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Graphic Art or Graphic Design? Are They The Same? Are They Different?

written by: Donny Yankellow•edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 11/12/2010

What is the difference between graphic art and graphic design? Some people say they are one and the same. I say they are different.

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    Graphic Design? Graphic Art? Illustration?

    Note: For the purpose of this article I am being VERY general about the jobs a graphic designer, graphic artist, and illustrator might be assigned. I am not saying these position are simple or not capable of other assignments. I am just trying to simplify things for the purpose of this discussion.

    When I was hired to teach at my current school I was hired to be the “Graphic Design" teacher and my graphics classes were called “Graphic Design." After the first year, I had classes changed to "Graphic Art."

    You might be thinking “Why? Aren’t they the same?" Some people might think so. I think differently. To me they are related, but different. In fact, I would say graphic design falls into what I consider the broader category of graphic art.

    First, a little background. I have a BS degree in Visual Communications, which at my college included fine art, graphic design, and illustration. I am also a certified art teacher currently (as I mentioned above) teaching “Graphic Art," and a freelance illustrator. I think that is important because it shows I have background in this field, and I am not blindly writing this article.

    So, back to the topic. Let’s start with graphic design. When I think of graphic design, I think of someone laying out an ad or a page in a magazine. A graphic designer might also be hired to design a logo for a person or a company. That is not to say a graphic designer cannot have illustration skills, or other art skills; but primarily a graphic designer does the designing/layout projects. In fact, I would argue that a good graphic design needs illustration and drawing skills just like a good illustrator should have good graphic design skills. However, a person with weak illustration skills could be a fantastic graphic designer and a person with weak design skills could be a great illustrator.

    Graphic art, on the other hand, is a bigger umbrella in the art world that includes graphic design. In addition to graphic design, I would include illustration in the category of graphic art. A graphic artist would be proficient in graphic design and illustration and not specialize in one or the other.

    I consider myself an illustrator. I can do page layout and logo design (and occasionally do), but I primarily prefer to draw and illustrate (that is another set of differing but similar categories for another time).

    Since I brought it up, what exactly is an illustrator? An illustrator is someone that uses traditional media (markers, pencils, paint) or non-traditional media (mosaic, ceramics) or modern media (ie. software on the computer) to turn thoughts or words on a page into an image. The image should show or “illustrate" what the words are trying to say. The images could be there to further demonstrate a point from the words, or they could be there to aid in explaining the words further. A children’s book illustrator tries to put the author’s words into pictures to make a book more enjoyable for the child reading it and to help the child better understand the words.

    Let’s go back to my classes. My classes incorporate illustration projects, page layout projects, and design projects. With that in mind they aren’t really in the specific name of "Graphic Design." To me, they fall under the broader category of "Graphic Art." If I was signing up for a graphic design class I would expect to be doing more page layout and design projects. If I was signing up for an illustration class I would be expecting for drawing and painting. If it was a graphic arts class, I would be expecting a little of both worlds.

    So, did I just confuse the issue even more or help explain it? Your opinion might be entirely different than mine and that is fine. Have a comment? Leave it below.