What Is Graphic Design?

a graphic designer working in her home office

If you’re passionate about creative endeavors, you might be thinking about pursuing a career in graphic design. What is graphic design, exactly? Quite simply, it’s a way to communicate a message in a visual format, whether purely for artistic purposes or for commercial projects like advertising campaigns.

There are many ways to convey ideas, experiences and emotions. One of the most effective methods combines striking visuals with written messages to create unforgettable imagery that motivates people to act. Graphic designers create these eye-catching messages.

Professionals with a graphic design degree may work for a variety of industries, including advertising and marketing, public relations, printing companies and publishing industries.1

If you’re interested in learning more about graphic design in practice and as a career, then the first thing to master are graphic design elements and principles.

In This Article:

Purpose of Graphic Design

Artwork connects with an audience on an emotional level. It’s possible to convey complex messages using only visual language, which can be useful in many situations. For example, marketing agencies hire graphic designers to produce everything from product packaging visuals to sales-oriented infographics destined for websites.

The Elements of Graphic Design

All graphics, whether they are in magazine ads or for social media, should leverage the elements of graphic design. If you work toward an advertising and graphic design degree, you’ll have opportunities to master an exciting method of visual communication that has the power to persuade.


Lines seem basic, but they’re the workhorses of design. Lines can serve as dividers or borders but can also create patterns, emphasize messages and even convey movement and emotion.

The savvy use of lines in a design can tie a composition together or add extra energy and direction. Look for lines in your next job application form or animated ad — they’re everywhere!


Any area enclosed by a border or contour can be called a shape. Some shapes have easy names, like circle or square, but as a graphic design student, you’ll learn about less mainstream shapes like boomerangs, splats and blobs. Look for shapes in everything around you, even in the empty space between other shapes.


On the theory that color is the language of light, the famed physicist Sir Isaac Newton conducted some experiments and created the first color wheel — all the way back in 1666.2 Today, graphic designers use the color wheel to select attractive color combinations. Color can unify brand image, convey emotion and generate visual interest. Look for color in your favorite band poster and imagine what it would be without it.


When we think of texture, we usually think of something we can touch. There are two types of texture in graphic design — that which can be felt by the fingertips (think an embossed wedding invitation) or that which cannot (think a simulated paper texture on a save-the-date website for a wedding).

Grunge and faux finishes fall under the same category. Look for faux texture next time you see social media ads. It lends an air of authenticity where the experience of touch is absent.


Scale clearly expresses the importance of different elements through the use of something called hierarchy. By making some parts of the design larger than others, the graphic designer can emphasize importance. Look for hierarchy in nearly everything you see in design and advertising. If it’s missing, you’ll notice.


As Frank Lloyd Wright famously said, “Space is the breath of art.”3 Graphic design is composed of the artful arrangement of both objects and the empty space around objects. Good design typically includes some blank space to direct the viewer’s gaze and give the eyes a place to rest.

A lot goes into creating a strong visual composition. In your degree program, you will study these elements of graphic design while applying time-tested principles of composition.

The Principles of Graphic Design

The principles of graphic design are guidelines that direct how the different elements are used together to produce a cohesive visual. Here are a few to get you thinking about how to use them in your own web design.


Balance refers to the perceived stability of the composition. A design achieves balance when its various elements are evenly (but not always equally) distributed throughout the composition.

Ironically, designs can have symmetrical or asymmetrical balance, and neither is necessarily more desirable than the other. It all depends on what the graphic designer is trying to convey.


Commercial graphics need to capture the attention of the viewer within a matter of seconds. Effective visuals “instruct” the viewer where to look first, second and third. Due to their size, large objects typically draw more attention than smaller objects.

The eye naturally looks for irregularities in patterns, so anomalies will rank higher up on the hierarchy, too. In typography, this could include using a larger font for headings.

Similarity and Contrast

These opposing principles can both be used to tell viewers where to look. For example, imagine a landscape painting. The foliage of the trees may be painted in similar patterns, meaning it doesn’t retain the attention of the viewer for long. The artist may then use a contrasting pattern to paint objects in the foreground, drawing the viewer’s attention there.


Although printed graphic design does not actually move, elements like lines can convey both movement and meaning. For example, consider the ubiquitous smiling arrow logo of Amazon. The arrow moves forward, promising customers their packages will arrive quickly.

Graphic designers use these principles to create appealing designs that convey the desired message. Once a graphic designer has a firm grasp on the elements and principles of graphic design, they can occasionally and consciously decide to break the rules. In certain cases, breaking design rules results in an effective visual representation that instantly captures the audience’s attention.

Whether you are a rule-follower or rule-breaker, there’s a place for you in graphic design and advertising.


Proportion is another important principle of graphic design. Within any given visual image, there are likely to be multiple distinct elements. Proportion refers to the size of each element in relation to each other.

For example, imagine an ad for apples that depicts a smiling person holding out an apple toward the audience. The apple is likely to be large, while the person is likely to be relatively small — even though in real life, an apple is much smaller than a person. The larger any given element is, the more important it is for conveying the message.

Build Your Graphic Design Skills With A Degree From GCU

The Bachelor of Arts in Advertising and Graphic Design degree program at Grand Canyon University is designed to instill industry-aligned technical and creative competencies. This program emphasizes hands-on experiential lessons and encourages collaboration among students. Thanks to the enriching breadth and depth of hands-on activities, graduates will emerge with a professional portfolio of graphic design and advertising work they can present to potential employers.

You can nurture your passion for art and creativity when you join the Christian learning community at Grand Canyon University. The College of Arts and Media offers many degree programs for aspiring graphic designers. Fill out the form on this page to learn more. 

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2023, Sept. 6). Graphic designers: Work environment. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Retrieved Feb. 14, 2024.

 2 Shields, J. (2023, June 9). Color wheel theory: How to talk about color. HowStuffWorks. Retrieved Feb.14, 2024.

BrainyQuote. (n.d.). Space is the breath of art. Retrieved Feb. 14, 2024.

Approved by the director of digital design programs of the College of Arts and Media on March 19, 2024.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.