Desktop Publishing vs. Graphic Design

They are similar but not exactly the same

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Graphic design and desktop publishing share so many similarities that people often use the terms interchangeably. There's not anything terribly wrong with that, but it is helpful to know and understand how they differ and how some people use and confuse the terms.

We've taken a look at both topics and have figured out the subtle but important differences between them.

Overall Findings

Desktop Publishing
  • Process used to create digital files for commercial printing.

  • Using software to combine text and graphics.

  • Focused on production.

Graphic Design
  • Concepts, ideas, and arrangements for communicating messages visually.

  • Combining text and graphics in the design of visual communication.

  • Focused on conceptual aspects.

Over the years, the skills of the two groups have grown closer together. The one distinction that still exists is that the graphic designer is the creative half of the equation.

Now, every step of the design and print process is heavily influenced by computers and the skill of the operators. Not everyone who does desktop publishing also does graphic design, but most graphic designers are involved in desktop publishing — the production side of design. 

Software: A Common Denominator

Desktop Publishing
  • Used to create print projects.

  • Can use templates.

  • Non-designers can use.

Graphic Design
  • Used to judge and modify designs before publishing.

  • Experience or training required.

  • Requires greater effort.

Graphic designers use desktop publishing software and techniques to create the print materials they envision. The computer and desktop publishing software also aids in the creative process by allowing the designer to easily try out various page layouts, fonts, colors, and other elements.

Non-designers use desktop publishing software and techniques to create print projects for business or pleasure. The amount of creative design that goes into these projects varies greatly. The computer and desktop publishing software, along with professionally designed templates, allow consumers to construct and print the same types of projects as graphic designers, although the overall product may not be as well thought out, carefully crafted, or polished as the work of a professional designer.

Both designers and publishers can use the same software to do their work. Both free and commercial versions of these programs are available. Some examples include Adobe's Photoshop and InDesign, Microsoft Word, Apple Pages, and GIMP. Professionals will use the more powerful (and expensive) versions of software, but most of the same tools are available to amateurs and hobbyists at less (or no) cost.

Uses: Different Stages of a Similar Process

Desktop Publishing
  • Creates the entire product.

  • Appropriate for single user.

  • Can pick up where designer leaves off.

Graphic Design
  • Focus on individual elements of a larger project

  • Multiple designers can work together.

  • Creates polished results.

Desktop publishers and graphic designers may work on the same projects at the same time, but they have different goals in mind.

A graphic designer may focus on a single image, table, or the layout of a project. A single ebook, pamphlet, or magazine may have several graphic designers working on it. Desktop publishing picks up where their work ends to finalize the document and get it ready to become a real thing.

Of course, the same person could do design and publishing on a single thing, but each job has different purposes.

Goals: Both Areas Have Similar Aims

Desktop Publishing
  • Final product creation.

  • Create print- or share-ready work.

  • Put all elements together.

Graphic Design
  • Contributing designs and ideas.

  • Pre-production phase.

  • Distinct focus on specifics.

Graphic design ends with the final physical or digital blueprint of a project that is ready for publishing. It then becomes the job of desktop publishing to turn that plan into a final product. Designers may not know about the whole book if they're only designing the cover, for example. It's publishing's job to take all of the elements and put them together.

Final Verdict

In the '80s and '90s, desktop publishing put affordable and powerful digital tools in the hands of everyone for the first time. At first, it was exclusively used to produce files for print — either at home or at a commercial printing company. Now desktop publishing is used for e-books, blogs, and websites. It has spread from a single focus — that of print on paper — to multiple platforms including smartphones and tablets.

Graphic design skills predated desktop publishing, but graphic designers quickly had to catch up with the digital design capabilities that the new software introduced. In general, designers have a solid background in layout, color, and typography and have a skilled eye for how best to attract viewers and readers.

While desktop publishing does require a certain amount of creativity, it is more production-oriented than design-oriented.