While it’s not the only question you’ll face as you go freelance, deciding whether to become a graphic or web designer is one of the first decisions to make. It doesn’t seem like an important decision at first glance. They’re very similar disciplines in design; there’s a lot of overlap. But in the world of freelance, designers need to establish a job title that clients understand.
New designers may think this is an unnecessary distinction. Graphic and web designers use the same design tools and resources. By specifying your design role, aren’t you just narrowing the pool of potential jobs?
As a professional designer, you have the power to transform a business with your artistic skills. However, just because you can work for anyone, doesn’t mean you should.
Why it’s important to specify your design discipline
Straightforward job titles make clients clear on the work that you do and whether you’ll be the right freelancer for their project. If your profile contains a wide variety of experience as both a graphic and web designer, clients will assume you don’t have a specialized skill set – and pass you over for someone who does.
Even though you have the skills to help every client you come across, doing so turns you into a generalist. While it’s not a death sentence for all freelance design careers, taking on projects as a generalist has drawbacks:
- Diverse project experience prevents you from developing an area of expertise
- Proposals and pitches will take lots of time to customize as they’re different every time
- Wages are hard to predict from a varied workload
- High freelance rates are difficult to justify without a specialization
- Competition for general freelance jobs is very high
It may seem wise to cast a wide net when looking for freelance jobs, especially when just starting a career in design. However, with a wide-reaching, generalist method of finding clients, it becomes difficult to earn fair wages, develop skills, and present yourself as an expert.
Avoiding career pitfalls are a few of the reasons to choose a freelance niche for yourself. Designers also stand to gain much more by niching themselves, but simply put:
Freelancers who specialize their skills get better quality clients and bigger payouts.
Before settling on a specialized career in design, make sure your specialization is suited to you. Discovering the differences between a graphic and web designer will help you customize your career in design.
What does a graphic designer do?
Graphic designers build visual elements that communicate values, ideas, and even emotions to the viewer. They might create print media such as business cards, menus, or posters. Nowadays, most graphic designers mainly create digital visual content such as logos, infographics, icons, etc.
Graphic designers are artists and translators. They employ symbols, fonts, colors, and pictures to speak to the audience through their images. When done efficiently, the message of their work is recognized instantly by the viewer. It’s powerful stuff!
To be more specific about what graphic designers do, here are some examples of graphic design work:
- Brand materials (logos, letterhead, bespoke font, etc.)
- Editorial design (magazine covers, publication layouts, story graphics, etc.)
- Packaging (product labels, adapted logos, etc.)
- Advertising (brochures, flyers, pitch decks, promotional materials, etc.)
Quoting the average salary of a freelance graphic designer might be common in these types of articles, but that information doesn’t serve you. Your freelance design rates should be set depending on the types of projects and clients you prefer as a graphic or web designer. The value that you create with your graphic design work is unique. Your salary as a graphic design should be unique to you as well!
What makes a good graphic designer?
You know you’re capable of doing beautiful graphic design work. You're less sure whether your skill set and work style are suited to a career in graphic design.
To start, graphic designers are visual experts. Not only do they have a great command of the principles of design, but they’re also naturally artistic people.
To ensure their illustrative tendencies hit the mark for viewers, graphic designers must also have a high level of empathy. They need to be able to get inside the viewer’s head to make sure their art makes the impact it’s meant to make.
To set the right tone, they need a deep understanding of the principles of design and their effect on the human psyche.
They’re experts on color theory and they know how the elements of design affect viewers. They use that to their advantage to create an emotional impact through their visual design.
Graphic designers set out to create an impact with their visuals; to do so, they need to be very detail-oriented. The majority of graphic design work is in 2D. With more time to take in a static image, viewers can pick up on imperfections and aesthetically displeasing elements with ease.
If you’re a meticulous design lover that knows what makes people tick, you’d likely feel right at home with a career in graphic design.
What does a web designer do?
Web designers create digital visual elements that they use to construct websites, including layouts and content. Although many web designers have some coding knowledge, they aren’t responsible for web development or programming.
The main goal of a web designer is to create a platform that anticipates and encourages user behavior. They build websites using unifying elements that take users on a journey based on their specific priorities and goals.
Web designers may work under different job titles, such as UI or UX designers. However, the mission is the same: to understand the user enough to design the website that achieves the user’s goal.
Web design is a subset of graphic design. A web designer is a graphic designer that specializes in communicating through the totality of elements on a web page. A graphic designer uses a wide range of visual content to communicate, though not necessarily a web page.
Web designers do occasionally make graphics, turning them into temporary graphic design specialists. However, most web design projects include ready-to-place graphic materials such as logos or brand images. Those would have been created by a graphic designer!
The reason that web design doesn’t usually include the creation of graphic elements is to keep their work in their area of expertise: taking those elements and creating an interactive experience.
What makes a good web designer?
Both graphic and web designers require an expert-level handle on the concepts of design. Like graphic designers, web designers must also have a high level of empathy to make sure their design fulfills its mission.
Web designers create fluid user journeys through their websites. They need to make sure that customers can efficiently navigate the journey they designed, which requires an even deeper awareness of human behavior.
To guarantee an interactive experience, web designers need to understand how our brains process moving parts and changing stimuli.
Focused on creating something interactive, web designers may need to abandon their artistic sensibilities in favor of a simpler, easy-to-use design. Web designers have no issues simplifying or scrapping their design, as it will help them achieve the usability that keeps users on their digital path.
If you like trying to see from different people’s perspectives as well as the challenge of regularly reworking your design, a career in web design will suit you well!
Work models of graphic and web designers
Graphic and web designers differ in more than just their skill sets. Since project and client types also vary, the work models of graphic and web designers can differ as well.
For example, it’s easier for graphic designers to follow the artist’s route. They can get agents to represent them as a graphic designer for their illustrative skills, then shop their specific artistic strengths and style around. This is a great business model if you hate sending proposals; clients come to you.
They can also create digital products and have an online shop as an artist would, selling icon packs, fonts, or other digital design elements that they create.
Web designers can sell their website templates in the same way that graphic designers sell their digital art. However, it’s not the model they commonly use. It’s much more lucrative for web designers to create a bespoke website design that’s tailored to a business’s values and buyers. After all, companies want to stand out in their customers’ minds, not blend into other websites they’ve visited.
The most common way to work as a web designer is to work as a freelancer or working in-house for a design agency. With enough experience and support, opening your own design studio is also an option.
Still not sure what kind of designer you are?
If you still feel like you couldn’t choose between design disciplines, it might be time to stop reading comprehensive blog articles and get some one-on-one advice. Regardless of whether you choose a graphic or web designer’s path, the digital age has created a bunch of resources to keep you connected to other designers.
One of the most valuable resources out there is a community for designers: a place to connect and share experiences, doubts, advice, and even gigs with your fellow design freelancer.
Joining a collective space enables you to share your career highs and lows with others on following the same journey. It can be a very transformative space, helping one another over the bumps of business calls and portfolio blunders as we come to realize our true value as designers. We get better, together.