On the surface visual design and graphic design sound like the same thing and are sometimes used as interchangeable terms, particularly outside the design industry.
While there are plenty of similarities between visual designers and graphic designers, there are also stark differences between them.
What Is Visual Design?
Visual design was born out of a mixture of graphic design and user interface (UI) design. It focuses on the aesthetics of a website or any other type of digital design. Does the finished product look good? That is the question visual designers aim to answer.
Though they’re not quite the same thing, visual design is sometimes used interchangeably with the term visual communication. Visual communication as a term often encompasses much more than just digital design and is focused on the communication of a message visually. While visual design is specifically focused on the look and feel, visual communication is somewhat less concerned with aesthetics, in favor of the communication aspect of the discipline.
Another common area of confusion is visual design vs. general web design. Are they the same thing? Yes and no.
Some web designers could definitely be classed as visual designers. But one key area of difference lies in the fact that most web designers are expected to know at least some coding — HTML and CSS at the very least. Visual design jobs do not include coding.
Visual designers are often tasked with larger design projects than web designers. Where a web designer works on designing websites, a visual designer’s brief may include creating entire visual languages for a brand or product. It goes beyond the scope of a single end product (website, app, brochure, etc.), and covers the way the entire organization approaches design projects.
What Is Graphic Design?
Graphic design as a profession has been around much longer than visual design. The term “graphic design” first appeared in an essay by William Addison Dwiggins, New Kind of Printing Calls for New Design, in 1922, but in reality, the practice dates back to the earliest artwork created by humans.
Graphic designers started out designing for print publications: books, magazines, newspapers, brochures, catalogs, and the like. Graphic designer responsibilities include creating page layouts, advertisements, marketing materials, and sometimes more specialized products like typefaces.
In the 1990s, as web design became possible as a means of communication, graphic designers started to expand their offerings into web design. It made sense since many basic design principles remained the same whether designing for print or digital. With just a bit more training on the technical aspects and restrictions, graphic designers are quite capable of creating a website.
Many graphic design agencies added web design to their offerings, further establishing that graphic designers could work in both print and digital spaces. Many graphic designers now create digital products at least as often as they create print designs.
As our work and personal lives increasingly use digital means of communication over print forms, graphic designers have had to adapt to stay relevant. And those digital communications have also gone a long way toward blurring the lines between visual design and graphic design.