Where Have All The Graphic Artists Gone?

Perhaps you remember the Queen in Shakespeare’s Macbeth saying, “More substance less art.” When it comes to being a graphic designer or even a Web designer, the opposite is true. I’ve noticed something over the past few years out in the field of being a professional graphic designer: we really are losing ground. Like Rodney Dangerfield would say, “No respect, no respect at all!” There was a time when being a graphic designer earned you gasps and excited questions of how you did it. Graphic designers  were these heavyweights who created the things we relied so much on like books, movie posters and magazines. Fast forward from the 20th to the 21st century and you’ll see how the graphic designer in today’s society has taken quite a tumble: people really have no idea what graphic designers are, what we do and why we’re still important.

I blame, like any child of the 2oth century, technology. The more advanced technology is and more accessible it is to the general public, the less special something like graphic design feels to the everyday man. I mean, look at it: in the olden days, graphic designer set type by hands – now that seems archaic and laughable because all a person has to do is scroll through the font menu and slap something down without much consideration at all. In the past, people had to actually draw things because manipulating a photo was damn near impossible. Now with few simple commands and flicks of a button or brush in Photoshop, a photo can go from ordinary to looking as if it was (poorly) drawn out to look cartoonish or sketched by pencil. No wonder graphic designers have to spend so much of their time justifying why we’re worthy of full-time positions with competitive salaries!

Some will say the only way one can become a good graphic designer in today’s job market would be to learn how to become good at web design. Huh? I’ve never understood that because as someone who’s had to switch back and forth between being a “graphic” designer and being a “web” designer, I know that these two fields are two different beasts. Telling a good graphic designer that he or she needs to be, or is expected to be, an exceptionally good web designer is like telling a police officer that he or she needs to be a good firefighter – sure, both professions concern saving people from peril but c’mon, you’re talking about two very different professions with different requirements.

I don’t think graphic designers should be pressured into “peer” pressure and give up the design part of their jobs to become good Web programmers and coders. I don’t think Web designers are all capable of being effective graphic designers. What I do think both could benefit from is becoming more artistic. Let me explain:

Old school graphic design called for a special skill set more akin to being a good artist: composition, color theory, the ability to sketch out ideas clearly, perspective and being able to do a lot of design tasks by hand. Nowadays, I see more designers flooding the career field who have a horrible sense of color and have no idea how to use it effective, who slap together a layout without much consideration for communication and composition and designers who’d scoff at the idea of drawing anything by hand. Yet, they think, and their employers believe, that just because they know a little HTML and are willing to do a billion tasks that have nothing to do with design and more to do with computer science and programming, they’re “decent” graphic designers. Give me a break.

Do you want to be a good graphic designer? Do you want to be a great photographer or good Web designer? Start perfecting your artistic skills. Yes, knowing how to maneuver yourself around some CSS, XHTML, PHP and Java will get you employed but having an artistic background will truly make you an exceptional designer of any sort. You can’t be a great photographer if you have no sense of composition and don’t know how to frame your subject in the composition. You are going to be a lame designer if you have no idea what emotional responses certain colors will spark in the viewer or if you’re simply afraid to use color (which many designers are). If you’re a Web designer, you need to be able to sketch out the ideas and layout for your Web page or be able to use a grid to figure out how to vary-up the design of your page so that it stands out from the crowd.

Graphic designers and creatives of the past were valued more because they did something the common person couldn’t: they really designed, as in, they used their artistic skills to create something no one else could. We’ve become far too reliant on technology and think that being a graphic designer means you know how to use Photoshop. That’s not the case – anyone can use Photoshop. There was an old title for designers that’s become nearly extinct thanks to technological advances: graphic artists. We need more people to rise to the challenge and become graphic artists rather than designers. Graphic artists are the ones that aren’t afraid of using handmade art in design work meant for mass consumption; they aren’t afraid to sketch or draw, even when they aren’t the best artists; they boldly use colors and they create something that goes beyond the simple special effects palette in Photoshop. Being a graphic artist is far more exciting than being your basic graphic designer – everyday you’re setting out to create something new and a piece of artwork worth holding onto. I’ve found that with a lot of “graphic design” today it’s mostly working within limits, doing template designs, following the rules or prerequisites set by others for you. That’s no fun. And shouldn’t design of any sort always be fun?

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About Antoine

Antoine is a graphic designer and artist currently residing in North Carolina. He has a degree in Journalism and Mass Communication with a concentration in Visual Communication and specializes in graphic design and illustration. He has spent the past six years as a graphic artist for several publications based in North Carolina. He invites you to visit his design and social media blog at https://antoinereid.wordpress.com.
This entry was posted in Illustration, Promotion Design, Publication Design, Vector Illustration, Web Design and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Where Have All The Graphic Artists Gone?

  1. Emily Gooch says:

    Great post! I totally agreed with you. I am a graphic designer/ web designer 😉 It is very frustrating the lack of respect and pay for today’s designer. It’s so true in order to get graphic work these days, you also have to know web design. Unfortunately people can’t see that, you can buy all the amazing softwares to design but you can’t buy talent and creativity.

