What Do Graphic Designers Do?

Mighty Mighties March
6 min readMay 5, 2023

By Analina Sanyal (Studio Manager | Studio Ping Pong)

A monologue from an industry outsider

I’m a Literature major, which means that I’ve spent years training myself to think in text. So no one was more surprised than me when I ended up as an Operations Manager in a design studio (Studio Ping Pong for those curious). You know, an industry where the visual is the main currency.

It’s been around seven months since I’ve entered this unknown world and every day I realise it is nothing like I’d ever imagined. Granted, I’d never actually thought about graphic design beyond the passing “ooh that’s a pretty box” but any and all preconceptions that went to the studio with me were categorically shattered.

Here’s what I know now.

Graphic design is not about being good at art.

Don’t get me wrong, it matters a LOT. Artistry can set designers apart from the competition, in what is slowly becoming a saturated market. That is not all it is though.

In seven months, I’ve seen my team members spend hours & hours creating beautiful designs. I’ve also seen them spend triple that time on research.

Client briefs don’t come in the form of a step-by-step drawing manual. They communicate an idea that is well-formed if one is lucky and sketchy if they’re not (designers are often unlucky). The graphic designer then takes the idea and aims to translate it into a visual.

This is not a two-point process. A designer has to:

  • Analyse the brief
  • Understand the client’s field of work
  • Pinpoint the target audience

Designers put in rigorous hours of work reading, understanding, and thinking. Thinking creatively, thinking laterally, and most importantly, thinking in depth.

Only then can they proceed to ‘designing’ the content. This is a reality far removed from my pre-August 2022 imagination, who most likely thought designers spent all their time clicking away at Adobe Photoshop (the in-thing is Figma fyi).

An actual mail we got at the studio

Graphic design doesn’t happen overnight

In any creative field, the first draft is rarely perfect. As a wannabe writer, I understand the concept of iterations. For some inane reason, I’d never thought that the same principles would stretch to design.

But a designer, too, makes and remakes their design numerous different ways, several times over, before landing on one they’re okay with. I say ‘okay’ because most creatives will never tell you they’re 100% satisfied unless they’re pathological liars.

This is an arduous process. It makes one question their ability, their knowledge, and their choice of career. Naturally, it is a long process. Good design needs time so one can pencil in the breakdowns and the breakthroughs.

One of our Figjam boards

A designer also has to constantly stay updated, build up awareness about the industry, and never stop studying. This, too, takes time.

And from what I’ve seen so far, the wait is worth it a thousand times over. Do not fight me on this, I can and will go to war to argue timelines on behalf of designers everywhere.

Graphic design is not Illustration

The field of design is vast — there are Illustrators, UI/UX Designers, Graphic Designers — and many more subsects that I’ve yet to learn about.

Last year, I would not be able to tell you the difference between these subsects. This year, I’m combing through portfolios making mental notes about potential collaborators (caveat: I’m not claiming accuracy).

The way I understand it — illustration is closer to the idea of art as we’ve known it since time immemorial. A brush and canvas replaced with a stylus and iPad. One thinks of an idea and then draws it out.

Graphic design is not this. It’s about form, colours, and type (or fonts). It is about looking at every element in an image and figuring out what each convey and what fits best together.

As examples:
This page from Oliver Jeffers’ book, Here We Are? Illustration.
This post on Oatly’s sustainability report? Graphic Design.

https://www.instagram.com/p/CfG8ZaZL1B0/

There are various overlaps, and graphic designers will work extensively with illustrations. Then there are graphic designers who are illustrators and vice versa. But these are different skill sets.

Think of a neurologist and an opthalmologist — they’re both medical professionals but you would consult each for a different need.

However, just as the body requires various remedies for various ailments (cries in ageing millennial), design is a space where collaborations abound. Not just with other visual communicators, but web developers, strategists, and copywriters.

Ecosytem is a word that is used liberally, and rightly so. Which gives me a great segue to my next point.

Technical know-how is not limited to design

I knew about the existence of Adobe and that designers have to be extensively familiar with it.

What I didn’t know was how many types of paper exist in this world. Or, that graphic designers who work in production know about them.

From paper quality to texture to thickness — design has to take into account each of these aspects when going from soft to hard copy.

Printers make up a big part of the design community. Finding a printer who works well with you can be like finding an oasis in the desert.

There are different methods of printing like digital or offset, or techniques of printing like screenprint or riso print. Designers will also choose colours of a graphic on the basis of the method and technique that will be used. Terms such as CMYK and RGB and Pantone can be floated here.

Please do not ask me to explain the difference, I will walk into the ocean.

At another end of the spectrum, developers are a species who populate the same jungle as graphic artists in web design. Designers may not have to know code, but they must understand and communicate how their shiny design can be transformed into a shinier website.

To paraphrase a designer, one should “keep their friends close, and their developers closer.

Before all this, if you’d asked me what a wireframe was, I’d most likely tell you it’s some physical structure made of wiring. Unfortunately or fortunately, I know better now.

Designers have been speaking the language of printers and developers and uncountable others, far longer than I ever understood any of it. But this was not a knowledge base that I had ever thought to associate with design, which seems incredibly short-sighted.

You can see the common thread here.

Translation: Printing will only resume post lunch

To sum up

Graphic design involves a very particular set of skills, skills that some have acquired over a very long career. I was not aware of many of these before working in a studio myself so here I am telling you.

I also don’t intend to paint a rosy picture. Going off my colleagues, not every output will be a masterpiece, and sometimes work will a deliverable to check off the list. And that is okay. Graphic design, like any other field of work, comes with its highs and lows.

This was not written with a target audience in mind, but perhaps it will be useful for someone who intends to work with designers, or someone who is toying with the idea of getting into design, or someone who is not able explain to their grandparents what it is they do for a living.

So, what do graphic designers do?

Poetically? They put art in the mundane. They bring a smile to your face as you’re shopping for your weekly sustenance. They make an AC repairman pause his work and admire a cabinet full of packaging on a hot summer day (true story).

In plainer words? They’re the people who do some wild magic and make colours and text and images tell a story.

Or, as I tell my grandmother –

“Arrey see this Maggi packet, no — how this logo, writing, and everything looks? Yeah, this is graphic design.”

Some of our packaging work displayed at our studio

Note: I apologise for any misinformation/missing information in the content above — any mistake is entirely my own and I vow to fix them as I dive deeper into these design waters. Until then, feel free to point and laugh (but do let me know if you laughed)!

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Mighty Mighties March

A curious design studio that listens well, works hard and takes play very seriously.