Fundamental Skills You'll Need to Be a Graphic Designer

Drawing and painting are not required skills

Young male designer examining prototype and notes in workshop
Graphic design doesn't necessarily require practical artistic skill, but it doesn't hurt. Caiaimage/Agnieszka Olek / Getty Images

You do not need to be a fine artist to be a graphic designer. While it could help your career and your creative side, it is not necessary to be able to draw, paint, or have any of the other skills necessary to be an 'artist' in the traditional sense.

Graphic design is about taking elements such as type, photos, illustrations, and color and combining them to create effective messages. In many cases, an artist will be hired to create a painting, illustration, or drawing for a project and that will then be handed off to a graphic designer to incorporate into the piece. This could be an album cover, poster, business card, or book cover, for example.

Where Artistic Talent May Help a Graphic Designer

In some cases, a graphic designer may also create his or her own illustrations, drawings, and paintings, but it is not considered an essential part of a designer’s skill set.

It can be beneficial to a career or business if you do create your own artwork. It may allow you to save money by completing more tasks yourself. Also, consider that any additional creative skills you develop can improve your chances of landing certain design positions. 

In the least, you should have an understanding of the artwork that may be incorporated into your work. You will also need the creativity to bring it together with other elements effectively. Your understanding of color, shapes, lines and other design elements are crucial to displaying the artwork in order to convey the client's message.

This all leads to the reason why designers are often grouped into the job category of 'creatives' rather than artists: you need to be creative in your job, but you don't necessarily create 'art.' This group in the advertising industry also includes art directors, photographers, videographers, and other creative professionals that you might be working with.

Illustrators vs Graphic Designers

The commercial artists who do need artistic talents are the illustrators. As a graphic designer, it is likely that you will be asked to work with them for your designs. Some graphic designers also illustrate while some illustrators also dabble in graphic design. The two specialties are related, sometimes intertwined, but not necessary for success in either type of work.

Illustrators are the artists who are tasked with creating original pieces of art for use in graphic designs. Quite often, these are larger projects for which the budget allows this extra expense. For instance, illustrators may work on album or book covers and many regularly work for magazines. The New Yorker is a perfect example of a publication that regularly features illustrations by very talented artists.

Quite often, illustrators work through an agent that helps them get work. Depending on the types of projects you work on, it may serve you well as a freelance graphic designer to get to know some illustrators or agents. Just as you may have your go-to offset printer or photographer that you recommend to clients, knowing an illustrator or two will be a useful addition to your network.