THE field of graphic design was established centuries ago. The field continued to grow during the industrial revolution when the birth of new businesses required promotional collateral items coupled with the existence of the print press machine that made the mass production of materials possible.
Graphic design could possibly be said to have reached its pinnacle roughly in the 1980s when in the US, new businesses sprouted up, hence, creating stiff market competition. The trend rubbed off on companies globally, making the graphic design field an important business partner. Design agency businesses were booming, design graduates were sought after, and designers somehow, had their own status in society.
Those days, graphic design dealt with printed materials such as posters, billboards, magazines, and newspapers. The birth of the World Wide Web later changed this landscape by directing graphic design works to a digital outcome. We could say that graphic designers in that era faced a bigger challenge as they had a global audience as compared to the 1980s where they had a much narrower target audience.
Nowadays, the challenge in reaching out to a more global audience has reached its peak. With mobile communication technology in place, reaching out as effectively as they can to the target audience remains a challenge to graphic designers. Nevertheless, the success in connecting will translate to, among others, wider brand awareness, propelled level of trust, and eventually a bigger market gain.
The complexities in reaching out to global target audiences nowadays require graphic designers to be more than just good visual creators. One thing for sure, they can never rely on traditional design outcomes anymore. Posters are hardly required, printed magazines are getting side-lined by e-books or e-magazines, and people are just not easily amused by hard-selling advertisements anymore.
Graphic designers are required to have more well-rounded knowledge. They need to be good in storytelling and understanding economies; global cultures; racial and political issues; technologies; and communication trends. Thus, graphic designers need to have a strong grasp of different design strategies and be willing to utilise them when needed.
The strategies include understanding the story they want to tell; images and colour schemes to be used; the format and text to be included; the language; and down to the best media outlet to project the design. Eventually, these are the fundamental traits any graphic designer should possess, and most of the time their success is measured by the effectiveness and the level of positive impact their design has on the target audience specifically, as well as society generally.
The ever-growing complexities of visual communication, hence, render the term ‘graphic’ obsolete and misleading. Now, graphic designers are considered different to visual communication designers due to the different level of complexity. In reality, not all graphic designers label themselves as ‘graphic designer’ as some have embraced the title ‘visual communication designer’.
In the professional field, the terms make no big difference. Businesses need good visual presentations, and the designer who could provide them the service will get paid regardless if he is a graphic designer or visual communication designer. It is in the academic domain that these terms are used to differentiate the depth of knowledge and learning the students have to acquire.
According to London College of Contemporary Arts, visual communication is ‘Communicating with consumers using visual mediums, so students may be required to learn graphic design, animation, photography, illustration (…) the tasks involve anything within the domain of visual communication, whether photography, editing, video-filming, preparing materials to share information with clients, and so on’, whereas graphic design “has a narrow focus as it only focuses on creating graphics for websites, advertising campaigns and marketing materials (…) the tasks include designing elements for print and digital platforms.”
Hence, the obvious difference between both is the scope covered. In an academic setting, being in a visual communication design programme means students learn subjects related to visual communication without being constrained by specific outcomes. Visual communication design students are generally required to have a more well-rounded knowledge and may need to engage in a more thorough design exploration.
A graphic design programme, on the other hand, generally will mould the students into specific outcomes which may be connected to current trend of the industry. So which is a better option?
It depends on the students’ future plan. Ideally, visual communication design graduates are expected to be more inclined towards entrepreneurship rather than seeking out employment. This is due to the robust body of knowledge that they have acquired during their academic years.
Meanwhile, graphic design graduates are expected to provide their specialities either through employment or freelancing. However, this is not set in stone. The future career of either graduate may interchange as graphic design graduates may become successful entrepreneurs, while visual communication design graduates may remain as freelancers. One thing for sure, both fields deal greatly with business, and as business trends change, graduates are expected to embrace these changes as well.
Raja Sharil Azhar Raja Abdillah is a design lecturer from the Faculty of Business, Design and Arts at Swinburne University of Technology, Sarawak Campus.