Graphic design is the practice of composing and arranging the visual elements of a project.
Although the term “graphic design” has only been around since the 1920s, the art form itself has been an important part of visual communication for thousands of years. We can see early examples of graphic design in ancient manuscripts and even prehistoric cave paintings.
Today, the graphic design industry spans many different disciplines. It's an exciting field that’s perpetually evolving, but its adaptive nature can make it a little confusing for a newcomer to understand exactly what graphic design is and what types of work professionals do.
If you’re looking for a guide to graphic design basics, you’re in the right place. Read on to find out precisely what graphic design is, see some examples, and learn about different design jobs.
What is graphic design in simple terms?
Graphic design is the practice of composing and arranging the visual elements of a project. Designing the layout of a magazine, creating a poster for a theatre performance, and designing packaging for a product are all examples of graphic design.
In fact, almost everyone today practices some form of graphic design in their daily life — whether it’s adding text to an image for social media or color-coding a spreadsheet for work.
What is the main purpose of graphic design?
The objective of graphic design is to convey or enhance a message.
Good graphic art streamlines communication. Just picture a spreadsheet with data analytics. A graphic designer might use different colors to highlight which metrics are rising and which are dropping, thus making it easier for the viewer to quickly understand what’s going well and what needs to be adjusted.
Well executed graphic design can also elicit an emotional response from the viewer or even motivate them to take action. The “sign up” page on a website, for example, is typically designed to entice visitors to join an email list or start a free trial. Meanwhile, food packaging design aims to make the food inside seem more appealing to eat.
9 types of graphic design with examples
Here are 9 of the most common types of graphic design with examples and links to help you get your creative juices flowing.
1. Brand design
Brand design is the practice of setting guidelines and best practices for a company to use across all branded materials to ensure a consistent brand identity. Brand designers help communicate the personality, tone, and core messaging of a company, so this work involves a lot of strategy.
Brand design work includes but is not limited to:
- designing logos and setting clear guidelines for how they’re to be used
- designing letterhead, icons, and various illustrations
- selecting brand colors and setting clear guidelines for their usage
- creating or selecting fonts and typography guidelines
- creating templates that follow the brand guidelines and can be used by marketing, growth, and other teams
- packaging design and graphics for product design
Good brand designers have an understanding of marketing design, web design, logo design, and many other aspects of graphic design because the decisions they make will affect all subsequent design projects for that brand. If you’ve never worked with brand design guidelines before, check out Starbucks’ creative expression website. This is a great example of various initiatives included in brand design and the type of guidelines a brand designer is expected to create.
Brand design is evolving at a particularly fast pace. Because as technology develops, brands are always looking for new ways to engage with their target audience — which means their brand design needs to support new and shifting channels.
Designers like Tamara Sredojevic often find themselves creating or adapting brand design for new and emerging platforms. So, if you enjoy taking on new challenges and keeping up with the latest trends, brand design might be a great fit for you.
2. Marketing design
Marketing design is graphic design for marketing initiatives. Marketing designers may work on small projects, such as the layout of a promotional email, or large multi-faceted projects, such as designing the booth, hand-outs, and print materials for trade shows.
Marketing designers may work on visual design for:
- billboards and other signage
- print ads
- trade show booths
- physical mailers
- website assets
Marketing design and brand design do share some commonalities, but where brand designers look to set the overall guidelines and messaging for a brand, marketing designers typically focus on communicating a specific message for a single campaign or even a single type of asset or platform. Let’s take a look at a couple of examples.
If we think of this in terms of fashion, marketing designers would likely work on at least four separate campaigns throughout the year — winter, spring, summer, fall — which would all need to adhere to overall the brand design. Or, if we refer back to the Starbucks example, all marketing campaigns throughout the year would need to adhere to the same creative expression guidelines.
3. Web design
Many graphic artists work on visual elements that will be used on a website. But it’s important to note that web design and graphic design are different.
Designing a great website is a multidisciplinary undertaking because websites are interactive, rather than fixed assets like a brochure or a magazine. You need graphic design skills as well as experience with user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) design, which is why many websites are designed by teams of multiple professionals with complementary skill sets.
Web designers may work on projects including:
- Creating icons and buttons
- Creating images, illustrations, and other graphics
- Designing web page layouts
- Creating various interactive design elements on a website
- Creating videos and gifs
- Helping ensure visual elements are optimized for all devices (desktop, mobile, etc.)
- Working with web development, UX, UI, and marketing design teams to improve overall experience for site visitors
Of course, plenty of graphic designers are also web designers and have created beautiful websites and mobile apps without the support of a large team. And thanks to no-code platforms like Webflow, designers can create stunning interactive websites without needing extensive knowledge of coding.
4. Illustration design
Illustrations are often included as part of web, marketing, and brand design — but they’re also used in other ways. Some designers focus solely on offering illustrations and will work with larger design teams, contributing individual assets for various projects.
Illustrators may design visual assets for:
- children’s books
- t-shirts and other wearables
- cards and stationary
- social media
- video and interactive media
- marketing campaigns
Illustration styles can vary drastically from designer to designer. Some artists work almost exclusively in digital formats using tools such Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, or Procreate and others blend digital media with physical media, preferring to begin with a pencil and paper.
Get inspired by three of my personal favorite illustrators:
5. Type design
Some graphic designers specialize in creating or selecting typography, typeface, or fonts.
Type design can include:
- Creating custom lettering and numerals
- Writing or digitally creating typography assets
- Selecting fonts and creating typography guidelines for a brand
Humans rely heavily on words to communicate messaging, so type designers collaborate on a wide array of projects. Type designers may be hired to create logos or wedding invitations and they sometimes contribute to brand design by creating, selecting, or pairing fonts. It’s also common for type designers to create assets for web, marketing, product, or package design.
6. Infographic design
At their core, infographics are simply representations of data or information that can be consumed visually. Infographics come in the form of 2D illustrations, interactive elements on a website, or even videos. The common thread is that they help the viewer more easily understand a bulk of information or complex concepts.
The image below is a great example of an interactive infographic. Check out the original article from the University of Washington to see how this design makes it easier to understand the findings of a research study on the impacts of the lunar cycle on sleep patterns.
7. Textile and surface design
Textile graphic designers may create designs for:
Many textile designers have experience not only designing graphics, but actually printing or creating the textiles themselves. To be a great textile designer, you need to have an understanding of design principles, such as color theory and hierarchy, as well as an understanding of what’s possible when using different dyes and fabrics because the material itself will affect the final look of a design.
8. Packaging design
From food to gadgets to designer jewelry, the packaging that items are transported in is often just as important as the items themselves. Product packaging designers aim to show off or complement the items inside the packages. Here are a couple of examples:
9. Editorial design
The term “graphic design” originated from editorial graphic design and today it is still a very important part of both print and digital editorial publications. Publication design spans:
- emails and digital publications
Editorial graphic design helps set the tone for a publication and can amplify the written word. Just picture a well placed pull quote in a printed interview or a beautifully laid out recipe book.
Getting started in graphic design
If you’re thinking of pursuing a career in graphic design, there’s no better way to get a feel for which disciplines interest you most than to play around with graphic design software and tools. Don’t forget to explore physical mediums, too. Many great digital designers begin projects with a piece of paper and a pencil or paintbrush.