What is Graphic Design?

Graphic Designs Many Applications and Most Noted Artists

Saul Bass Graphic Design
••• Saul Bass Graphic Design. Getty Images

In essence, graphic design is:

The art or skill of combining text and pictures in advertisements, magazines, or books.

Also known as visual communication, communication design, and commercial design, modern-day graphic design was birthed in the early 20th century. The touchstone is the1936 signage created for the London Underground, considered a masterpiece of the modern era. It used a typeface specifically developed for the project by Edward Johnston, and is still used today.

Germany's minimalist mid-century Bauhaus school of design took the art to the next level and set a strong foundation for today's graphic designers.

And, of course, designers like Paul Rand, Saul Bass, Adrian Frutiger, Milton Glaser, Alan Fletcher, Abram Games, Herb Lubalin, Neville Brody, David Carson, and Peter Saville took graphic design to a whole new level. Graphic design now serves a crucial role in commerce, pop culture, and many aspects of modern society. 

Applications of Graphic Design

Look around you. Graphic design is everywhere, from the wrappers on candy bars to the logo on your favorite coffee mug. In fact, you see hundreds of examples of graphic design every single day, and most of the time, you don't realize it. 

Graphic design can serve many functions. Just a few of the uses of graphic design include:

  • Signage
  • Corporate identity/ branding
  • Packaging (from water bottles to appliances)
  • Printed materials (books, flyers, magazines, newspapers)
  • Online art (banners, blogs, websites)
  • Album covers
  • Film and television titles and graphics
  • T-shirt and clothing designs
  • Greeting cards

Designs Can Simplify or Disrupt 

On some occasions, such as signage design, graphic design must provide very clear and easy ways to convey information. The New York City subway map is a prime example of this. The design simplifies something quite complex, making it easy to navigate and get to your destination. If the design were overly complex or artistic, it would impede the function of the map, rendering it useless. 

In other instances, design can go in the opposite direction. It can be jarring, hard to read or make a statement that takes a while to understand. This is often seen in the artwork on album covers, as well as poster designs, greeting cards, and other forms of disruptive design.

Design in a Digital World

Increasingly, graphic design and web design go hand-in-hand. Magazines must have an online presence, and so do newspapers, grocery stores, hospitals, and other kinds of business and institutions. Therefore, the graphic designers must create and maintain a consistent look and feel across many disciplines. Most often, the digital design guides how the rest of the identity is created and executed.

Graphic design is not just pretty or pretty's sake. It is a crucial part of commerce and life. 

Five Notable Graphic Designers

It's impossible to consider graphic design without referring some of the greats of the industry. While there are hundreds of talented designers over time, the following five men created work that defines the industry.

Saul Bass

If you've ever seen a Hitchcock film, it's likely you know the design skills of Saul Bass. His work on North by Northwest and Psycho was truly exceptional, as was other work for directors including Billy Wilder, Stanly Kubrick, and Otto Preminger. Bass is also responsible for some of the most famous logos in brand history, including Bell System, AT&T, Continental Airlines, and United Airlines. 

Paul Rand

Best known for his work on the IBM logo, Paul Rand (born Paul Rosenbaum) was a creative powerhouse that gave many brands their identities. Perhaps the most famous story about this revolved around the late Steve Jobs, and his company NeXT. Jobs approached Rand and asked for a logo, expecting him to come up with several options. Rand said "No, I will solve your problem and you will pay me. You don't have to use the solution. If you want options, go talk to other people." Jobs did not talk to other people and paid Rand $100,000 for his work.

Milton Glaser

Glaser is famous for two iconic pieces of graphic design - the I ❤ NY  logo, and the psychedelic Bob Dylan headshot poster, which he did in 1966 for Dylan's Greatest Hits album. In 2009, Glaser was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama. Glaser's work continues to influence designers to this day. 

Alan Fletcher

As one of the founding partners of Pentagram, Fletcher is not only considered one of the greatest designers of his generation but of any generation. His work spans decades and is an exercise in simplicity, smart thinking, and understatement. His work on London's Victoria and Albert Museum—the world's leading museum of art and design—looks as good today as it did in 1989 when he first created it. 

Herb Lubalin

If the name sounds familiar, you have almost certainly used the Lubalin font at some point in your career. Herb Lubalin was an exceptional designer and typographer who created many fonts that are still widely used today. His font creations include ITC Avant Garde, Lubalin Graph, and ITC Serif Gothic. His logo for Mother & Child magazine is considered a masterpiece.