Defining the Profession

What makes a graphic designer?

Walter Jungkind FGDC and Yves Roussell MGDC developed a definition of the profession for the national council. This is the final report on their task, presented by Walter Jungkind at the May 2006 GDC Annual General Meeting. It includes the definition of the profession accepted by the GDC National Council.


At the GDC AGM in Winnipeg 2005, Yves Roussell and I presented and distributed a nine-page document called “Graphic Design Defined; beginnings and some definitions.” It contained a brief historical survey and appended 45 current definitions of graphic design from many sources, collected and compiled by Yves Roussell. We asked the members of the national executive for preferences and possible improvements to those 45 definitions. Only a total of six responses were received. As the initiator of the project I felt compelled to introducing aspects I felt were missing. The most astonishing to me was that only two out of 45 definitions mentioned clients as an essential element in graphic design.

As mentioned in last years’ prologue, the forefathers of graphic design, the skilled scribes and artists/designers of Babylonia, Assyria, Egypt, Greece and Rome, risked their heads if they displeased their clients. Perhaps that explains the absence of clients as an essential element in practically all recent definitions.

Part A: Why define Graphic design?

  • Graphic design is hard to define in simple terms. It is complex, and has under-gone radical changes over time. The many names given to similar activities in the past are confusing when still used today, even to designers themselves.
  • The fact that neither clients nor design practitioners use common terminology is preventing a full understanding of graphic design.
  • This inhibits communicating its benefits to clients, the public, and to government. In addition, it makes explaining Graphic design requirements to students more difficult.
  • Clearer terminology and an agreed definition of Graphic design would benefit all involved.
  • The Society of Graphic Designers is the appropriate forum to undertake this task.

Part B: Some current examples of definitions

Design is a knowledge-based discipline which determines the shape, processes and specifications for products, environments, and information. Design contributes to increased competitiveness, product and service differentiation, export growth and economic diversification.

Design services subsectors: interior design, landscape architecture, industrial design, graphic (communications) design.
Industry Canada, Service Industries Overviews

Communication design utilizes visual information to aid communication and orientation; it encompasses graphic design, multimedia, and computer interface design.
Industry Canada Professional Associations

Graphic Designers are visual problem solvers. They enjoy the challenge of working with clients and resource people to produce effective visual communications.

Graphic Design is an intellectual, technical, and creative activity concerned not simply with the production of images but with the analysis, organization and methods of presentation of visual solutions to communication problems. Information and communication are the basis of worldwide interdependent living, whether in trade, cultural or social spheres. The graphic designer’s task is to provide the right answer to visual communication problems of every kind in every sector of society.
Icograda, ca. 1995

Graphic Design is an interdisciplinary, problem solving activity, which combines visual sensitivity with skill and knowledge in areas of communications, technology, and business. Graphic design practitioners specialize in the structuring and organizing of visual information to aid communication and orientation.
The Association of Registered Graphic Designers of Ontario


Graphic Design is creative and strategic problem-solving for defined communication needs, delivered through visual media.
Gwen Hetherington MGDC

Typography is what language looks like. / design is art that responds to social situations. / graphic design (in particular) gives physical shape and rhetorical purpose to information and ideas.
Ellen Lupton, Baltimore USA

Design is a scheme for a definite purpose, it is a result of commercial activities, and integrates technology with art. Through creative activities, designers actually dominate the trend of lifestyle, technology, culture; moreover, they expound the meaning of life. Designers guide, direct, and lead consumers. On the other hand, they also effectively improve the competitive mechanisms of economic returns. However, as a designer, I believe we should devote much attention to humanity, environment, community, simplicity, practicality, and time and space while we produce a design piece.

I believe designers’ creations are not only just to meet the consumer’s ever-growing demands for commodities, to meet increasing economic returns, but also for consciousness and the moral spirit. Ultimately, designers should reach the dreamland of a perfect combination of both the material and the spirit, which is our, as graphic designers, obligation.
Shengyao Lin, Shanghai, China

Graphic designers help to communicate ideas through the arrangement of words, pictures, or both.
Michael Bierut, New York USA

The visual communication designer works on the interpretation, organization, and visual presentation of messages. Sensitivity toward form should go hand in hand with sensitivity toward content. Publication designers organize not only typography but also words. Their work concentrates on the effectiveness, appropriateness, beauty, and economy of the messages. This job, beyond cosmetics, has to do with the planning and structuring, production, and evaluation of communications.
Jorge Frascara FGDC

Graphic design is an intellectual, technical, and creative profession concerned with the analysis, organization, and methods of presentation of visual solutions to communication problems.
Peggy Cady MGDC

Part C: Concepts to be included

Concepts that must be included/indicated in any definition of Graphic design:

  1. Expressed and implied communication needs of the client must be given priority over artistic ambitions of the designer.

