What is the Purpose of Graphic Design?

A. Michael Shumate

A. Michael Shumate

I was once in an elevator with the custodian of our building. I knew him by name, and he knew I was a professor of graphic design. This day he proudly announced to me that he planned to open his own graphic design business.

“Really?” I responded with genuine curiosity. This man had never mentioned graphic design before.

“Yes. I just got a new computer and now I can choose fonts!

I was dumfounded. It was apparent that he thought that choosing fonts was all there was to graphic design. To reinforce his position, he continued, “I designed my first brochure last night, and I used twenty-eight different fonts!”

Mercifully, the elevator door opened on my floor and I got out.

This kind of idea is all too common, even among graphic design students and a few lesser practitioners. They feel a graphic designer’s job is to “jazz-up” the content or “make it look cool” or “make it fancy.” While jazzing-up a design may be appropriate in some circumstances, it might be disastrous in others, and it is not the underlying purpose of good graphic design.

So, what is the purpose of graphic design?

To aid communication.

This can be accomplished in several ways:

1. Attention.
In our world of never-ending messages, one must first get a pair of eyes to look at a message before it can be communicated. Designers use tools like typography, layout, color and imagery to do this. So esthetics do matter.

2. Organizing the Message.
Complex messages or bodies of information must be broken down into manageable and logical subsets, as well as a logical order. This is essential in media such as brochures and web sites.

3. Using Imagery & Type Correctly.
A given design can lead with imagery or with type. Type can be a kind of imagery in itself. When used together, there needs to be a hierarchy in the elements to control the viewer’s eyes and the communication experience.

4. Using the Right Media or Output and Using the Media Correctly.
This may seem too obvious to mention, but the physical form of the media can give advantages, but also imposes limitations. A poster does not work like a website. A brochure has different parameters from a business card. Signage is not the same as a magazine ad. A successful corporate identity design needs to work effectively in each of those situations.

All of these considerations should not distract us from this basic principle: the primary job of graphic design is to facilitate communication. Anything that compromises that core function of communication is counter-productive design.

All activities in Graphic design should lead to better communication.
All activities in Graphic design should lead to better communication. If they don’t, it’s questionable design.

Adapted from Logo Design Theory: How Branding Design Really Works

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