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 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 does within the design industry, to help you decide what type of design is right for you.

Graphic Designers

In graphic design, a graphic designer communicates something — whether it’s branding, information, or an advertisement — to users through text and images. How those two elements, text, and images, are placed on the web page, (or the printed page) is also part of graphic design jobs, font choices, color, and other visual elements. Through their craft, a graphic designer and a digital designer can 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 instead of the 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 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 designers need to have graphic design skills that go beyond a sketchpad and a pencil; proficiency in design software, such as Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign is essential to working in both online and offline graphic design. Generally, a bachelor’s degree in graphic design or a similar course of study is required.

Other than building their graphic design skills, graphic designers typically build a design portfolio before applying to a graphic design job. 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 designing print materials (packaging, brochures, magazines, etc.) or the design of web pages and apps. Interested in a graphic design career and 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 graphic design degree programs described as visual/digital design vs. graphic design. Sometimes, visual design is referred to as visual communications, and this terminology may help give you a sense of the 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, using a different design process.

Think of graphic designers as communicating information, and visual designers as being focused on the look and feel of the product and brand identity. Visual designers may also be involved in conversations about what the site or product provides and the goals of the selected digital design project

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 mainly focus on aesthetics and communication, user experience designers are focused on interaction design, users, and how they interact with the site or interpret interactive elements of the user interface and the UI design. 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 site’s appearance, 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 digital design concepts in the form of wireframes, or visual blueprints for a site’s UI 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 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, anthropology, computer science, or from graphic design school could all be considered relevant according to the Education Portal. There are a few schools starting to offer degree or certificate programs in UX design, including Rutgers, Carnegie Mellon, SVA, and Pratt. The national median for UX designer salaries are calculated around $85,000, with a ranging from $60,000 to $113,000, per Glassdoor.

Interested in a UX design or digital design career?

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