December 3, 2012

Graphic Design vs. Illustration

When I was a sophomore in college I found out I was accepted into both the Graphic Design program and the Illustration program.  The entire year I muddled over the difference between the two and no one could really give me a straight answer.  I do not regret my decision of being an Illustrator but I often think about what could have been.  Now that I am a graduate I believe I can comprehensively explain the difference between the two.  Hopefully this will help someone in the same situation I was in.


What is illustration?

In illustration you need to create work for a client.  However, the process is unimportant.  There is an artist out there (though I am unsure of his name) that would paint a layer, cover it in clear mailing tape, paint another layer, and so forth.  The product photographed well but it was not archival.  Illustration is not fine art by any means.  You give the client what they want such as editorials, book covers, spot illustrations, and children’s books.  It is a world where you need to create your own work on the side to keep yourself sane.  The market dictates your work and well, that’s just how it is.
I, personally, am fine with clients telling me what they want because I love to make people happy anyway I can.  I find it easier to create when someone is giving a direction and I can work with them towards their goal.  The biggest drawback to illustration is that there is no such thing as a full-time illustrator (and if there is I have yet to hear about it).  When you are an illustrator you are a freelancer.  Over time you create a list of clients where you know you will get work but it is a process.  If you are not willing to put forth the effort you may as well forget about illustration.  Illustrators are often graphic designers or have another job on the side.  As my professor always told us, “Marry someone with a full time job and benefits”.


What is Graphic Design?

My impression of Graphic Design is that you will create “identities” for people, organize, and create layouts.  You need to understand typography.  That doesn’t mean just working with a couple words, that can mean working with entire blocks of text.  You have to focus on legibility and how the reader will understand.  Hierarchy plays an important role though this whole process.  Although logos and other branding may appear simple, the process behind it can be painstaking.  Behind my logo were countless little doodles of what I should look like and how I want the world to perceive me.  Along with my logo I needed my letterhead, resume, website, and business cards to look cohesive.  In graphic design you need to be on your toes and pay a great attention to details that may go unnoticed to the consumer.  If you can create something that looks flawless and simple you’ve accomplished the task.  You make difficult tasks seem like a cakewalk.  All of this is what I have gathered though creating my own branding material and working with clients.


What is the difference?

In Illustration I did not necessarily focus on creating a style, it is just something that developed over a long period of time (several years).  When creating an identity it felt as if I was more forced to focus on how my pieces blended together.  Does this look like it came from one person?  Yes.  Let’s move on.  When I work on graphics I always feel more stressed and have a need to make things perfect.  I have always felt like there is a secret rule-book no one is telling me about but I’m trying to figure out how to play the game.  If you are an illustrator you can be a graphic designer.  The two meld into each other but I think you need to be more conscious of what you are doing in Graphics.  Maybe this is because I have been doing illustration for longer and it comes easier to me.  I don’t think illustration is something you can learn in a year and I don’t think that is the case with graphics.  I do think it is easier to research graphic design than it is illustration.  I have books on type and layout but nothing pertaining to illustration.


I don’t know if that answered the question at hand… I certainly hope it did and hope it makes things more clear.


  1. Hi there, I believe your web site could possibly be having internet browser compatibility problems. When I look at your web site in Safari, it looks fine but when opening in Internet Explorer, it’s got some overlapping issues. I just wanted to provide you with a quick heads up! Apart from that, wonderful blog!|
    サマンサタバサ バッグサマンサタバサ-小物-c-11_14.html

  2. Mandy Purchase

    I am a current student at Birmingham City University studying Visual Communication (BA). I initially began with the intention of specialising in Illustration but I very much enjoy Graphic Design and now am torn between the two. In you opinion, would I be better following the course of Graphic Design or Illustration?
    I just feel that Graphic Design is more ‘now’ and what consumers want compared to illustration and if I study Graphic Design I can still incorporate illustration whereas if I follow illustration then this is more limiting and does not have the scope that Graphic Design does.

    I would be very grateful for any advice you can offer.

    Thank you.


    • The more I get into the field the further apart the two seem to be. If you are going to make money as an artist and you would like to make it easier on yourself then you should go into graphic design. I have talked to several illustrators and they said it was about a decade before they could freelance full time. That is, a decade of doing art fairs and promoting yourself as much as possible and networking. Neither one of them will promise the best job ever off the bat and it is a long process. The more people you know and the more you work on your craft, the better your chances are.

Submit a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Posted By