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Visual Designers vs. Graphic Designers – Who Does What and Why (with Infographic)

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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.

visual design definitions include website and web app design

Website and web app designs fit the definition of visual design. (by Nextpage)

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.

graphic design definition includes print design

Magazine and other print layouts fit the definition of graphic design. (by Marisa Passos)

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.

Visual Design vs Graphic Designer Infographic

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.

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Lora Plesko
I'd say the main difference in skills is knowing media rules and formats. If you are a digital designer - designing for web and mobile - you need to know each platform't guidelines, you need to know how to deliver the assets to developers, you need to have constant communication with developers because some designs are easier to develop than the others so you'll have to make some compromises there if your design is too complex to be developed, etc. Graphic designer's visuals won't be limited by that which provides more independence in own creations. But, graphic designer needs to be familiar with constraints of the press media (material, format, colors etc.) and know how to prepare visuals for the press. Also, I wouldn't say that terms like Art or Creative director are specifically tied to digital or graphic design - they are merely titles for a person on the team who has a final say, someone who coordinates design aspect of the project and makes final decisions regarding design (at least, final decision before the client's one).
Johnathan Roy Howington
Cameron, I understand the difference from Visual and Graphic Designers with their many differences. I have just now started pursuing a Programming degree and am realizing the reality of the different languages of programming. The languages are similar in coding but the possibilities are endless. I have been creating websites for six plus years and now understand what you are saying. I could create websites all day and still not be a visual designer. I have many experiences of presenting Military presentations and creating presentations along with presenting the material to large audiences. I also have experience of SharePoint site managing in the Military. These experiences were design and I now know that I can add this experience to my Resume. Thank you allowing me to understand the differences. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/93b5cdc31d2daa0e2280a8146213a7fdc046f1fdfc1cdeaaa7a0fddea62c68a4.jpg
Markus Studio
very impressive post.
Based on this post, one could argue graphic designers actually do more than visual designers--as graphic designs in this day and age are required to do print, web, ui, and even video. Companies are sticking to "graphic design" titles in order to argue for lower pay. If you are a decent "modern" graphic designer, you are doing everything in both columns.
Also, the goals under graphic design should be identical to the goals under visual design if they're doing their job correctly... visual design focuses on "visual language with the appropriate look and feel to support the brand and content" but graphic design doesn't? Is that a joke? Or are people really that detached about what is required from a real graphic design position?
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