What do graphic communication designers do? Some thoughts and a list of disciplines and specialisms

It always amazes me at the range of things graphic communication designers need to know and are required to do. It could be compared to be a conductor in an orchestra, we deal with the bigger picture but have to know about all the smaller functioning parts. Some of us specialise doing only 1 or 2 things, others have to be the jack of all trades needing to know what they have to, in order to get the job done (subsequently needing a very wide range of skills and knowledge).

I have compiled this list because it could be useful for the following people: graphic communication design students to see what specialisms are involved in the wide discipline that is graphic design or when deciding on a career choice and paths. For design professionals to see what is involved in their profession: maybe they can read about specialisms which they had not considered. Finally, for clients who use and commission graphic designers: to see and appreciate the many different aspects, parts and skills required to complete graphic design projects.

Graphic design

  • Graphic design: the art or skill of combining text and pictures.
  • Graphic communication design: this is like graphic design, but it now includes the word communication which implies a dialogue between aspects (designs and people).
  • Marketing: promoting and selling products or services, including market research and advertising.
  • Branding: the practice of creating a name, symbol or design that identifies and differentiates a product.
  • Advertising: the activity or profession of producing advertisements for commercial products or services.
  • Website design: is the process of creating websites. It encompasses several different aspects, including webpage layout, website coding, content production, writing, and graphic design.
  • Art direction: critiquing people’s work, working to deadlines and budgets, and inspiring and guiding your team.
  • Public relations (PR): the way organisations, companies and individuals communicate with the public and media. A PR specialist communicates with the target audience directly or indirectly through media with an aim to create and maintain a positive image, and create a strong relationship with the audience.
  • Design for publishing: designing for print: books, journals, magazines, documents, and screen: websites, electronic documents.

Information design

  • Information design: this typically referrers to complex user-orientated graphic communication design (forms design, labelling, wayfinding systems, pictograms, bills and statements), also includes aspects of content editing (writing, clear language), testing with people and psychology. Typically graphic designers do not edit text or graphic content, but information designers do.
  • Psychology: the scientific study of the human mind and its functions, especially those affecting behaviour in a given context.
  • Readability: is concerned with how easily you can read a block or page of text (the overall layout and whitespace).
  • Testing: is a way to see how easy to use something is by testing it with real users. Users are asked to complete tasks, typically while they are being observed, to see where they encounter problems and experience confusion. There are many types of testing: problem discovery, eye tracking, diagnostic, A/B testing, to questionnaires.

Accessibility and usability

  • Accessibility: means access. It refers to the ability for everyone, regardless of disability or special needs, to access, use and benefit for the item.
  • Design for all: is another name for inclusive design, meaning products should be accessible to as many people as technically possible.
  • Inclusive design: is about making an item usable for everyone, regardless of age, ability and circumstance. It is based on the simple principle that designing for the widest range of people creates better designs and benefits everyone.
  • Universal design: whether a design can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability.
  • Usability: how well people use an item quickly and easily to accomplish tasks.
  • Usability testing: refers to evaluating a product or service by testing it with people. Typically, during a test, participants will try to complete typical tasks.
  • User experience: the overall experience of a person using a product such as a website or computer application, especially in terms of how easy or pleasing it is to use.
  • User-centred design: is a project approach that puts the intended users at the centre of its design and development.

Sustainable design

  • Civic design: is a practice that focuses on the common good outcomes of our communities by pulling upon all of the institutional tools in our communities, beyond our traditional sole focus on government alone.
  • Social design: improving human well-being and livelihood through good design.
  • Sustainable design: seeks to reduce negative impacts on the environment, to reduce consumption of non-renewable resources, minimise waste, and create healthy, productive environments.
  • Transformational design: is a human-centered interdisciplinary process that seeks to create desirable and sustainable changes in behaviour and form, of individuals, systems and organisations, often for socially progressive means.


  • Legibility: whether people are able to see, distinguish, and recognise the characters and words.
  • Typeface design: designing letters, characters and symbols.
  • Typeface engineer: someone who typically works on vertical metrics, spacing and kerning, OpenType features, and hinting among many other aspects.
  • Stone letter-cutting: cutting letters in stone, limestone, slate or marble.
  • Typesetting: the selection and setting of type for a document. It is sometimes confused with typography, which refers to the typeface design, because both focus on the visual presentation of text. The typesetting process results in text and images carefully being arranged in preparation for final output.
  • Lettering: designing decorative letters.
  • Calligraphy: the art of producing decorative handwriting or lettering with a pen or brush.

Textual content

  • Plain English: clear and unambiguous written language, without the use of technical or difficult terms.
  • Editing: someone who is in charge of and determines the final content of a newspaper, magazine, or multi-author book for instance.
  • Proofreading: someone who reads information and layouts and checks to make sure there are no spelling, grammatical, typographical or layout errors.
  • Linguistics: the scientific study of language and its structure, including the study of grammar, syntax, and phonetics.
  • Copywriting: the craft of writing persuasive advertisements and text.
  • Writer: a person who writes something using language.

