10 things everyone should know about graphic design

It's a hard, tough world out in this big scary global economy ocean.

Small businesses and sole proprietors compete in the same deep waters as the biggest and most ferocious apex fish.

Great graphics and branding are paramount to your survival. Get it wrong, customers won't identify, trust or buy in to you. Get it right, and you're customers love you for it -- sharing you with friends and basking in your glory.

This quick read gives you a solid foundation on the basics of graphics, design & branding. You'll be better equipped for optimizing your annual design budget and maximizing your branding efforts.

Learn, enjoy and be groovy.

Graphic design is visual communication

What are graphics?

Graphics are things you see, made specifically to communicate something to someone. A stop sign, a yellow pages ad, a bumper sticker -- all examples of something purposefully designed to get some message across. In modern culture, we're exposed to literally thousands of graphics each day, all after our attention... trying to tell us something, sell us something, influence us in some way. And many times, without us even realizing it.

Graphics visually share knowledge.

Graphics are a vital to our economy and society. Many organizations would cease to exist without some form of visual communication. Imagine doing business with no website, no product photos, no catalogs. No invoices, flyers, business cards. No phone number on the side of your work van. Graphics are critical to conducting business.

Imagine a world where graphics and visual cues ceased to exist. How would information be shared?

What is graphic design?

Graphic design is the deliberate process of creating graphics. Graphic designers use a combination of shapes, colors, angles, textures, contrast, typography, whitespace and composition to deliver a message with maximum effectiveness. Quality, commercially-viable artwork ensures people are reached on levels beyond simply reading the marketing blurb.

Graphic design is the art of making graphics to inform, educate, persuade, entertain, even deceive.

Graphics are a necessity, but can also be designed to deceive. Before & after diet/workout photos are a notorious example. Can you really trust everything you see?

Graphic design speaks on many levels

More than just fancy pictures and marketing jargon, well-executed graphics communicate messages blatantly, subtley conciously and cluelessly. Just as strong body language skills, posture, hand gestures etc., accounts for over 85%** of verbal communication, geniusly crafted artwork insinuates ideas and provokes thought in ways that get your point across.

Command & keep attention

Hate to break it to you, but we're now in the era where attention spans are measured in quantum nanoseconds. The time you have to radar-lock a customers attention span is extremely short and brittle. Poor, uncompelling artwork does nothing to help grab any attention. Its like fishing with no hook, no line and no bait.

Familiar identifying markers

Designers implement visual cues that identify with known culture and industry-specific items. Rock climbing gyms use climb holds as bullet points and ropes for paragraph dividers. A birthday flyer invitation might use a theme of balloons and confetti. Familiar visual markers tap into brain schemas that help the viewer connect with and fill in the blanks of the story you're telling.

Rather than explaining how grandmothers are always known as masters of the kitchen because they've accumulated years of knowledge and recipes, simply saying "Grandma's Homestyle Cookin!" explains the backlog without having to. Even if you're grandma was a terrible cook, you know the food is probably really good.

Graphic design captivates, motivates, persuades and convinces.

Dictating eye movement

Directional indicators strongly influence how people absorb graphics. Techniques such as using angles, text flow, photos with the model looking or gesturing towards something, etc., allows a visual to be consumed in a particular, prioritized order. Successful designs route eyeballs on a flowing journey from the main headline, through secondary and tertiary content, all the way to the call to action.

Audience & demographic targeting

The process of identifying your intended audience happens early on in the design process. Age, gender, race, Earth location, income bracket, subculture etc., must be taken into account before any artwork begins. Knowing who to target is paramount in successful customer acquisition.

Brain hardware compatibility

Earth contains 7.2 billion of us, none of whom perceive things in quite the same way. Design that appeals to the largest percentage of your audience ensures your advertising dollars pay off. Upbringing, personal tastes, political and religious stance -- a few of many reasons that influence behavior and persons response to graphics.

Mastering the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is a great way to boost knowledge of your target audience. What personality type are you?

If a picture speaks a thousand words, great graphics speak bazillions.

Evolution of graphic design

Like fashion, boy bands and Olympic records, the graphic design field is constantly on the upswing. Three primary drivers fuel the neverending quest for better artwork: competition, demand and technology.


Competition is the granddaddy of motivators driving changes to an industry. Businesses are constantly one-upping competitors and raising the stakes. Its a 'you scratch my back with razor claws and I'll scratch yours' situation, a never-ending positive feedback loop.


Consumer demand influences content providers to develop faster, more efficient, higher-fidelity means of delivery. In the early internet days, the overwhelming demand for adult content gave rise to today's typical video streaming, ease of searching, saving files and browsing privately.


Computing power doubles weekly and design software becomes more monopolized powerful and accessible by the minute. Printing technology yeilds higher resolution results and more accurate color reproduction. HDTV screens will be 1080millionP by the time my kids are driving.

Design fads go in and out of style like pop singers and Nike's.

Comparing graphics over time

I pulled these examples from my vintage graphic design collection to better illustrate the evolution of design.

1970s graphics quality & style

These relic Penthouse magazines from 1970 give a glimpse at the state of graphics 45 years ago. Although these graphics and advertisements are basic, they still follow design convention. (Even though almost everything here is now defunct.) My how times have changed.

