What is Graphic Design?

Male fashion designer working in an office
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Graphic design occupies the intersection of the science of communication and the art of aesthetics. In its most abstract sense, graphic design emphasizes visual communication using a range of elements and different media to promote a specific message.

Graphic Design Principles

Because graphic design -- sometimes also called communication design -- enables more effective storytelling, designers work from a standardized toolkit of options that have been shaped by peer-reviewed psychological studies of human behavior.

The various techniques that designers employ, like using specific color palettes to elicit predictable emotional responses, are part of the science of design. 

Designers consider elements like:

  • Type -- Typography (the selection and sizing of specific typefaces) can convey meaning. For example, a heavy sans-serif font conveys an authority that a thin-stroke scripted font does not.
  • Shape -- Shapes speak to audiences in different ways. Ovals, for example, tend to be welcoming (which is why so many "open" signs are surrounded by them), whereas square shapes present a tidier appearance. Even on the page itself, the ordering of graphic elements into predictable or random patterns contributes to the overall communication effect.
  • Color -- Colors and their juxtaposition directly influence the audience's emotional engagement with a designed piece.
  • Texture -- Ink-on-paper gets the job done, but adding non-standard elements like fabric, foil or embossing offer a tactile experience that influences and extends the audience's perception of the design as a whole.

    Designers consider white space, too: The absence of presence can be as powerful as the presence of something more concrete. Designs with plenty of white (or "negative") space sometimes convey sophistication or refinement; at a minimum, in print-heavy contexts, more white space leads to easier reader engagement.

    Although the "science" behind great design is sound, each designer applies his or her own creative genius to develop specific work product that meets a particular client's needs.

    Graphic Design Tools

    A graphic designer is responsible for arranging and using elements on different types of media (such as a poster, a package or a website), often with the use of a graphics software program such as Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop or InDesign.

    • Adobe Illustrator supports sophisticated vector graphics and scalable art. Designers use Illustrator to build infographics, icons and related pieces.
    • Adobe Photoshop features hundreds of specialty editing tools and filters to adjust photographs or similar image files.
    • Adobe InDesign is a frame-based layout program that helps designers compose the elements of their work product into a single file.

    Designers on a budget can use open-source alternatives to these standard applications. Instead of Photoshop, try The GIMP. Instead of Illustrator, try Inkscape. Instead of InDesign, try Scribus.

    Use of Graphic Design

    You're exposed to the work product of professional designers every day. Items ranging from complex advertising campaigns to simple stationery templates start with a designer applying the art and the science of their craft.

    Professional design even inserts itself in the most humdrum of places. For example, the Federal Highway Administration maintains detailed technical design specifications for federal highway signs, specifying with great precision such rules as spacing, layout, typeface and even the angle and placement of arrows.