I’ve been wanting to pen a thoroughly explorative, yet mildly entertaining series of posts on what being a “graphic designer” actually means. When I tell people that I am a graphic designer I get a lot of blank nods and strange grins, but most of those people don’t feel comfortable enough to engage in a deeper conversation. I think partly because most people don’t really understand what it is I do.

The title “graphic designer” has become associated with so many disciplines – most justifiably because it is a broad term, but some are plain wrong. Computer animators, typographers, illustrators, photographers, photoshop retouchers, production layout artists, marker comp artists, art directors, producers, editors and web designers all fall under the general population’s idea of a graphic designer, and a good graphic designer could be very successful at any of these. Yet those are all VERY different professions.

So what then is a graphic designer? My definition paints a broad stroke, but I believe an accurate one: A graphic designer’s job is to arrange and display pieces of information (text, graphics, photos, video etc.) in both an intelligent and aesthetically pleasing way, while never losing sight of the end-goal which is to communicate a specific, targeted message to a specific, targeted audience.

The “aesthetically pleasing” part is easy. Those with talent have no trouble creating something that looks nice. They know what works, may have a style that fits in with the contemporary aesthetic, or just may be a pure talent. Those without so much talent can simply claim that their design is brilliantly creative, and that you just don’t ‘get’ it. The inherent problem with that reasoning is that if I don’t get it, than they didn’t design a good piece. Simple as that. It may look nice, but it’s not communicating the message – therefore it fails.

For the design to be intelligent is more difficult to accomplish. This comes through not only the designer’s own intelligence, but also their ability to rationalize logically the best way to arrange the information in order to communicate the message most effectively. Much of this ability comes from experience. Having tried options in the past that didn’t work will help you to avoid them in the future, resulting not only in a more intelligent designer but a more efficient one too. And the only thing better than being a good designer is being a FAST, good designer. Your paycheck goes up if you can make your clients happy while meeting, and even exceeding their deadlines.

We’ve all seen television commercials, posters, flyers and book covers that look really cool – may even be really funny, but you have no idea what they’re trying to say or what they are trying to sell. That’s a big fat failure according to my definition above. They are either too ethereal to ‘get’, or too hard to read, or sometimes just neglect to say anything useful at all.

If it doesn’t communicate a single, unified message, it’s fine art. Nothing against fine art. Fine art can communicate many things to many people, but you may see and feel something from looking at a Jackson Pollack painting that is different than what I see and feel. Communication Design needs to communicate the client’s message clearly. It can still communicate other messages too like, “Hey we’re trendy!” or “Hey we’re funny!” or “Hey we’re youthful!” but the actual message that you were hired to design for should not suffer at the expense of those peripheral messages.