What a Designer Actually Does


What a Designer Actually Does

by Chelsea Morgan

What does it mean to be a (graphic) designer? You could ask a variety of people and get a whole slew of different answers to this. Heck, Debbie Millman even wrote a whole book that’s chalk full of great insights from a variety of well-established designers about this very subject. But, the everyday person doesn’t necessarily know the answer to this or feel that they have any connection to that answer. The reality is that design exists everywhere. We’re surrounded by many examples of it every single day. And yet, there are still common misconceptions about what design is and what it means to be designer. So, let’s break down those ideas and explore some real concepts of what designers do and are.

Here are the common misconceptions we’ll break down in this blog:

  • Designers only create logos and do marketing work
  • Designers only exist at companies like Disney, doing animation and character design
  • Designers’ only concern and/or job is to work on the aesthetics and “make things look pretty”
  • Designers and studio artists are the same thing

If you’ve thought/believed one or more of these things, you’re in the right place.

Now, let’s break those misconceptions down!

What a Designer Does

Re: “Oh, so you make logos and stuff?”

The short answer to the above is “yes” and also “no.” Designers can create logos, but this is not the only work we are capable of. The longer version is that the work a designer does depends on what type of designer they are and what their area of expertise is. The day-to-day life and to-do lists of designers can look very different from one another, depending on the different avenues of design they specialize in.

A designer who specializes in UX/UI might be working on a website design and building out a prototype, while a branding specialist might be doing research and sketching out ideas in order to design a new logo for a client. A motion designer might be building out an animation sequence, while a print designer might be working on flat designs for new t-shirts to be screen printed. So, what do all designers have in common? Glad you asked!

While the work that each person will deliver at the end of a project is different, every designer employs design thinking (see the steps of that process in my other blog here) and focuses on the following things:

  • Making sure every beautiful form is built on a foundation of intuitive functionality
  • Empathizing with users/audiences to build the best solutions for them
  • Creatively solving problems
  • Innovating products, services and/or deliverables through the process of iteration
  • Communicating messages clearly and concisely
  • Making intentional design decisions that have rationale behind them

As you can see, there are many different areas you can specialize in as a designer depending on what your strengths and interests are. Some design jobs even require that we switch between these many hats and be what my teammate Katie accurately described as “the Swiss army knives of intuitive thinking.” Ultimately, all of us may fall under the same “designer” umbrella title, but the work we deliver can look very different.

Below are some examples of different types of design work:

Types of design work

Where You Can Find a Designer

Re: “Oh, so you work at Disney?”

So, where can you find designers? If they are anything like me, you can probably find them hunched behind a laptop at a coffeeshop (shoutout to Willow Coffee Co. in OKC) with several different files open for the myriad of projects they are working on at that moment. Creatives don’t love being confined to a desk, so it’s common to find designers out and about seeking inspiration and some quality espresso to fuel their creative work.

But, more importantly, what companies or places of business can you find designers at? Well, the answer is (hopefully) all of them. Design is everywhere, all around us, even if we aren’t actively noticing it. Really, I mean it! Open up your pantry and you’ll find food packaging – that had to be designed by someone. Open up your closet and you’ll find clothes that sport a logo or have branding on the tag – those brands were designed by someone. Step outside your house and you’ll find even more design like billboards, signage, books – the list goes on. Even just unlock your phone and you’ll find apps that were designed and social media campaigns that designers had a hand in. Design is truly everywhere.

So, why do people only think of giants like Disney when design comes up in conversation?

I think this happens for one of two reasons:

  1. People can only relate the term “graphic designer” to those who work on animation and character design.
  2. People don’t realize that designers exist at almost every company, probably even the very company they work at.

People who fall into the first category don’t realize that animation and motion design are types of design that fall under the larger “graphic design” umbrella, but this does not encompass every role we can fulfill (see above section on what designers do). People who fall into the second category simply need to open their minds a bit more to see that graphic design covers a much broader spectrum of work than they initially thought.

All the above being said, I should mention that I don’t actually consider this misconception an insult. Although slightly uninformed, it’s not totally inaccurate. There are a lot of designers working at Disney and a lot of elements of design that Disney excels at, especially in terms of UX/UI design. Disney knows how to build experiences and draw people into worlds with its magic and attention to detail. All that we designers want people to realize is that it’s not just companies like Disney that need us; every business needs a designer.

Below are a few examples of workplaces for different types of graphic designers, to broaden your view.

Design workplaces

Why Designers Exist

Re: “… and then the designers will make it look pretty.”

Designers exist, not just to “make things look pretty” (which, by the way, is actually important because it increases credibility, according to UX laws), but to truly add value to every business or organization through creative problem solving. Our first priority is functionality, making sure that things are as easily understood and intuitive as they can be; the aesthetics and form always come second to that.

