On the surface visual design and graphic design sound like the same thing and are sometimes used as interchangeable terms, particularly outside the design industry.
While there are plenty of similarities between visual designers and graphic designers, there are also stark differences between them.
What is Visual Design?
Visual design was born out of a mixture of graphic design and user interface (UI) design. It focuses on the aesthetics of a website or any other type of digital design. Does the finished product look good? That is the question visual designers aim to answer.
Though they’re not quite the same thing, visual design is sometimes used interchangeably with the term visual communication. Visual communication as a term often encompasses much more than just digital design and is focused on the communication of a message visually. While visual design is specifically focused on the look and feel, visual communication is somewhat less concerned with aesthetics, in favor of the communication aspect of the discipline.
Another common area of confusion is visual design vs. general web design. Are they the same thing? Yes and no.
Some web designers could definitely be classed as visual designers. But one key area of difference lies in the fact that most web designers are expected to know at least some coding — HTML and CSS at the very least. Visual design jobs do not include coding.
Visual designers are often tasked with larger design projects than web designers. Where a web designer works on designing websites, a visual designer’s brief may include creating entire visual languages for a brand or product. It goes beyond the scope of a single end product (website, app, brochure, etc.), and covers the way the entire organization approaches design projects.
What is Graphic Design?
Graphic design as a profession has been around much longer than visual design. The term “graphic design” first appeared in an essay by William Addison Dwiggins, New Kind of Printing Calls for New Design, in 1922, but in reality, the practice dates back to the earliest artwork created by humans.
Graphic designers started out designing for print publications: books, magazines, newspapers, brochures, catalogs, and the like. Graphic designer responsibilities include creating page layouts, advertisements, marketing materials, and sometimes more specialized products like typefaces.
In the 1990s, as web design became possible as a means of communication, graphic designers started to expand their offerings into web design. It made sense since many basic design principles remained the same whether designing for print or digital. With just a bit more training on the technical aspects and restrictions, graphic designers are quite capable of creating a website.
Many graphic design agencies added web design to their offerings, further establishing that graphic designers could work in both print and digital spaces. Many graphic designers now create digital products at least as often as they create print designs.
As our work and personal lives increasingly use digital means of communication over print forms, graphic designers have had to adapt to stay relevant. And those digital communications have also gone a long way toward blurring the lines between visual design and graphic design.
Visual Design vs. Graphic Design: The Blurred Line Between the Two Disciplines
Because graphic design and visual design both focus on aesthetics, the line between the two disciplines is often blurred, especially when referencing digital designs. Websites and web app designs can be created by either visual designers or graphic designers. So why would someone call themselves one thing over the other?
If all the work a designer is doing could be classed as visual design or graphic design, does it matter which one the designer calls themselves? Actually, yes. There’s a significant difference in the salary range between the two disciplines. Graphic designers generally top out around $65,000 per year while visual designers may earn over $90,000 per year. Perception of visual design as a more cutting-edge discipline likely has a lot to do with this difference. Graphic design is often thought of as the dinosaur of design disciplines.
While there is overlap between the two jobs, there are also stark differences. The biggest one is in the end products each type of designer creates. If a designer is doing print design, for example, then “Visual Designer” isn’t really an accurate job title. Other differences and similarities between the two disciplines are outlined in the infographic below.
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Further reading on the Toptal Design Blog:
Understanding the basics
What does a visual designer do?
Visual designers focus on the aesthetics of a website, web app, or other digital design. Other visual design definitions include a focus on user experience specifically as it relates to those aesthetics.
What is the definition of visual design?
Visual design was born out of a mixture of graphic design and user interface (UI) design. It focuses on the aesthetics of a website or other digital design.
What is graphic design all about?
Graphic designers started out designing for print, creating page layouts, advertisements, packaging designs, marketing materials, and sometimes more specialized products, like typefaces. As the web grew more popular, some graphic designers added web design to their offerings.
What kind of jobs are there for graphic design?
Graphic designers are in demand in virtually every industry and hold job titles such as Graphic Artist, Creative Director, Art Director, Logo Designer, and Brand Designer.
What are the principles of visual design?
The principles of visual design include alignment, balance, contrast, proximity, repetition, and space, as well as the Gestalt principles of design.