Graphic Design & Illustration

In The Way of Introduction...
In the visual communication world, there are two principle areas of expertise; one is graphics and the other is illustration. Each is distinct in the skills required but in a crucial way they both require a fundamental understanding of art and design. I will briefly touch on both areas. This is by no means a complete description. Volumes have been written about these topics but here's just a taste...

Graphic Design...What is It?
Graphic design, in the commercial arena, is basically the creation of visual materials for print publication. It sometimes includes signage and multimedia which convey a visual message themselves. I will only be addressing graphics as it applies to the print media in this article.

Graphic Design...Then and Now
You asked about how I got into graphics. Until recently, the world of graphic design was entered in one of two traditional ways. One, by going to a trade school or college and the other through "on the job training." I did it through a combination of the two. I had four years of university fine art training with only one graphics related course; typesetting, which was at the time done the old-fashioned way, with individual pieces of type. My only other "graphics" experience in college was to apply press-on letters to paper and create text slides using my 35mm camera for the university's Education Department. That was my introduction to graphics, though I did not realize it at the time.

In each succeeding job following graduation (which covered the dental field, teaching, and others) I found myself making signs and other visuals when they were needed. (When you are in a job so far removed from painting and drawing, any little "artsy" project is welcomed and treasured!) Most of the time I had to experiment on how to fabricate what visual was required so I innovated the best way I could. When I landed a bookkeeping job at my church, I discovered the real reason they hired me was to utilize my graphic abilities I had gained in making banners, small fliers and illustration. After just a year, I was doing more artwork than bookkeeping and was it fun! Feeling inept at creating more complex visuals for print publication, I decided to take a class in layout at a local community college. That one class proved to be instrumental in paving the way for my current career in design.

Following my job at the church, I took a position at a major management consulting firm where I first experienced graphic design in the corporate world. Since then, I have undertaken continuous training, much in the same way as I have in fine art; though books, seminars, and lots of self study. I developed a very clean, structured way of working and learned about the types of graphics and illustrations corporations need and prefer.

Most people study only one area; graphic design, or fine art. Art classes alone do not prepare one for the technical or creative aspects of graphic design. At the same time, strictly learning design does not necessarily assure that one will be a good designer. However, I believe there is a distinct advantage of combining both fine art and design. It brings together the necessary creativity and technical design expertise to develop the best designs possible.

What advice can I offer to you about getting into the field of graphic design? In just the last 8-10 years the whole complexion of the design world has changed. With the introduction of the computer the designer's role has dramatically shifted. Designers used to sketch out what they wanted, then specify styles and sizes for the typesetter. Then the designer would collect all the components-type, photos, illustrations, and either hand off the design to a layout artist to compile or do the layout themselves in preparation for printing.

Computers have changed all of this. Some designers combine design, illustration and typesetting into one continuous process which they do themselves. Not all designers work this way however. In some larger publishing houses, ad agencies and graphics departments, the roles have remained unchanged, but everyone uses a computer now. An exception might be illustrators who create original art the conventional way. (I'll address that later.) Some designers cannot illustrate. Some illustrators do not design. If you couple your fine art training with your design/illustration classes you would be in a position to do both for a given project.

Now, if you think illustration is more to your liking, your fine art background and study in drawing and painting will be essential. There are so many areas to explore in illustration. There is book illustration, cartooning and technical illustration, to name just a few. Some require extensive formal training such as medical illustration for example. In other areas formal training is not necessary but great drawing skills and talent still are. You can work for an ad agency, be an in-house resource within a company, or a free-lance artist developing art for publications nationwide. The types of illustrators and styles are as varied as the sand on the beach. The only limits are the extent of your desire to work, your talent, and technical ability.

As an illustrator, I have had opportunities to create technical drawings for engineering firms as well as very free and lively illustrations for a children's book. Most illustrators find a particular style and subject they prefer and specialize in one area. With a strong fine art background, you can use your creativity and skills to do whatever you wish.

But it is also a good idea to have some knowledge of basic graphic design as well. If you are creating an illustration for a magazine for instance, it is helpful to know how text and pictures work together for print publication. (There are many books on this subject that you can read.)

Many illustrators today are working from their computers. This is another area that is relatively new on the illustration scene. I believe it is essential to master illustration by hand before attempting to utilize the computer as an illustration tool. Yes, there are some successful computer artists who have never worked at a easel. But, it is not the tool that makes the artist, it is what the artist does with the tool!

A strong portfolio is a necessity for both graphic design and illustration. Spend a good deal of time developing the best presentation possible of your work. In a word, it must look professional. Even if you are a beginner, your portfolio must be clean and showcase your creativity and strong technical skills.

The Bottom Line:
If your goal remains to become a fine artist, then shoot for that. If you think (at this point in time) you will need a second trade to support you while you are building your art business, and you want to utilize your art skills "on the job" - either graphic design or illustration would be a good choice. If you want to make "lots of money" graphics/illustration may not necessarily be the way to go. There are some who are handsomely compensated for their efforts, but they are in the small minority.

I recommend you minor in graphics/illustration as a complement to your fine art major. If this is not to your liking, try to take as many graphic design and computer classes as possible. On the job training is out there, but in today's productivity-oriented working environment it is becoming very rare.

Armed with this information I hope you can begin directing yourself into either one of these two areas of concentration. Here are some guidelines:

  • Check colleges for any available introductory to advanced courses in graphic design/illustration, layout, typesetting, etc.
  • Check into the possibility of a minor in graphic design or illustration while you train in fine art.
  • Take classes in computer graphics and/or other general computer classes.
  • Seek employment at a small local print shop, newspaper or ad agency. Even if they do not have a position available to train as a staff artist, a receptionist or counter job will do for starters. Just get into a graphics environment. (This would be more beneficial to you than working at a fast food restaurant.) As you develop more skills on the job or at school you can move into a position as a graphic artist. If the employer knows you are an art student they will usually be more willing to give you a creative project.
  • Purchase and read publications geared to the graphics, illustration and computer world.
  • There are also some very good seminars offered nationwide which concentrate on related subjects.
  • If illustration is your main area of interest, you will first need to decide what type of illustration you prefer. Then locate publishers or companies who need this type of illustration.
  • Along with your regular visits to artist's studios, begin visiting ad agencies and private illustrators/designers to ask questions and see their work.

These two areas, graphic design and illustration are among the hottest career fields for the 21st century. If you have an interest in either one, now is the time to go for it!

Johnson is an award-winning artist and instructor with over 30 years experience and was Founding Editor of Plein Air Magazine (now Fine Art Connisseur. See all her current and archived sold works at
©1995-2009 L. Diane Johnson