't and it shows. 

Which is sad because then the message is not communicated properly and all the time and effort (and money) put into producing the message is wasted because it just becomes more noise in the vast expanse of more bad design.

Good graphic design is invisible. Good graphic design communications fluently and should produce a certain effect - such as teach, inform, encourage or clarify.

A good graphic designer knows how to create "pictures" that communicate to a specific audience without using cliches, overused clip art, 10 different fonts and bouncing, underlined and outlined type.  

A good graphic designer has learned about communication, design elements and principles as well as how to use the software/tools needed to create their designs.

If you're looking for a good graphic designer to help you produce a message that clearly speaks to your audience keep the following in mind:
  • Do they call themselves a "desktopper"/"desktop publisher" or a graphic designer? Hire a graphic designer not a desktopper. Really, a desktopper is a knick knack that decorates your desk.
  • Do they understand the importance of designing for a specific audience?
  • Do they understand that different audiences see and hear messages differently?
  • Do they use industry standard software?
  • Do you know what it is that you want to say?
  • Do you know who your audience is?
  • Do you know WHY you want to say what you want to say? and, 
  • Does the person you're asking to design your brochure or annual report understand that these are all important aspects of designing and creating an effective piece of of communication?
A good graphic designer can actually help you save resources. 

She can design and produce a product that suits exactly what you want and need and create it so there are no problems once the project goes to a printer. 

Since a good graphic designer knows how to layout a page and combine type and images so the message is clear the first time round you know you'll end up with a product that suits your needs right away. You won't have to coach the person through each step of the way.

A good graphic designer knows about fonts and colour issues and how to prepare an error-free document for a printer to use. Once the job/project goes to the printer the costs to make revisions/corrections goes up exponentially. You only want to pay for a design project once not over and over. If you have to keep going back to have your files repaired or prepared properly you know you don't have a good designer.

Just because a person has an expensive computer doesn't mean they can design an effective marketing or communication piece. Just like giving the best construction tools to a home handy-person doesn't make them a master carpenter.

A teacher of mine once asked me and my classmates to define communication in less than five words. Not an easy task we found out! The class came up with all kinds of suggestions but no one could come up with something in less than five words. My teacher did:

"Communication = shared meaning" 

A good graphic designer knows how to share meaning.

Here's my 15 second elevator speech:

I'm a graphic designer. I design and produce printed materials that communicate effectively to a specific audience.

This is what I do: I combine words and pictures that share meaning.

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