What is Graphic Design?

What is Graphic Design?

Many people think that graphic design is simply making information look good on a page or on a screen. But it is much more than that. Effective design is more than pretty – it could also have a connection to your business goals…read on.


What can we learn from the origins and meanings of the words graphic design? Graphic comes from Greek word graphikos which means “of or for writing, belonging to drawing.” It also comes from the Latin word graphicus which means “picturesque.” One definition in English for graphic is “vivid, describing accurately.” If I say “I read a graphic account of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake,” you would probably think that the writer used very realistic and vivid words to write about the event.

Design comes from the Middle French desseign meaning “purpose or project.” Our modern English word also has origins in the Latin word designare which meant “mark out, devise, appoint or designate.” All of these words have a strong connection to purpose. Dictionary.com defines design as: “to plan and fashion artistically or skillfully; to intend for a definite purpose.” Webster’s II Dictionary says “the order or arrangement of the components and details of something in accordance with a plan.”

So you might read in a novel: “I had to know whether her intrusion was accidental, or if it was by design.” You would understand that the speaker was wanting to know her intention or purpose. Accidental is the opposite of by design.

Combined, the origins and definitions of the words graphic and design give us the following succinct definition of graphic design: communicating purpose vividly and accurately.


Based on these origins and meanings, communication is a big part of graphic design, so let’s start there. At its most basic level, communication starts with one person wanting a second person to know something, and ends with that second person understanding the message. Graphic design is, at its essence, a method of communication using visual (not spoken) words, and pictures.


Think about a fisherman telling an exciting story of how he caught a fish. What tools does he use to tell his story? He will typically start at the beginning, saying what happened with increasing excitement as the story builds to the conclusion about how large the fish was. He will demonstrate how he reeled in the fish with words and body language, and express with his arms and hands just how big this fish was. Spoken words, tone of voice, gestures, and facial expressions are also part of communicating the full story. These are the tools of the storyteller.

The tools graphic designers use are different of course. Designers use written words, fonts, colors, shades and contrast, shapes and lines, photos and illustrations, and even empty space. They can manipulate the size, colors, contrast or boldness of words, graphics and photos to communicate what is important on the page, and help the reader understand and process the message. They even use concepts like balance, rhythm and movement to communicate a message. All this is combining organization and creativity with the goal of communicating purpose clearly, vividly, and accurately.


But most people have a sense that when a fisherman talks about catching that big fish, the size of the fish might be exaggerated. In fact, if someone tells you “That was just a fish story,” you’re right to think there’s probably some exaggeration involved. But when we do graphic design and help you communicate about your business, honesty and integrity are critical. If a customer finds out that you’ve exaggerated what you do, or embellished the quality of your products, you’ve likely lost that customer for good. Of course designers want to show your business and products in the best light. Getting back to the definition of graphic, they need to describe accurately. So there is implicit integrity in the definition of graphic design.

It’s important for graphic designers to communicate a business’s message clearly and effectively. That means it’s critical that the designer has clear information and direction from the business. Otherwise it’s like telling the pizza delivery guy to bring you your large pepperoni pizza, but not giving him your address. It’s going to be almost impossible for him to accomplish his goal if he doesn’t know the destination. And if he does, your pizza will probably be cold by the time he finds you. Similarly, graphic designers won’t know how to design effectively unless you let them know what you want to communicate and accomplish with your brochure or catalog. They won’t know your purpose, so they can’t communicate your purpose to the audience you’re trying to reach.


When you look at a system of roads, you know that someone planned it with purpose. That is design. The roads didn’t just happen randomly. Otherwise, they wouldn’t get people where they need to go. You could argue whether the roads could have been designed more efficiently, but there is no denying that someone planned it, and that there was a purpose.
That’s true for just about anything – computer circuit boards, watches, buildings, clothing, and even more abstract things like college courses, a medical treatment plan, presentations, and movies – because they each have a purpose. And it is obvious that each one has a purpose because of the organization is visible; we know it didn’t happen by chance. If something is random or accidental, you know there was no purpose or intention behind it. No one looks at a grandfather clock and says “That all came together by chance.”


What is easy to forget when designing is the importance of the reader or listener. But to achieve good communication, it is critical for the designer to understand who the audience is. Think about the fisherman – he will likely adapt his message depending on the audience. Are they under 10 years old, or are they adults? Does the fisherman already know the listeners, or are they strangers? Are they together in the same room, or is the story being recorded or broadcast? Are they fellow fishermen, or people who have no experience with fishing? All of these things will impact how the storyteller tells the story.

Likewise, understanding the audience will impact how the graphic designer tells your story about your business and what you do. You will have a more effective brochure or catalog if you are clear with your designer about your purpose, and who your audience is.


To summarize, the definition of graphic design is: communicating purpose vividly and accurately. Purpose is a critical component of graphic design that drives the communication effort. The tools of the graphic designer include written words, colors, shades, shapes, photos and illustrations as well as balance, rhythm, movement and organization. And the designer will shape the design based on the audience.

Choose a graphic designer based on his or her ability to effectively communicate your purpose vividly and accurately; not just based on whether or not you like his or her style. While style and other factors can be important, finding a designer who wants to understand your purpose, and knows how to communicate that to your audience will make your brochure or catalog more effective in fulfilling your purpose.