Graphic design and digital design are two distinct yet intersecting disciplines within the broader field of visual communication and design.
Both play important roles in shaping the media and messages we encounter daily, from branding and logos to apps and websites.
There are 6 key differences between traditional graphic design and newer digital design mediums, skills, tools, and best practices.
Understanding the core principles of each can help visual designers thrive in both print and digital formats.
What is Graphic Design?
Graphic design is a creative process that combines art and technology to communicate ideas and messages.
The focus is on visual communication and presentation of information through print and static visual formats.
Graphic design encompasses the design of logos, branding assets, publications, advertising campaigns, packaging, posters, signs, and many other types of print collateral.
Traditional graphic design mediums include ink, paper, signage, billboards, and other physical materials.
The goals of graphic designers are to attract attention, convey information clearly, influence perception, and promote or sell products, services, or causes.
Effective graphic design makes messages more memorable and impactful.
Types of Graphic Design
Some major examples of graphic design specialties include:
- Print design: design of books, magazines, newspapers, letterhead, business cards, and any other printed publications or materials. Print designers focus on typography, page layout, color palettes, and imagery to make informative and visually appealing printed pieces.
- Packaging design: design of product packaging from food to toys to consumer goods. Packaging designers focus on shape, form, color, branding, and labelling to contain, protect, identify, and help sell the products inside.
- Environmental and architectural signage: design of public informational signs like office building directories, museum signage, retail store signage, and more. Signage designers focus on visual hierarchy, typography, symbols, and wayfinding to help people navigate environments.
- Branding and logo design: design of brand identities, logos, style guides, and visual systems to establish corporate identities and achieve brand recognition. Logo designers focus on symbolic imagery and color palettes that represent a brand's mission and values.
- Advertising design: design of print advertisements, billboards, direct mail pieces, and any other promos meant to sell products, services or ideas. Advertising designers use eye catching imagery, clever copy, and striking layouts to influence perceptions and actions.
- Poster design: design of promotional posters for events, causes, products, entertainment, and more. Poster designers use typography, imagery, color, and composition to convey messages and create visual impact.
- Illustration: hand drawn or computer generated illustration for books, magazines, posters, cards, apparel, digital media, and more. Illustrators focus on visual storytelling and developing personal styles.
- Photography: photographic imagery for advertising, marketing, editorial, packaging, products, and a variety of print and digital uses. Photographers strive for compelling compositions and high quality images.
What is Digital Design?
Digital design is focused on visual communication and presentation of ideas through digital and online media platforms.|
It encompasses web design, mobile app design, user experience design, digital advertising, social media graphics, and many other forms of interactive media.
Digital design is displayed on screens, apps, websites, and other digital surfaces rather than printed mediums.
Digital designers tailor their work to look good on different devices, screens, operating systems, and resolutions.
The goals of digital designers align closely with graphic designers, but the digital realm requires some different skills and thinking.
Digital designers still aim to attract attention, clearly communicate, influence perception, and promote products and services.
But they use interactive features, multimedia, animations, and other dynamic elements to enhance user experiences and engagement.
Types of Digital Design
Some major digital design disciplines include:
- Website design: design of website interfaces, layouts, content systems, features, and functionalities. Web designers focus on usability, findability, accessibility, responsiveness, and visual appeal.
- Mobile app design: design of user interfaces and experiences for mobile apps on devices like phones and tablets. App designers focus on intuitive navigation, streamlined workflows, responsive design, and platform guidelines.
- User interface (UI) design: design of user interfaces for websites, apps, software, tools, and other digital products. UI designers establish the visual language, components, patterns, and behaviors that users interact with.
- User experience (UX) design: design of full user experiences, workflows, and functionalities for digital products. UX designers determine information architecture, write user stories, create wireframes and prototypes, and test concepts.
- Digital advertising: design of online advertisements including web banner ads, social media ads, emails, and other digital promos meant to spread awareness and drive conversions.
- Email marketing: design of email newsletters, promotions, and other marketing messages delivered digitally to subscribers and customers.
- Social media graphics: visual social content like posts, banners, stories, and videos that engage social media followers and get shared.
- Digital illustration: illustrative work like icons, textures, patterns, characters, and scenes created in digital formats vs traditional media.
- Motion graphics: animated graphics and visual effects sequenced to move, transition, and flow over time, often for videos, presentations, ads, etc.
- Game design: creation of video game visuals, gameplay, user interfaces, environments, characters, graphics, and overall gaming experiences.
Key Differences Between Graphic Design and Digital Design
While graphic design and digital design overlap in some ways, there are distinct differences between the two disciplines:
- Graphic design is print and static focused, while digital design deals with dynamic interactive visuals displayed on screens.
- Graphic designers work with fixed layouts and final imagery, while digital designers deal with adaptable responsive interfaces and systems.
- Digital design requires more knowledge of user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) principles to facilitate usability and accessibility.
- Graphic design software is focused on print production like Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign. Digital designers use web and app focused programs like Figma, Sketch, and Adobe XD.
- Graphic design principles like color, typography, and composition remain relevant, but digital design constantly adapts to new technologies, screen sizes, devices, and platforms.
- Graphic designers often specialize in print mediums while digital designers work across websites, apps, advertising, multimedia, and emerging technology.
Graphic design and digital design share common ground but deal with very different mediums, technologies, and techniques.
Graphic design's foundations were print, fixed layouts and final static visuals.
Digital design emerged more recently, dealing with dynamic interactive visuals on screens.
While graphic design principles still apply, digital design requires a mindset of flexibility to adapt to evolving devices and platforms.
Graphic design software is focused on print, while digital design uses more web and app focused tools.
With so much visual communication happening digitally today, graphic designers gain an edge by expanding their skills to include user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) principles that make designs functional and accessible across platforms.
Understanding both historic graphic design foundations and new digital design directions can make for well-rounded visual designers capable of working effectively across mediums.