What is the Difference Between Graphic Design and Visual Communications?

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Choosing between graphic design and visual communications can be particularly challenging for some artistically minded students, especially since these fields are often confused as nearly identical in nature. In reality, however, graphic design is actually quite a bit different than the visual communication field. Students will learn a broader number of topics in a communications-oriented major or career field, and they’ll be responsible for a comprehensive approach to communicating with customers or clients in a visual way. Graphic design, by contrast is quite narrowly focused only on making a visual representation of key concepts within a visual method of communication, like advertising or web design. Before choosing between these fields, consider their key differences and professional responsibilities.

Visual Communications: The Well-Rounded Approach for Designers

The visual communication field is focused on communicating with clients and customers through any visual means available. That means students will learn graphic design, illustration, animation, photography, and even the modification, or airbrushing, of photographs to better illustrate a given point. These skills are considered broad and comprehensive, and they prepare graduates to enter a number of exciting fields within the communications industry. Available career paths include graphic design, professional photography or retouching, illustration and professional animation, advertising, website design, and visual marketing departments.

Students in a visual communication program are generally either encouraged or required to choose an area of concentration, which can help them target their skills more broadly. Concentrations do include graphic design, but also include digital animation, professional digital photography, animation, computer illustration, mixed visual media, and advertising.

Graphic Design: A Narrow Focus for Highly Specialized Skills

The key thing to remember about graphic design, especially when compared to visual communication, is that it’s a narrow, highly specialized field that focuses only on the creation of key graphics for a broader advertising campaign, website, or print materials. Graphic designers do not come with the broad set of skills that covers everything from animation to photography, nor do they produce a completely finished, visual product for clients. Instead, they focus on creating key graphical elements that fit within a broader visual communication process.

As a result, graphic designers typically learn a larger number of key computer applications, and they learn how to fit their graphics into websites, print media, digital and print ads, and broader marketing efforts. They’ll also learn the intricacies of color selection, communications team collaboration, and new file formats that make images smaller in file size and more portable overall. These skills will scale well as graphic design standards and best practices change over time, and will set up graphic design graduates as key, expert advisers to visual communicators without a specialized skill set in this particular field.

Two Growing Areas of Expertise for Design and Communication

Visual communicators focus on a large number of different methods to get their point across: Photography, digital design, unique illustrations, presentations, and even animations, all fall under their large umbrella of training and expertise. While visual communications are more broadly trained, graphic designers are not. Their focus is narrowly limited to the design and development of key graphics for insertion into digital and print media, websites, mobile apps, and more. Together, however, these two types of professionals make it easier to communicate a company’s key points and marketing efforts in a way that is bright, vivid, and graphically appealing, no matter the type of media being used.

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