Life as a graphic designer vs An illustrator

Life as a graphic designer vs. An illustrator

‘What can you do with an art degree?’ This is a common question asked of students who major in studio art or who get an MFA (Masters of Fine Arts). However, there are many professions which allow artists to create art and make a living. Two of these professions are that of a graphic designer and an illustrator. These professions share the common denominator of allowing someone to make a living with their creative visual intelligence. However, they require slightly different skill sets because of the unique nature of each profession. This paper will compare the typical activities of both professions; the skills and philosophies needed to perform the tasks required of graphic designers vs. illustrators; and the likely demand for professionals in these fields in the future.

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Everyone has encountered the work of a graphic designer, even if he or she is unaware of this fact. The distinctive logo of Coca-Cola; the icon that represents a website on your browser; or an album jacket or a book cover are all the work of a graphic designer. “Graphic designers work with drawn, painted, photographed, or computer-generated images (pictures), but they also design the letterforms that make up various typefaces found in movie credits and TV ads; in books, magazines, and menus; and even on computer screens” (Poggenpohl 1993). Graphic design is thus a marriage of technology and art. An astute graphic designer will be a maestro of a variety of computer programs, yet have the sensitive, impressionistic eye of an artist. Graphic designers must know how to manipulate shapes and colors to catch people’s eyes and to communicate the value of a product (Starbucks coffee), idea (no smoking), or other concept. On one level, graphic design is highly abstract — yet it is also very concrete as a profession. Think of how something like the logo for the Olympics communicates something very specific (an event) yet also the spirit of the games. Graphic design can function as a mental shorthand or symbol, yet through the beauty and simplicity of design it communicates something more powerfully than words. However, it should be noted that graphic designers do sometimes use words, yet somewhat differently than would a writer. “To designers, what the words look like is as important as their meaning. The visual forms, whether typography (communication designed by means of the printed word) or handmade lettering, perform many communication functions” (Poggenpohl 1993). Because of the increasingly visual nature of media culture in the age of the Internet, graphic design is becoming more and more important as a profession. For example, the Bureau of Labor and Statistics notes: “Employment of graphic designers is projected to increase by 13% from 2010 to 2020” (“Graphic designer,” BLS, 2013). Today, even small businesses have websites, blogs, and distinctive lettering to remain competitive in a noisy information marketplace, and thus graphic designers will be in high demand. It is a competitive profession and often requires the designer to freelance, and but the work is usually personally rewarding and moderately rewarding in financial terms — the average salary of a graphic designer was $43,500 in 2010 (“Graphic designer,” BLS, 2013).

There is some overlap between the professions of illustrator and graphic designer. “Illustration, while often closely related to graphic design, is for many a separate profession. It is common for a graphic designer to do illustrative work and for illustrators to incorporate their work into graphic design, but there are also those who work solely in illustration, often being commissioned to create works for larger projects” (Miller 2013). Illustrators create images for articles and books to support their words with images. They are less likely to be involved in the creation of business cards and design-related elements. Modern illustrators, in contrast to illustrators of the past who mainly used pen, ink, pencil, and paints, “work in software such Adobe Illustrator or Corel Painter” but may still add distinctive, “hand-drawn elements into their work” in contrast to the more in pure graphic design (Miller 2013). Unlike graphic design, which is designed to catch the viewer’s eye and to represent a product, event, or some other idea, pure illustration is designed to be pleasurable to view in and of itself, not just representative of something. Conceptually, “illustration is the art of making images that work with somethingwithout distracting from the thing they illustratethe illustration’s role is to add personality and character without competing with that other thing” while “graphic design is the art of making images that attract direct attention towards themselves and use attention for a specific, deliberate purpose” (“What does it mean to be an illustrator,” Stack Exchange: Graphic Design Beta, 2013). According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics “fine artists made an average of $48,300 yearly,” although earnings vary widely, because most are self-employed (“Artist,” BLS, 2013).

Both graphic design and illustration prevent viable career options for fine artists, and many self-employed artists may wish to work in both capacities. Both fields, although different present creative possibilities, either in creating a distinctive logo in the case of graphic design that is timeless and iconic, or supporting a text with illustrations like an illustrator. While most professionals in either field are self-employed, which requires a certain degree of enterprise on the part of the individual to stay afloat in a competitive economy; these professions provide rewarding and creative ways for artists to sustain themselves financially.

Works Cited

“Artist.” Bureau of Labor and Statistics BLS. 2013. [8 Feb 2013]


“Graphic designer.” Bureau of Labor and Statistics BLS. 2013. [8 Feb 2013]


Miller, Eric. “Working as an illustrator.” About.com. [8 Feb 2013]


Poggenpohl Sharon, Helmer. Graphic Design: A Career Guide and Education Directory.

The American Institute of Graphic Arts, 1993. [8 Feb 2013]


“What does it mean to be an illustrator?” Stack Exchange: Graphic Design Beta. [8 Feb 2013]


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