    Applying appropriate esthetic and expressive expertise is paramount, but artistic expression must be aligned with communication goals.
  2. In professional practice the goals of specific projects of visual communication design do not usually originate with the designer, though the process does.

    Design practice includes analytical, organising and creative aspects, as well as consulting. Design is a synthesis of planning and creating.

    Graphic design, beyond information and problem solving, involves emotional issues and persuasion.  

    Graphic design by nature is inter-disciplinary, but in practice solutions are most often conceived and carried out by individual designers, assisted if and when necessary by other colleagues.
  3. Graphic design solutions are most effectively employed in print and electronic media (including interface design), in the context of business, socio-political, cultural and educational environments, in transmitting government and institutional aims and services, and in visually explaining and exploring medical and scientific data and processes.
  4. Professional Graphic designers, in order to provide satisfactory professional service, must be computer literate. They should have a minimum of three years full time design education at a reputable institution, including instruction in typography, design history, media practice and business procedures. Passionate conviction in the power of design, and business ethics, are important aspects of professional competence and experience.


Part D: Definition

Graphic design involves effective visualisation of communication concepts, primarily in print and electronic media (including interface design), in the context of business and technology, socio-political, cultural and educational environments, in transmitting government and institutional aims and services, and in visually explaining and exploring medical and scientific data and processes. Clients usually determine project aims.

Graphic designers help to achieve communication goals by analysing, structuring, planning and creating images and text to enhance visual communication for specific purposes. They often act as consultants.

Alternative version to the above:

Graphic designers help to achieve communication goals via analysis and interpretation of client needs. They plan, structure and communicate information and ideas, appeal to emotions or facilitate orientation, by creating or combining images and text for distribution to specific publics. Efficiency and high esthetic standards are hallmarks of work by professional designers, who frequently act as consultants on design strategy. Consideration of the public good is a bonus.

The main omissions in most existing definitions are lack of reference to the important function of the client, who is commissioning work, without which designers soon would be destitute. Further, to my mind, Graphic design is not merely about problem solving, communication, and information, but it is also about motivation and persuasion, about arousing emotions and encouraging empathy with the less fortunate. Designing for both business and charitable causes are fully compatible with professional practice.

There is vast potential for graphic design in the need of government to publicise its aims and services. Distance learning via internet and websites, and interactive games in matters of health and environment and social understanding are currently underestimated. So is the use of the expertise of Graphic designers in the interpretation of visual aspects in technological and scientific exploration.

A major problem posed in attempting to draw up a definition of Graphic design is the question of who it is aimed at. Clients, practicing designers, students or teachers, governments or the ubiquitous public at large? Can we devise a "one size fits all" definition, or do we need several, depending on the recipients? How inclusive must we be, or how brief may we be without loosing essential aspects. These quest-ions are still open though a start has been made.

a) The perennial conundrum: Is Graphic design Art?
The roots of Graphic design are bifurcated. Advertising and Commercial Art no doubt were early forms of Graphic design, practised part-time by painters whose work was largely descriptive. Type was often added by printers.

Renaissance craftsmen in engraving and letterpress were also role models for Graphic designers. The crux of the difference with what today are called the Fine Arts and Graphic design is that painters and printmakers now are predominantly concerned with self expression and media concepts per se, based on the artist’s own concerns and criteria, producing work on speculation, hoping to eventually sell it.

Graphic designers rarely work without being commissioned by a client; in fact speculative work is frowned upon by professional design associations unless it is for charitable purposes or self promotion.

b) Research into effectiveness of Graphic design would benefit the standing of Graphic designers among the public and the business community. Such assessments require designers to collaborate with outsiders (marketing and communication experts, perception and motivation psychologists). Client perceptions also need to be included. Having design gurus approved by fellow designers is insufficient proof of design effectiveness.

Walter Jungkind FGDC