Website design

  • Responsive design: is an approach to web page creation that makes use of flexible layouts, and to build web pages that detect the visitor’s screen size and orientation and change the layout accordingly for desktop, tablet or mobile screens.
  • Programming/coding: people who use programming languages (HTML, CSS, ASP, PHP, etc.) to write the coding and mark-up needed to execute tasks on the web.
  • Search engine optimisation (SEO): is the process of affecting the online visibility of a website or a web page in a web search engine’s unpaid results, often referred to as natural, organic, or earned results.

Interface design

  • User interface design: the design of websites, computers, appliances, machines, mobile communication devices, and software applications with the focus on the user’s experience and interaction.


  • Illustrator: a person who draws or creates pictures for magazines, books, advertising, etc.
  • Cartoonist: an artist who draws cartoons.
  • Printmaking: the process of making artworks by printing, normally on paper. Printmaking normally covers only the process of creating prints that have an element of originality, rather than just being a photographic reproduction of a painting.
  • Technical illustration: the use of illustration to visually communicate information of a technical nature. Technical illustrators use drawings and diagrams to communicate the structure, principal or mechanics of an object, concept or machine.
  • Cartography: the science or practice of drawing maps.

Information graphics

  • Information graphics: information graphics or infographics, are graphic visual representations of complex information, data or knowledge intended to present information quickly and clearly.
  • Data visualisation: is a general term that describes any effort to help people understand the significance of data by placing it in a visual context.


  • Photography: the art or practice of taking and processing photographs.
  • Photo/picture editor: is someone who collects, reviews, and chooses photographs and/or illustrations for publication in alignment with preset guidelines.
  • Colour correction: generally is it trying to get the most accurate colours out of an image.
  • Darkroom developing: processing of photographic films, plates or papers, the photographic developer uses one or more chemicals that convert the latent image to a visible image.
  • Scanning: capturing images from photographic prints, posters, magazine pages, and similar sources for computer editing and display.


  • Concept: the fundamental building blocks of our thoughts and beliefs. They play an important role in all aspects of cognition.
  • Literal thinking: in strict accordance with their original meanings. In other words, to apply the literal meaning is to take the words in their most basic sense without metaphor, creative or exaggeration.
  • Lateral thinking: is solving problems through an indirect and creative approach, using reasoning that is not immediately obvious and involving ideas that may not be obtainable by using only traditional step-by-step logic.
  • Strategy: a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim.

Animation/motion design

  • Animation: an animator produces multiple images called frames, which when sequenced together create an illusion of movement known as animation. Animation can also include sound.
  • Film editing: working with the raw footage, selecting shots and combines them into sequences which create a finished motion picture.

Graphic design research and academia

  • MA or PhD thesis: writing at length into a chosen area. Also referencing to previous relevant sources or to new results created and explored.
  • Teaching: the process of attending to people’s needs, experiences and feelings, and making specific interventions to help them learn particular things.

Design management

  • Design management: simply put, design management is the business side of design. It encompasses the on-going processes, business decisions, and strategies that enable innovation and create effectively-designed services, communications, environments, and brands that enhance our quality of life and provide organisational success.

Devices graphic designers design for

  • Desktop computer.
  • Laptop.
  • Electronic display.
  • Smartphone.
  • Ebook.
  • Tablet.
  • Watch.

The lists above do not even mention issues of: client handling and the client relationship, financial issues, strategy, philosophy, or technical and computer maintenance. What about what area or section you would like to work in: would you like to work for medical companies, charities, art organisations? The list is by no means fully complete, and is subject to new aspects in the future. If you have anything to add contact me.

What do graphic designers actually do?

The final question in this paper is: what do graphic designers actually do? As you can see from the previous lists, there are many parts and processes in graphic communication design.

I attended a graphic design conference last year, on the 20th April 2016 at Loughborough University in the UK called Graphic Design Educators’ Network Pedagogic Research Symposium. Midway through the conference, someone in the audience stood up and asked the question: what do graphic designers actually do? [I actually cannot remember their name or who said this, apologies.] He went on to expand and tell a story, because he was trying to explain to his grandmother what he actually does. His grandma asked: did you take the photographs? He responded: no. His grandma asked: did you write the text? He responded: no. His grandma asked: did you print it? He responded: no.

As you can see the graphic designer may not be responsible for any of the major parts, but designs the overall macro (larger) communication, putting things together using different micro (smaller) aspects and knowledge, and making the overall whole (final item). In a way, the graphic designer orchestrates many parts of the overall communication.

Finally, a graphic design teacher when I was studying at university, once said to me ‘never let anyone tell you graphic design is not a true skill or discipline’. What he was getting at, is that graphic design is a skill, like many other professional activities that have to be studied, learnt, practiced and perfected.

If you would like to know more about our accessible and usable graphic communication services here at User Design, Illustration and Typesetting, UK, get in contact.

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