Graphic Design Philosophy

What is Graphic Design?

We all know the term Graphic Design, but I get different reactions when I say it’s my profession. I think it’s a little like saying you’re an artist. People don’t quite know how to grasp it, partly because graphic design encompasses a massive amount of knowledge and practices. It scales from the tiniest icon to the sprawling advertising campaigns that combine expertise in print, television and online media.

The term has become so muddled that if you look at what a graphic designer might be doing based on job postings, it can vary from editing photography to creating assets for user interfaces. Most in-house positions expect a graphic designer to know print production and javascript (bonus if you have experience editing video!) To the small business owner, employing a graphic designer might mean maintaining and creating for every communication outlet, from business cards to social media to SEO.

It’s visual. It’s experiential. It’s on screens and paper. It’s instantaneous. It’s ongoing. And it’s impossible to find someone who does everything.

The art and practice of planning and projecting ideas and experiences with visual and textual content… It can also be for any purpose, whether commercial, educational, cultural, or political.

Who is the Graphic Designer?

Level 1

The designer at her base is the problem solver who can create using type, images, space, color, etc. This is the base level–the make-it-look-pretty. Though it’s often looked down on, it is, in my opinion, completely valid. For example, a restaurant menu design doesn’t need to be ground breaking, although it certainly can be, if that’s the goal. It needs to tell the reader what is available. It needs to appeal to that customer. If this means a simple print out produced from a personal printer in the back office, that can easily be as effective as a die-cut laminated foil printed piece.

There’s enough ugly in the world. I applaud any designer doing the grunt work of making the world look better. This level of design is expected to be quick and cheap. This level strips the designer of opinions and leaves a bitter taste. It is looked down on for good reason. It doesn’t start with a conversation about what needs to be achieved. It starts with a request for a specific design or assets. The designer will hand over any assets you ask for, but with little to no knowledge of the goal they are trying to achieve, the assets can leave both parties frustrated.

Level 2

You know you’ve hired a gem when your designer is told, “Make a dashboard that shows the top dog-friendly places to walk,” and she hears, “Help people easily find a place where their pets are welcome.” It’s easy to see when the project becomes less about creating assets and instead allows the creative direction to be an ongoing conversation.

Not only does this give the designer the freedom to create an appealing design, but a more effective one. This is the kind of design that wins awards. It may not affect the bottom line, but damn, it is good.

Level 3

The designer is in on the strategy from the beginning. She has opinions and a strong story. The why, the background of the problem to solve, and the priorities are clear.

I think the reason graphic designer isn’t given this level of access is a matter of ego, or possibly neglect. Designers who have hit this level of communication are now considered management and hand off the project to the designer in their department. They may be considered a consultant. In any case, they aren’t doing the design. They aren’t creating the product.

Graphic design is being viewed as a stepping stone and this is a disservice to the industry.

What do You Need?

Any level of designer should provide expertise in type, color, shape, layout, etc. But if you want the kind of marketing materials that make a difference, let your designer in on the conversation.

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