How to Explain What You Really Do, Graphic Designer Edition
In many social situations, you're bound to run into the inevitable, "So what do you do?" question. Usually, "I run a small design and development studio, and I teach about design," is sufficient. Still, it will sometimes pose enough curiosity that the earnest question-asker will continue, "What kind of design?" which eventually leads to the pinnacle of tricky questions, "What is graphic design?"
My least favorite aspect of being a graphic designer is explaining what I do to non-designers.
It's a valid question, too. You can't expect everyone to understand your line of work, and a big part of being a designer is being a successful communicator, so what's the problem?
The frustration comes from the fact that there isn't a short answer, and there are some misconceptions around design at large that are important to address to provide an honest and informational response.
I'll begin to explain what graphic design is through three common questions and comments.
"So, do you make logos?"
This question is usually accompanied by an eager-eyed stare from someone ready to describe their new business idea in great detail.
Yes, sometimes graphic designers make logos, but it's important to note that a logo is an execution and part of a bigger story – a brand. The way this question is framed implies that a designer would simply draw up a logo from their imagination and call it a day.
Designers differ from illustrators because their work is usually not a one-off asset. Typically, the design is part of an overarching narrative that fits into a broader context – whether it's a brand, an article, or a website. In the logo's case, the logo is part of a brand story, a system of typography, colors, and visual motifs that then become realized across both printed and digital assets. The research process, project development, typography, graphic elements, and visual design principles (color, alignment, texture, rhythm, hierarchy) unite them under the same umbrella.
Some designers may choose to specialize in one type of design, such as: product design, branding, exhibition design, or motion graphics. While these types of jobs vary in the end result, they share a similar process and are all fundamentally graphic design.
This can be confusing because a website and a tote bag might look very different from one another. Still, for both, a designer had to carefully think about the contents of each, research a visual strategy, evaluate how it will be used, and develop the design components that will work within that context.
Most design pieces go through a planning phase, an experimental phase where variations are explored, and then a testing phase where the design is evaluated and improved upon. Good designers will continue refining their work and making changes once they can interact with it in a finalized setting.
"You must be a photoshop wizard!"
This statement is usually excitedly shared when someone has discovered your skillset and is about to ask you to work on a flyer for their upcoming yard sale.
It's not an incorrect statement. Designers have a strong understanding of the trade's professional tools, but it's essential to recognize that tools do not define the profession. You're still a designer, whether you're designing with chalk or with photoshop.
In a recent class I taught, I asked my students to create a series of posters using free, online tools like glitter text generators, 3d rendering makers, and online drawing programs.
While using these tools had some obvious challenges, the students could still create a cohesive and engaging poster series. The students first developed a strong idea for their work and experimented with the tools. They embraced the limitations of the programs and found ways to create unifying design treatments. Even using this unexpected method of image-making, It was apparent that a designer had created the posters because there was a sense of control and intentionality.
Having a clear objective and developing a methodology to communicate defines a designer, much more than the tool itself. Intentionality is everything.
"It must be fun making things pretty all day."
This comment is frequently delivered by someone who doesn't know what else to say. While well-intentioned, this comment feels the most reductive and misleading about what a graphic designer does.
"Pretty" is wildly subjective and too ambiguous. People who share this comment usually mean that you're successful at polishing other people's content off and making minutia changes to make it ready for a broader audience to purchase it.
This is not totally off-kilter, but it bothers me for two reasons: first, it diminishes the process and strategy that gets invested into a project by reducing it to arbitrary choices based on aesthetics; and second, it implies that a designer is always working on other people's content and not their own, with the primary intention of making it marketable.
Design starts with research, continues into planning, extends into experimentation, and ends with something that starts to feel complete. Critical thinking, being resourceful, and an ability to break down a project into a series of steps will take you a lot further than merely having an eye for design. Strong visual sensibilities are essential to the profession, too, but without a process and a plan, the skillset gets lost. It's the difference between being a graphic designer and simply an extra set of hands.
If it isn't apparent by now, graphic designers have a varied skillset that feels much more like a framework or philosophy than a job title. For this reason, designers are successful at developing a visual representation of an idea and the idea itself.
Many designers are excellent strategists, copywriters, and art directors because they can communicate through a variety of content and create a common theme throughout all of these executions.
Selecting who to work with, what order items will be positioned in, what kind of message should be emphasized, and researching photographers are all "invisible design choices" that significantly impact a project. For the sake of efficiency, it can be best to collaborate with a team, but never underestimate what one individual is capable of doing.
Anything can be graphic design. We frequently associate it with consumer-based products because that's where many people experience it first hand, but it's not confined to something that can sell products. The design process can help you be a better communicator and perhaps teach others something new. Design can also be used for personal expression, self-publishing, or providing information to an audience that might not access it. The possibilities are endless.
So, as you can see, describing what a designer does can be a little lengthy and leave the inquirer feeling like they got more than what they asked for. Next time you get asked this, be prepared to sit down and chat for a while!