What is a graphic designer?

If you’d asked this question in 1989, you would have gotten a completely different answer than in 2019. What skills were required for a graphic designer 30 years ago and what skills are necessary today?

The answers may surprise you.

A graphic designer in 1989 would concentrate almost entirely on print products. There was no such thing as a website, so those skills were not needed. Social media consisted of talking to people at cocktail parties and mobile-ready meant you had your own car. A graphic designer in 1989 would maybe be referred to as a paste-up artist and those who worked with film for printing, would be known as “strippers” and “cameramen.”

This is not as risque as it sounds!

CompuGraphic typesetting machine
CompuGraphic typesetting machine

Paste-up was the skill required to assemble bits of type, produced from a typesetting machine (such as the Compugraphic IV)  and run into galleys (composed type), maybe some halftones (photos made up of dots), produced by a cameraman in a darkroom, some Rubylith, material used to indicate screens and photo placements and to create “windows” for “separations” and a board used as a base for your “mechanical.” This is where you would run your galleys through the waxer and apply them to the mechanical, straightening it all up with a T-square and triangle and cutting away parts with your X-Acto knife.

The thin blue pencil

Of course, being adept with a Rapidograph and ChartPak tape was required, not to mention “the blue pencil.” Once the paste-up artist finished the mechanical, the cameraman would shoot it with a nuArc camera to create the negatives and the stripper would strip it up (prepare it to make plates from) and make it ready for the platemaker.

There were many physical tools necessary to be a successful graphic designer in 1989. A well-outfitted studio would contain shelves of pens, markers, books, rusty X-Acto blades, splotches of wax, proportion wheels, Pantone swatches and more, too numerous to mention.

In 2019, these skills and tools are no longer needed. However, the concept is important, just as knowing some Latin is a good basis for understanding languages. Knowing how to “paste up” a printed piece teaches the graphic designer the importance of patience, time management, planning and preparation. It’s easy to use “desktop publishing” to produce a brochure, but the computer is doing the work once done by the paste-up artist. A graphic designer in 1989 did not have the ability to press control-Z and start over.

The modern graphic designer is a computer engineer

A quick online search of “what skills does a graphic designer need” will return many cookie-cutter answers. In fact, after reading several, they seem to be rewrites of each other. Some of the most common answers for today’s graphic designer from several sources are:

  • Creativity
  • Typography
  • Software
  • Web Design
  • Communication

Those are important general concepts, but they don’t tell a graphic designer what they really need to know and be able to do.

Some articles will tell you some particular programs to use, which is helpful, but there are many that are listed that just aren’t as valuable, or even exist, as they once were (QuarkXPress, PageMaker, Flash, FreeHand, even Dreamweaver.) A search of job openings on Indeed.com for graphic designers will often list such skills as “requirements.”

So what is required knowledge for a present-day graphic artist?

Of course, it’s computer skills.

This is the basis for everything. Not just knowing how to launch programs, but knowing how to use the computer to perform the tasks necessary. A graphic designer, who depends on a computer to function properly, needs to be an expert in the operation of the machine. Whether it’s Windows, Mac, Linux or other, a graphic artist must know what to do if the system fails, how to add peripherals such as USB drives and printers, how to network it, how to keep it secure, how to load and remove programs, what all the file extensions mean, and much more. Not knowing this puts the graphic designer at risk of not being able to complete the project or completing it incorrectly. A solid basis in computer operations and a dose of computer forensics are vital to a graphic designer’s ability to get the job done.

And software, too

Along with computer skills are several programs that a graphic designer needs to know, and to know well. Computer programs change and go in and out of style. In the late 1990s, a graphic designer almost certainly used QuarkXPress and might have output PostScript files and loaded them to a SyQuest, Bernoulli or Zip Disk and FedExed them to the “service bureau.”

In the early 2000s, it suddenly shifted to InDesign, part of the Adobe Creative Suite and print-ready files are PDFs sent to “InSite” or to an “FTP site,” or just emailed to the print rep. Although there are still many designers and companies who still use Quark, this is increasingly becoming a niche market. It is valuable for a graphic designer to at least try QuarkXPress, if only to build skills that may be useful at some point. A graphic designer should also investigate and try other page-layout programs, such as Scribus and LucidPress. Stay away from Microsoft Publisher, try LibreOffice instead for text, charts, spreadsheets and more.

Learning the complete set of Adobe programs is the best advice, as just about any graphics job will require some knowledge of them. In addition to InDesign, the others of utmost importance are Photoshop and Illustrator. I have found some designers will use one program for a job when another is better suited. For example, when creating a brochure, create it in InDesign, manipulate the images in Photoshop and then place them into InDesign. Use Illustrator for vector graphics (although I find I can do almost all of that right in InDesign).

Since a designer is now required to do more than just create print documents, a good knowledge of Premiere, After Effects, AdobeSpark, and several others are important.

There are alternative programs that should be explored as well. Try Inkscape instead of Illustrator, try GIMP instead of Photoshop, for example.

Before a designer can produce any kind of project, print or digital, the designer must know exactly how to properly prepare the files and how to achieve the best outcome. This requires a lot of research and practice. Printers require certain file types (PDF, JPG, native files), and a good designer must know the difference between “bleeds” and “trim,” between “gripper” and “gutter” and “saddle” vs “perfect.” A designer designing for digital projects needs to know HTML, CSS, and what “responsive” means, among many other concepts. Color can seem like an obvious part of the graphic design process, but the designer has to know when to use CMYK or RGB, what Pantone colors are, what PMS colors, what Greyscale is are and how they used and why.

The proof is in the proof

One overlooked skill of a designer is the ability to read and write. Yes, really. Of course, editors prepare the text and the designers prepare the layout. However, it is important for a good designer to be able to recognize good copy, work with it and understand when and how it should be changed. Headlines are graphic elements themselves and sometimes a designer will need to change the text to fit the design and the editor should have confidence in the designer to make such decisions.

Since the final outcome of the project rests with the designer, the designer must be able to proofread the text, fact-check information and make sure that images match captions, names are spelled correctly, chunks of text haven’t mysteriously disappeared, special characters haven’t been substituted, and so forth. Spell-check should not be the only proofreading method. A designer should insist that the editors work with Adobe InCopy. InCopy is a tool that allows editors to correct text without altering the layout.

In addition to proofing the content, the designer must be adept at proofing the proof. When a file is sent to a printer, even a PDF, it cannot be assumed that the final product will be flawless. The proof has to be scrutinized for accuracy, not only the content, but the bleeds, the margins, the resolution of images, the colors, the color spaces (RGB vs. CMYK vs PMS, etc.) Once something is printed it stays printed and this is a critical step in the process that the designer must insist everyone involved takes seriously and that enough time is allocated to do so properly.

Final advice

The best advice I would give any graphic designer is to keep learning and experimenting. Try using any graphic-related software available, work on a Mac, Windows and Linux, talk to printers, talk to editors, find out what they require from a good designer. Visit print shops, newspaper and magazine offices, stop and study billboards up close, read the source code of websites, and keep designing.

After many years in publishing, advertising and graphic designer, I learned a lot about the craft, but there is still so much more to learn!

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