What is Graphic Design exactly?

Design is big, it is talked about more than ever before and we are always hearing about design thinking, user experience design, visual design, information design, product design, interface design, interaction design. We hear about how big business are bringing in holistic design to improve every aspect of their business and drive sales - but what about good old fashioned Graphic Design?

I trained as a graphic designer - before web, before personal computers -  it was paste up, typesetting, light boxes, letterpress, spray mount and very expensive Magic Marker pens. One Magic Marker or five pints of cider on my student budget was always a tough choice. Suffice to say I don't think I ever had a particularly large collection so probably honed a minimal 2-3 colour style early on.

What surprises me actually is how many college leavers are still all trained in ‘just’ graphic design when they come to me wanting to be web designers.

Soon after I left Uni it all moved to computers, and soon after that there was an explosion of ‘everyone can be a desktop publisher now’ do you remember that outmoded term? But what people failed to realise perhaps was that the computer was a tool just like our scalpels, pencils and rotary pens before it. It still needed a designer to use the tools to make it look good, and even that doesn't give us much credit as looking good is only half the story.

When desktop publishing goes bad
these guys have cornered the market in design disasters….

A graphic designer takes a much more in depth approach to creating a piece of artwork that promotes the brand, connects with the person looking at it and pushes action. Making sure it is fit for purpose, intuitively legible and readable at the different sizes or colours it may be reproduced at.

It is no joke, and I am sure I am not alone here - that a client in a meeting asked me to redesign their company's logo. We chatted about what it needed to get across and what they didn't like about the current one. They asked for a cost and I said I would work it out and get back to them. Then they said something along the lines of well it's only getting a graphic and putting our name on top, so if I was doing it that's what probably 10-20 minutes?

Well yes, I could write their name and pilfer a graphic from somewhere online and stick it together in 20 minutes (10 is pushing it) but, as I just mentioned, that isn’t really graphic design, nor is it legal.

There are lots of things we could probably do ourselves, but we hire a specialist because they can do it better. And most likely the experience they bring to it, the way they go about doing it and the result they produce is more likely to work better as well.

I also think it is important to track back to the reason for the piece of work in the first place, not I need a logo, or I need a flyer, but digging into the thought process that sparked this requirement to begin with. This gives the designer an understanding of what the artwork needs to achieve. I need a logo that resonates with teenagers, I need a leaflet to attract more older clients, I need a marketing brochure as a leave behind or I need an information sheet for the classes I run.

Whether people naturally have a ‘design eye’ or learn to have a ‘design eye’ is debatable, probably a bit of both, but if you naturally have it you are probably more likely to be drawn to the profession in the first place. Combine this design eye with training, experience and those tools we talked about and you are getting close to the role of a graphic designer.

Having inspiration and creative ideas is the first part, learning how to technically harness this and turn these into working design is another. Knowing how to translate a brief, embody a brand, attract the right people with it and stimulate action, creating final artwork fit for purpose is all part of that same process.

So if graphic design is…..

The process of creating visual engagement with the audience we want carried out through graphic layouts and artworks.

The process to create this is….

Taking and translating a brief

Over the  years I have turned brief taking into more of a workshop style session (sometimes likened to therapy even) where I ask a string of questions in a variety of ways to get beneath the surface of what’s required, understanding the reason for the brief and the brand behind it and what is needed to achieve.. See workshops for small businesses.

Often when saying ‘brand’ small businesses suggest that they don’t have one. A brand is something all businesses have whether they know it or not. A logo is only the visual embodiment of it, but a brand is the culture within and surrounding the business itself. It may have been shaped purposefully - which is what branding is - or occurred organically, which could be perfect or need a little pruning and shaping.

Research and brainstorming

As with all projects it’s usual to look to see if there is data or historic information to help inform the research and often I ask for further information such as a mood or pinterest board and then research myself in 3 ways:

  • Internet - researching online, this is looking at websites but also using search engines like a library to discover.

  • In-situ - extracting myself from my desk going to relevant locations to take it in and take notes.

  • Inspiration - scribbling with my note pad and pencil.

  • In conversation - chatting to different types of people to help shape ideas.

Concepts and layouts

So the design starts - not just whacking up that final logo - but nurturing concepts, expanding ideas, testing layouts and exploring typefaces, graphic and image style and colour. I ask for content at this stage to make sure the layouts are a real representation. Read more about concept design here.

Feedback and final artwork

Preparation of concept layouts ready for initial feedback which usually runs to 3 rounds of iterations and copy edits forging towards the final artwork in the correct formats for the media it is to inhabit, colour and font palette.

Printing and style guides

Often I provide the artwork with a style guide to be used by other designers, artworkers or printers to continue future work in the same ‘style’. Or I prepare the artwork ready for print and either hand that directly over to my client or perhaps a safer option manage the proofing and printing process for the client.


I am a freelance Website Designer, Logo Designer and Graphic Designer based in Suffolk.
Contact me for more information.