What Is Graphic Design?

a graphic designer working in her office

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, entertainment, event production, social media content creation and hospitality promotion.

The 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 design. If you work toward a graphic design degree, you’ll master an exciting method of visual communication that has the power to persuade.


Lines seem pretty 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 more exotic shapes like boomerangs, splats and blobs. Look for shapes in pretty much everything around you, even in the empty space between other shapes.


Did Sir Isaac Newton invent the color wheel? Nobody really knows if this physicist is the first, but color is the language of light. 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’re ignoring 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 the 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.” Graphic design is composed by 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 graphic design degree program, you will study these elements 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 just a few to get you started 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 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.

You can nurture your passion for art and creativity when you join the Christian learning community at Grand Canyon University in sunny Phoenix, Arizona. The College of Fine Arts and Production offers many creativity-focused degree options, including the Bachelor of Arts in Advertising and Graphic Design program for aspiring graphic designers. Graduates with a graphic design degree will emerge prepared to pursue a rewarding career in media, marketing or other industries.

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.

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