UX, Visual, or Graphic: Which Type of Design Is Right for You?


UX Design Image
  • CC Image Courtesy of Thomas Brasington on Flickr

You can be pardoned for sometimes feeling confused about all the terminology and job titles floating around in the design world. What is the difference between graphic design, visual design, and user experience design? Do each of the three roles provide a different service? For visual and graphic designers, the difference may lie mainly in the job title and salary expectations. However, a user experience designer has very different end goals and responsibilities from a visual or graphic designer. Below is a breakdown of what each of these designers do.

Graphic Designers

In graphic design, something—whether it’s branding, information, or an advertisement—a graphic designer communicates to users through text and images. How those two elements, text and images, are placed on the web page or printed page is also part of a graphic designer’s business, as well as font choices, color, and other visual elements. Through their craft, graphic designers inspire emotions and responses to their web designs and their associated design elements. A graphic designer will know that users will respond very differently to text written in the much-maligned Comic Sans font as opposed to in old-fashioned Courier New font. Similarly, response to an anti-poverty campaign will differ if it’s illustrated with an image of an underweight baby or a stock photo of a food. At its best, graphic design is iconic and recognizable, like the Coca-Cola font, the I heart NY logo, or the Gerber baby.

Skills and Salary: Nowadays, most graphic designers need to have skills that go beyond a sketchpad and a pencil; proficiency in Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign is essential to working in both online and offline graphic design, and generally, a bachelor’s degree in graphic design or a similar course of study is required. The median national income for a graphic designer is $42,000, according to Glassdoor.com, with starting designer salaries in the low 30s, and high-end designer salaries bringing in $65,000. Graphic designers can work on design of print materials (packaging, brochures, magazines, etc.) or the design of web pages and apps. Need to know more about these programs? Check out our upcoming design workshops.

Visual Designers

Visual and graphic design are very closely linked and the two terms are often used interchangeably. You may come across job advertisements and degree programs described as visual/graphic design. Sometimes visual design is referred to as visual communications, and this terminology may help give you a sense of difference between the two roles and their overall concepts—where a graphic designer uses design elements like typefaces, hierarchy, color, images, and placement to create a perfect product, a company hiring a visual designer may be interested in a candidate with an ability to come up with a holistic aesthetic that travels across all platforms. Think of graphic designers as communicating information, and visual designers as being focused on the look and feel of the product and brand. Visual designers may also be involved in conversations about what the site or product provides and the goals of selected projects. 

Skills and Salary: While the educational background for a visual designer is similar to that of a graphic designer, the pay rate is higher: The national median salary is $66,000, with a range that goes from $49,000 to $92,000. The strong association between the visual designer title and online design may explain the discrepancy between the designer salaries. Typically, online design work experience gets you paid at a higher rate than print design. A visual designer serves as a mid-point between the pure design abilities of a graphic designer, and the more user-focused interests of a user experience designer. Which brings us to the third type of designer…

User Experience Designers

Unlike graphic and visual designers, who have as their main focus aesthetics and communication, user experience designers are focused on interaction design; on users and how they interact with the site or interpret elements of the user interface. How do people move around the site? What happens when people click on this button? Will changing the color or size of a widget influence users to make bigger purchases, or interact with the site differently? To get answers to these types of questions, user experience designers, called UX designers, will conduct various methods of user testing, including A/B testing. While user experience design is also concerned with the appearance of the site, its main priority is how users interact with the site; ensuring that users can navigate an app or site successfully and make intuitive decisions on where to click and where not to click. User experience designers present design concepts in the form of wireframes, or visual blueprints for a site’s design. They also sort out information architecture, which is the fundamental way information on the site is organized, displayed, and identified to users. Essentially, user experience designers ensure that a website is easy to use so its users can understand and navigate its offerings smoothly and efficiently, whether it’s information, a service, or items for sale. Brush up on skills, and learn the fundamentals of user experience design with a twelve-week long course on user experience and the principles of design.

Skills and Salary: The field of user experience is relatively new and interdisciplinary in nature, so degrees in psychology, computer science, or graphic design could all be considered relevant according to the Education Portal. There are a few schools starting to offer degree or certificate programs in UX, including Rutgers, Carnegie Mellon, SVA, and Pratt. The national median for UX designer salaries are calculated around $85,000, with a range from $60,000 to $113,000, per Glassdoor.

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