Graphic Design vs Illustration: Essential Differences

When thinking about graphic design vs illustration, many similarities come to mind. They’re both very design-heavy activities that work to support business needs. However, many confuse the two activities and believe they are more or less the same.

While both graphic design and illustration rely on designers to execute tasks, several differences distinguish the two. This article will highlight the differences between graphic design and illustration from a purpose and career perspective.

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What Is Graphic Design?

To properly understand the differences between graphic design and illustration, it’s important to first understand each concept in isolation.

Juliette Cezzar, a graphic designer, writer, and professor at the Parsons School of Design, defined graphic design as “the art and practice of planning and projecting ideas and experiences with visual and textual content.”

Simply put, graphic design involves using imagery to communicate predetermined ideas.

Graphic designers employ concepts such as symmetry and typography to intentionally convey emotions on behalf of a business. In doing so, the overall goal of graphic design is to enhance a company’s user experience.

We see this strategized communication take form in brand guidelines. For instance, Uber has comprehensive brand guidelines that showcase graphic design assets that speak for the brand.

Uber brand guidelines
Source: Wolff Olins

There are plenty of instances of graphic design within the company’s guidelines because Uber wants to make sure it’s communicating the same, effective set of ideas with both text and imagery.

Graphic design is meant to be strategic, creative, and consistent within a company’s guidelines for an ideal customer experience.

What Is Illustration?

Illustration refers to creating visual content for the purpose of displaying, explaining, and analyzing ideas.

The practice of illustrating has been around for nearly as long as humanity and has most certainly evolved alongside civilization, with the end of the nineteenth century ushering in the discipline’s “Golden Age.”

By the 1930s, photography had begun to overtake illustration in popularity. However, illustration is still generally affixed to publications, accenting products or packaging, enhancing signage, and even in television, films, advertisements, and other digital media.

Graphic Design vs Illustration: Differing Intentions

In juxtaposing the definitions of graphic design and illustration, their conceptual differences become clear.

Graphic design is more oriented toward visually representing preconceived ideas. When working with a company, a graphic designer will work to understand its brand and organizational message. Then, they will utilize design principles to effectively communicate this message to audiences.

On the other hand, illustrators choose a concept to represent and then work their ideas into the final work. The subject of the work is predetermined, while the tone and thematic content are implemented afterward by the creator.

Graphic design and illustration, in fact, can be considered inverse processes. Graphic design uses visual design to represent a message. That message is at the core of the practice of graphic design. On the other hand, the core value of illustration is quality visual content. The visuals come first with a message in tow.

Graphic Design vs Illustration: Different Careers

With the nuances of the two disciplines being different, it’s not surprising that professionals in each field are not necessarily interchangeable.

Illustrators tend to be classically trained as fine artists rather than marketing or digital media professionals. Because of this, their work is typically done by hand and then uploaded to digital platforms rather than being created via software.

Conversely, graphic designers are often more digitally inclined than their illustrator counterparts. They are well-versed in photo editing software and can artfully combine imagery with text to meet client needs.

The level of anonymity maintained in both professions is also different. Since illustrators bring their own visual content to each engagement, they will often look to sign their work in some manner.

Graphic designers, though, are more interested in communicating their client’s ideas and are typically not as personally invested in the final product.

Graphic Design vs Illustration: Different Applications

Outside of the design industry, understanding the differences between graphic design and illustration may not seem like a useful skill. However, if you’re leading a design-oriented project, knowing which type of professional is better suited for the work can be key to your team’s success.

Illustrators thrive in situations that call for intricate, eye-catching deliverables. If you’re looking to craft unique packaging or breathe life into a drab product, an illustrator would be the right professional to hire. Hand-drawn content is also ideal if you need to give your digital presence a warmer feel.

Graphic designers do best with marketing-oriented projects that need to convey a specific message. Their digital prowess and audience-focused mindsets make them the optimal choice for a web design project. Additionally, with minimalism, scalability, and digitization at the core of modern logos, graphic design firms are a strong fit for logo design work.

Some engagements are best served by bringing in both graphic designers and illustrators. For instance, both areas of expertise would be useful if crafting a multiplatform ad campaign. An illustrator’s inspired imagery would ensure that your content is eye-catching and original.

Working with this content, a graphic designer could implement carefully crafted typography and other design elements to ensure that the campaign deliverables convey the intended meaning and translate well to all applications.

Core Differences Exist Between Graphic Design vs Illustration

When it comes to graphic design vs illustration, there are plenty of fundamental similarities that lead people to believe that they’re synonymous. However, those interested in the nuances between the two practices should consider the differing intentions, careers, and applications behind each field.

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