1980s graphics quality & style

Advertisement design from 1981. You actually had to cut it out, tape it to the postcard and mail it in to order.

2000s graphics quality & style

By the new millenium, graphics started taking on their current familiarity. Printing technology hasn't had monumentus breakthroughs over the past decade or so. (Same cannot be said for 3D printing.)

Modern graphic design provides near limitless printing options.

Brand identity is like the clothes your business wears

And your graphics are the clothes.

Brand identity is essentially the way people identify with and feel about your business. People choose one thing over another based largely on how it makes them feel. (Price is a different article...) Emotional connections are made with brands people trust and love. Clothing brands, toothpaste & shampoo, Pizza Hut or Papa Johns. People stay committed to the brands they love and overwhelmingly recommend them to others.

Projecting a confident brand identity begins with your graphics. Fuzzy, low-res JPG logos are not going to fly for printing billboards or running national-level ads. Quality graphic art breeds effective brand collateral.

Great graphics are the backbone of a solid brand identity.

Great graphics insinuate great brands

As potential customers shop, effective branding shows people what to expect. Well-executed graphic design is transparent -- people don't say "ooh, look at these font and color choices" when consuming your visuals. Done correctly, graphic design sends signals professionalism, confidence, and an air of built in swagger.

Great branding makes happier employees

Picture this: your young staff members are hanging out with a group of their friends. Inevitably, talk of jobs and bosses come up. One friend says "I hate the stupid shirts we have to wear" to which the other friend replies "Really? my job lets me choose which shirt to wear, yesterday I actually wore this same one I'm wearing now." Which response would you rather be associated with your brand?

Impressive graphics and brand identity gives your staff a swagger and confidence. They'll use words like "we" when they tell everyone how great you are. You'll take advantage of happier help, and loads of ever-so-valuable, no-cost word-of-mouth advertising.

Generational differences in graphics perception

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Great graphics scare your competitors

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Commercially viable artwork

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Graphic design is an investment

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Choosing a graphic designer

Many different types of graphic designers exist, each specializing in different aspects of design work. A designer may be highly versed in creating logos, clothing or product photos, but maybe not as experienced working with outdoor store signage or creating booth displays for the upcoming trade show. Its not uncommon for businesses to rely on more than one designer or design firm.

Stick to designers that showcase work with a similar vibe as your brand. A portfolio full of Harley Davidson biker rally artwork may not be best suited for your upcoming lingerie line.

Ask business colleagues and other local businesses for referrals to designers they've had success with. Competitors may not be willing to tell you who did their work, and thier design company may have conflicts of interest or territorial areas.

Designers with knowledge of your particular project needs may be the better choice than one who's never designed artwork for a product box or vehicle vinyl. For critical projects, time or money may rule out reprinting an error that the new guy missed.

Long-term contracts vs. one-time hired gun projects

Businesses have different demands for graphic design. Sole proprietors may only need a professional for the occasional or one-off project. Larger companies may need fresh graphics on a weekly or even daily basis. Some designers work best based on workload. Some professional designers may also charge retainer fees, while others may offer discounts based on recurring projects. Make sure you and the designer are on the same page.

Design firms vs. freelance designers

As mentioned above, businesses have different demands for graphics, and choosing between a large design team or a freelancer working from home may simply be a matter of workload. Although some freelancers work on a retainer-basis and can act as your virtual in-house design department. Here's a few pros and cons of each:

Freelance graphic designer

More flexible. Often able to work faster, willing to work all night long to meet a freak deadline that pops up.

Works with much lower overhead. No high-rent fancy studio, no power bill for the 100 rows of macbook pros. No employee salaries to pay, no large marketing budgets to satisfy.

Often more affordable rates.

Large design firm

Better stability. If your freelancer dies, chances are he can't email you the logo you'll need next week. The design firm has backup designers at the ready.

Multiple points of contact. You can talk to the front desk, your account manager or the head cheese during regular business hours.

Often more expensive.

Charge by the hour or per project?

During your quest to find the perfect designer, you'll probably get some quotes based on hourly, and others based per project. Hourly rates for graphic designers pose one big issue: its in the designers interest to take as long as possible, while its in the clients interest for the opposite.

Graphics grow and mature your brand

Keep graphics fresh

Avoid brand stagnation. The same graphics that blew everyone away last year might be yesterdays news this year. Imagine a shoe manufacturer never updating their styles. A couple seasons go by, nobody cares, and sales toilet swirl into oblivion. While your basic branding -- your logo, taglines, color schemes -- may stay the same, be sure to keep your artwork, messages, imagery and compositions fresh. Think of the latest Geico commercials. They use the same comedic flow and same message, but each time is a new funny scene. Geico's '15 minutes or less' moniker and branding remains the same, but each time its something new.

Spy on your competitors

Find out what your competition is up to. If your biggest competitor has been running the same rack cards for the past 10 years, chances are they are working for him. You'll just need your artwork to outdo them.

Get your graphics out there

The greatest graphics on the planet mean nothing unless people see them. Promoting your business and building your brand requires exposure to your intended audience. Be on the lookout for new promotional opportunities. Learn creative and guerilla marketing tactics, reinforcing and boasting your brand all along the way.