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 don't need to be a fine artist to be a graphic designer. While the ability to draw, paint, or create in any of the other traditional artistic ways can help your graphic design career, they're not requirements. Graphic design is more about combining elements such as type, photos, illustrations, and color to create effective messages. You don't have to create these elements yourself.

In many cases, an artist will be hired to create a painting, illustration, or drawing for a project; these works are then handed off to the graphic designer to incorporate into the piece.

Where Artistic Talent May Help a Graphic Designer

In some cases, you might create your own illustrations, drawings, and paintings, but it is not considered an essential part of a designer’s skill set. These capabilities can set you apart from other graphic designers, however, helping you to land jobs and move up the pay scale.

What you do need is an understanding of the artwork that may be incorporated into your work. Creativity to bring it together with other elements effectively is important, too. Lastly but most importantly, your understanding of color, shapes, lines and other design elements is crucial to developing a piece that conveys the client's message.

This all leads to the reason designers are often considered creatives rather than artists: You must be creative in your job, but you don't necessarily have to create art. This group in the advertising industry also includes art directors, photographers, videographers, and other 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, you'll likely be asked to work with them for your designs. Some graphic designers also illustrate, and 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 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 (and usually, considerable) expense. For instance, illustrators often 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 agents that help 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 whom you recommend to clients, knowing an illustrator or two will be a useful addition to your network.