A picture does indeed speak a thousand words. A picture speaks a thousand words in a few seconds or less. With the emergence of mass digital media and the endless supply of options for one’s attention, communicating a complex message with immediacy is a highly prized skill. This is the need being filled by graphic designers worldwide, where messaging is synthesized into shareable bits of high-efficiency imagery. When attempting to learn these skills, it’s useful to view this as a combination of strategic and technical capabilities.
On the strategic side, a graphic designer empathizes with the way their audience communicates and caters to the messaging to speak this language. This process has a human-centric perspective, which falls into the relatively new user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) fields. Like a comic book or a storyboard, a graphic designer should expect to manage multiple touchpoints with their audience linearly. Narrative and aesthetic consistency are key here.
On the technical side, graphic designers need the skills and tools required to craft visual assets with an eye for aesthetics. From free tools like GIMP to premium business solutions like Photoshop, refining one’s ability to transpose the image in their head onto a computer screen is a key success factor in the field. Many artists prefer the tactile approach to creating graphics and rely on tools, such as drawing boards, to simulate a natural drawing environment. Others make do with mouse and keyboard and quickly become masters of the many Photoshop shortcuts.
There is also a collaborative nature to the life of a graphic designer, who is typically part of a small creative team. Copywriters, storytellers, marketers, and animators all play a role in breathing life into the graphics designed. The oldest of all human arts is arguably telling a story through pictures, and this is just as true today as ever.
The Evolution of Design
The simplest forms of commercial graphical design emerged alongside the printing press. Carefully crafted and curated images were used in traditional print advertising, like magazine ads, flyers, and billboards. This was more like painting a portrait than telling a story, occasionally (and even coincidentally) striking narrative gold and creating something iconic. An interesting study for graphic designers is the evolution of iconic logos throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, such as IBM or Ford Motors.
Like copywriting, which is often a process of distilling a message down to its purest and simplest form, successful graphic designers learn to capture the essence of a message within an image. For those eyeing the winding road of success in this field, a popular battle cry in self-improvement is ‘kill your darlings.’ Not nearly as nefarious as it sounds, this speaks to the healthy habit of scrapping old drafts on the long road to capturing that perfect image. The lesson learned here is the value of constant iteration and refinement.
As we waltzed our way into the 21st century, this iterative approach transformed from single images to customer experiences. While historic engagements with messaging were often a single image, modern messaging is more of a process or flow through multiple interfaces. This gave birth to the design of user experiences (UX/UI) as an evolution of graphic design and the brand new title of ‘Web Designer.’
Just like a business administration degree could have different concentrations in marketing or finance, a graphic designer has a few concentration options. The web designer mixes their skills in graphic development with a dash of programming knowledge to help companies spruce up their online presence and refine the user experience (UX).
As a simple example, consider the experience of signing up for a service like Spotify. The first touchpoint is called a landing page, where a graphic designer and team of related creatives will design a narrative experience that welcomes new users. This should reflect Spotify’s values and aesthetic while opening a simple path to trying the service out. The better the user experience is, the more likely the customer will stick around.
However, there are some pain points along the way, such as entering personal details, confirming email accounts, and perhaps even entering some payment information. Maintaining trust and building interest and desire throughout the sign-up process is a key responsibility of any good designer. Designers with a knack for creating continuity in the user experience can contextualize the user experience. A useful acronym for the web designer is AIDA:
- Attention: Start by visualizing the need being filled, ideally in a way that evokes some emotion or wins a laugh. For Spotify, conjure an image of a cartoon character drowning in a sea of classic LPs.
- Interest: Clearly illustrate how the product or service can fill that need. Now picture the Spotify cartoon character pulling out their phone, which shows the green and black Spotify logo on the screen.
- Desire: Create a positive vision of how life will be once that need is filled, relying on empathy or humor. The Spotify mascot begins shining the phone logo at all the records scattered around the room, some of which have disappeared into the ether like magic!
- Action: Commonly referred to as a call-to-action, make it visually obvious and easy to procure that product or service. Finally, Spotify will show the image of the previously-buried cartoon character now strolling off into the sunset, headphones on, and music blaring. The emotion of encumbrance and claustrophobia has transformed into freedom and fresh air!
Graphic designers with some knowledge of web design are much appreciated by their teammates in modern organizations. See it as a way to meet your front-end developers, copywriters, and animators halfway for a meeting.
The other significant evolution in graphic design is, of course, animation! Whether it’s 2D flipbook-style animation or 3D immersive animation, artists with these skills have their work cut out for them (which is also to say they can easily find work). This is a highly valued skill set, particularly in the entertainment industry, where the demand for good talent is virtually limitless.
Just as programming can augment a graphic designer toward clients in the web development industry, animation augments graphic designers with a sense of time and motion. Animation is all about adding time frames to a particular asset in a way that captures the essence of motion from a visual perspective.
Picture an artist painting a still life portrait, capturing the likeness of some monarch or another. The model of the image strikes a pose and holds it, hopefully until the artist has finished the job. An animator grabs inspiration over a segment of time, observing the person and their mannerisms, way of walking or running, facial expressions, and even the way different facial angles might look depending on a shift in posture. Producing animation from a graphic is like capturing time within the pixels – a unique way of contemplating and visualizing the world.
As technology continues to develop and evolve, there will be significant opportunities for talented graphic designers with a knack for bringing imagery to life. Free tools already exist, such as Blender, which will allow graphic designers to experiment with creating and animating their content. Particularly adventurous artists may also explore Unity, a game development suite with great animation tools. Unity even goes so far as to enable VR experiences…
To Infinity and Beyond
The future of graphic design will run parallel with technological innovations, particularly those that evolve the way we interact with each other. Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), collectively abbreviated as XR, are the clearest next step in this progression. Virtual worlds and virtual interactions will require a new dimension of spatial reasoning to be considered, even compared to traditional 3D imagery. This is because the customer is smack-dab in the middle of the 3D world, ideally with freedom of motion and interaction.
Augmented reality will offer a slightly distinctive flavor of this virtual reality experience. It will act as an overlay to the ‘real’ reality we all occupy at the moment. In this sense, graphic designers may face the interesting challenge of producing an interface that can augment a person’s senses.
As an early example of what this might look like, consider Google Glass. This technology is a set of glasses that allow for a visual overlay. Perhaps you’re having a zoom call with a small image of who you’re speaking with in the corner of your glass. This will require UI/UX for future graphic designers. A similar example is the future of car windshields, which could provide GPS directions right in the windshield itself!
There will likely be fully-animated customer experiences in virtual reality to tie all of these ideas together. These experiences will replace traditional websites and web pages with a more atmospheric and aesthetically-satisfying customer journey. Perhaps this is where the traditional graphics and motion designer meets the future web designer? Only time will tell.