    But like you said, with the ease of technology today; it is easier for anyone to slap on a few fonts, and clip arts together and call it graphic design. I also feel the same also about photography today. Photographers today doesn’t get the same kind of respect as the ones in the past. With digital cameras available today, anyone who can push a button can call themself a photographer. I remember the old school days, that as a photographer, you need to know how to use the dark-room equipments and most of all, understand how to maually use the camera apertures, speed, light etc. Okay… I’ll get off my soap box now. 🙂

    Thanks for sharing…

    • Antoine says:

      I think it’s a shame that so many graphic designers are guilted into being web designers. I can get in and swap out an image using basic HTML but I feel people go to school and get degrees to be programmers and to make websites work without a glitch and do all of these things like handle e-commerce, security issues, etc. I don’t know about a lot of graphic designers but when I went through school I was barely taught how to use the design software. Suddenly employers think graphic designers and web desingers are the same? That we do the same thing? I had an employer once try to to convince me that graphic and web designers pretty much do the same thing or should know the same stuff so taking on the duties of both roles isn’t an unreasonable demand. Basically, web graphic designers need to be web designers to eliminate a job but we should get paid only for doing ONE job. It’s just insulting to both professions all around. And I’ve found that if someone is really gifted at graphic design, they aren’t necessarily the greatest web designer and vice versa.

      I really do think graphic design needs to move back to the arts. When graphic designers were seen as artist and used more than a computer to do their work, we had more validity and strength as a group. Nowadays everyone seems afraid of doing anything organic – draw, sketch, have something not look completely manufactured and crafted on a Mac – oh the peril! If we’d go back to doing some tasks or designing like artist then it’d make graphic designing a real craft again and it’d require talent, personality and time – things that certainly can’t be imitated or duplicated easily using Adobe Creative Suite, a computer and keyboard.

  2. Scott Carmichael says:

    “Some will say the only way one can become a good graphic designer in today’s job market would be to learn how to become good at web design.”

    Unfortunately, this is true. Being a “print only” designer in this economy and professional landscape is career suicide since a little bit of blog reading and mastery of Photoshop, InDesign & Illustrator will give tons of people the confidence they need to label themselves as “designers.” Now some companies still value a traditional design education but more and more, even if you manage to find a company wanting a designer, they don’t really care if the person has a background in Photography, Fine Arts, Video Editing, Web Design, etc. – companies do not only downplay the value of designers, they ignore the value of ACTUAL, professionally trained (not self taught) designers. And for those of you saying a degree isn’t needed, it is because for one thing you are exposed to info you won’t get from a website and secondly you get used to the design process and real critical feedback from people other than you.

    “Yes, knowing how to maneuver yourself around some CSS, XHTML, PHP and Java will get you employed…”

    Firstly, you mean JavaScript, not Java. Java is used mostly for enterprise level application and network programming. JS is what’s used on web pages. Secondly, if a job is wanting you do programming of any kind (HTML & CSS is NOT Programming) than they want a “Web Developer” not a “Web Designer.” Those are two drastically different things that require completely different mindsets. A developer has to be extremely logical, concerned with programming details and able to focus on all the non glamorous background elements that make websites tick. Designers just make it purdy. And since it’s a lot easier to just slap a coat of paint on a house instead of actually build it, Web Designers are less respected, in demand and paid less than Web Developers.

    “I don’t think graphic designers should be pressured into “peer” pressure and give up the design part of their jobs to become good Web programmers and coders. I don’t think Web designers are all capable of being effective graphic designers.”

    And yeah – once again, you need to wear multiple hats as a designer now. It’s not enough to be good at one thing (print design) because the industry has changed. The future is digital and in 20 years I’ll be shocked if even 25% of the printed stuff (magazines, newspapers, brochures, etc.) output nowadays is even made at all, anywhere.

    So yes designers – embrace making websites and then from there learn how to program (again, HTML & CSS is NOT programming). Otherwise, the bosses’ nieces and nephews will be doing the work you want to be paid for.

    “Graphic designers and creatives of the past were valued more because they did something the common person couldn’t: they really designed”

    Designers of the past were respected and compensated well because it was something that couldn’t be done easily by a 12 year old using Photoshop. It was a much more manual, labor-intensive profession and was more “craft” than being creative. This meant you had to plan things ahead and non-designers at company didn’t butt in, because at the end of the day, they had no concept of what it took to make something. But nowadays, many publishing companies let editors edit InDesign files directly. Many Marketing people can use Photoshop and mock up designs and think they are just as qualified as designers.

    There’s no true entry barrier into design. If you KNOW the basic programs now and can mention buzzwords in an interview, you can get the job. Companies don’t value actual design degrees and since so few companies understand the importance of a real designer, they typically give all creative control to Marketing people and the designer has zero creative input. They become nothing more than a tool to make the Marketing peoples’ ideas and before long, the managers and owner(s) view “designers” as disposable, useless tools. So your worth is now attached to the software used and since anyone can learn InDesign, you are made obsolete by a High School kid.


    Anyone reading this (my guess is mainly designers) here’s my advice if you are under 30 — even if you have a degree: CHANGE FIELDS IMMEDIATELY.

  3. Penny Panlener says:

    Well, try being a graduate of a professional commercial art college from BC (Before Computer). I’m talking about the 1970s before you were all born. Everything was built by hand and having a strong portfolio was the most important ticket to a job. I never had a problem being employed in my field and often had to choose between 2 offers. I survived the switch to computers in 1990 when the agencies were first advertising “knowledge of PageMaker preferred”. I faked it till I made it and in spite of all the changes in the tools of the trade, I remain a design artist. I have had to add pottery to my life in order to satisfy the need to get back to tactile art, and continue to resist the pressure to do web work. I am now seeing the position of graphic artist go away or be rolled into the job description of web manager, technical writer, publications specialist and even recently reprographics technician which wanted the graphic designer to also run the press and bindery. Huh? There are no art departments left and I am seeing designer jobs advertised on Craig’s List as apprenticeships. I figure they know the field is flooded with 20 years of Art Institute graduates with massive student loans who will take $10/hr. jobs. Clip art and PowerPoint have not helped the general public or management appreciate the design process. I was lucky to have over 30 years making a good living as a graphic designer, even earning a retirement. But now I would recommend getting a nursing degree to anyone who wants to be fully employed.

    –Penny in Alaska

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