To illustrate this, let’s think of some examples of what that problem solving could look like:

  • Design can be used for sales: They can attract attention and get people interested in your product/business and increase revenue.
    • How do you decide which bottle of wine or six-pack of craft beer to buy? Packaging. And why is that? Design choices. It’s as much about psychology and persuasion as it is about beauty.
  • Designers can work on internal projects: Their work can increase understanding of ideas and values within a company.
    • Design is required for email campaigns, pamphlets, tutorials, marketing materials and more that are circulated within a business to all employees. All of these things are meant to serve a purpose and communicate a message. Designers work to further that message in a meaningful and clear way.
  • Designers can work on external messaging: They define how a brand will be represented to people and what messaging aligns with that brand’s values.
    • A brand is more than just a logo; it’s the ideas and concepts that come to mind when you see that logo. When you think of Nike, you don’t just think of the swoosh; you associate it with athletics, fitness and/or style. That’s branding – the message and meaning behind the mark.

Hopefully, these examples expand your idea of what designers are capable of and how we can be useful to a business. The point here is this: Although we do make things look good, that is not our only goal or aspiration. We are rational decision makers who build out ideas in ways that help aid understanding and communicate messages to people. Making things look pretty is decorating; making things that function and serve a purpose is design.

What designers can do

How Designers Are Different from Studio Artists

Re: “But isn’t art subjective? How do you make any decisions?”

An important distinction should be made here: studio art and graphic design are two separate and unique things. Both are important roles that serve a purpose just as any other occupation, and they both exist within a Venn diagram that includes some overlap between the two. Both require creativity, follow certain principles, and require learnable skills and techniques. Both add aesthetic beauty and can elicit emotions from people. So, how are they each unique? The answer I personally hold is that each has a different purpose and execution, below I have expanded on just what I mean by that below.

Studio art is painting, drawing, sculpting, ceramics, photography and many more practices that can be done in a studio. Simply put, it is the creation, through whatever medium an artist chooses, of visual art.

There are different levels of realism vs. abstraction art can take, different mediums through which forms are created and different movements and styles historically that artists draw from to create new pieces. Studio artists apply concepts such as color, form, texture, space, proportion, etc. to build out compositions. And those compositions are important! Too often, I hear people minimize the weight and value of art, so I’ll be the first to remind people that creating art is not a trivial pursuit. Art has been at the forefront of so many different cultural movements – questioning norms, making space for crucial dialogue and shedding light on specific issues. Art is also history. Each piece an artifact that tells a story of a specific person and the time in which they lived.

The point is: Studio art matters, and its purpose is to be interpreted, provoke thought, and inspire us. Studio art does not guide the viewer to any specific endpoint, but instead invites them in to interpret it however they see fit.

Graphic design is, according to the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), “the art and practice of planning and projecting ideas and experiences with visual and textual content.” In other words, graphic design is focused on communicating a specific message to a particular audience in a clear, concise and creative way.

Graphic design hinges on understanding the audience and how to best appeal to or reach them. It requires empathy and the anticipation of people’s needs, as you are designing something they will directly interact with. Example: If I were to design an app based solely on my opinions of what looked good, rather than taking into consideration how it will be used, can you imagine what a catastrophe that would be? The app would be a flop. The buttons might look cool, but if your users don’t realize they’re clickable, then it’s a poor design. Art may ask what looks the most interesting compositionally, but design has to ask what works functionally. Studio art has room to be subjective; design is objective because it is, at the core, creative problem solving.

Outside of their purpose, graphic design and studio are also differ in their execution. I think the following quote applies very well to our data design work here at InterWorks, “Artists primarily work off instinct, whereas designers employ a methodical, data-driven process.”** If you’re wondering what that process is, it’s the design thinking process which I’ve outlined in my other blog here. Because we have a specific methodology to follow, design is not as free-form as art is. We also apply specific design principles to create and/or improve work, which my teammate, Baylee Field, expands on in her blog here, in case you’re interested. We evangelize these principles and this process often because we want people to understand that we have a tried and true method for our problem solving – we aren’t just winging it.

So, as you can see, the differences between studio art and design lie in their execution and purpose. While art is made as a representation or commentary on culture/society to be consumed, design is made to be interacted with by that society. Studio art is open to interpretation and is made to be enjoyed; design guides its user to a specific end point and is made to communicate and function.

Studio Art vs. Design

The TL;DR on Designers

I hope you walk away from this blog with a better understanding of what designers are capable of, where you can find them, how designers add value to every business they are a part of and how design and studio art are different. I hope we can all recognize that the title of designer deserves as much respect and value as any other kind of career. Although our official titles and day-to-day work may vary, we are all working to help fill the world around us with beautiful and functional things for everyone to enjoy and interact with.

Cited Sources for Quotes:

Debbie Millman’s book “How to think like a great graphic designer,” linked in the intro paragraph.

*UX laws website linked in section 3.

**quote in fourth section is from Mikos Philips in his article.

More About the Author

Chelsea Morgan

Experience Designer
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