written by
Carsten Pleiser

Graphic design vs illustration: How are they different?

Graphic Design 6 min read

Graphic design and illustration. Illustration and graphic design. They’re terms we’re all familiar with… or at least we think we know what they mean!

If you work in any form of marketing or communications field, the chances are you’ve collaborated with a graphic designer. Depending on the nature of your projects, you might have worked with an illustrator, or even a graphic illustrator as well.

Each of these creative practices can bring big benefits to a business. But is it graphic design or illustration that you need for your next project?

In this guide, we’ll explain exactly what the difference is between graphic design vs illustration — and how the output of each can help build your brand.

Let’s get straight to work…

Graphic design vs illustration: a brief overview

The main difference between graphic design and illustration is how and why they’re created.

Often (but not always!) graphic design is produced with a commercial goal in mind. The primary objective of graphic design is also to communicate a clear and concise message while illustration, on the other hand, is more akin to art.

As a general rule, graphic designers are more anonymous than illustrators. They communicate a company or organisation’s ideas through firm design principles, whereas illustrators are often employed for their individual aesthetic and style.

Despite this, separating these two approaches is challenging. Many commercial projects need distinctive drawings and emotive visuals (illustration) to express clear messaging and attention-grabbing branding (graphic design).

So where do we draw the line?

Let’s take a look at both graphic design and illustration in greater depth:

What is graphic design?

In a word, it’s all about communication.

graphic design vs illustration
Photographer: Theme Photos | Source: Unsplash

Graphic design is a method of communicating ideas in a visual form. In line with broader marketing strategy, graphic designers will focus on a specific target audience and often work within company brand guidelines.

Using the fundamental elements of design — such as line, layout, colour, negative space, shape, typography and texture — graphic designers help organisations communicate a brand’s personality, sell products and advertise their services.

What is illustration?

Where graphic design is all about communication, illustration is primarily an art form.

Graphic design vs illustration
Photographer: Milad Fakurian | Source: Unsplash

Illustrations can still be graphic representations, though. They come in both traditional and digital mediums, ranging from pencil sketches to vector graphics. More often than not, illustrations help explain ideas and narratives as decorative elements.

So... what are the differences?

In summary, graphic design can use elements of illustration, but focuses on communicating ideas and information from a commercial perspective.

Illustration can likewise also use elements of graphic design. It takes more of a fine art approach, however, often illuminating ideas and perspectives for their own importance, personal significance, and aesthetic appeal.

In the absolute most basic terms, graphic design performs a function and illustration is all about form.

Graphic design vs illustration: when do you need one or the other?

With a clear understanding of what graphic design is vs illustration (and vice versa!), it’s time to think about when and how they can be used.

While there are significant similarities, the overall goals of graphic design vs illustration are different. Choosing to work with either a graphic designer or illustrator will depend on your own needs and objectives.

Marketing teams usually hire graphic designers to create promotional designs (packaging, posters, digital design decks, and so on). Illustrators can also be brought into the mix to create custom illustrations to feature on that packaging, or as part of a social media campaign.

Here’s a brief guide to each:

When do I need a graphic designer?

Graphic designers work across both the print and digital worlds.

They create materials as diverse as posters, flyers, business cards, product packaging, digital billboards, logos, magazine ads, catalogues, PPC display advertising, motion graphics for online media and television, website design and email marketing.

Put simply, if you want to communicate a corporate message with visual elements, a graphic designer can help.

When do I need an illustrator?

Like graphic designers, illustrators work across print and digital formats.

They produce imagery for websites, social media assets, magazines, books, posters and packaging designs. This might take the form of digital vector illustrations, charcoal drawings, lithographs, watercolours, collage and woodcuts… the creative possibilities really are endless.

As a rule, if you’re looking for specific and unique imagery (either stand-alone artworks, diagrams or an entire series of drawings), you’ll want the help of an illustrator.

Whatever sector you work in, graphic designers can help put your stunning illustrations to use.

After all, illustrations are commissioned to communicate messages in some way. These images will feature across your packaging, publication, website, social media channels etc. — and it’s a graphic designer that puts that layout together.

What can a graphic designer do for your business?

Graphic designers help you communicate in a way that builds your brand and achieves your business goals. They work seamlessly within your brand guidelines — and, in some instances, can even help you create a visual brand language from scratch.

We all know first impressions are vital when it comes to marketing, advertising and branding. Given the fundamental importance of visual identity, the question we should be asking is: what can’t a graphic designer help your business with?

Every business could use the skills of a graphic designer. This ranges from smaller tasks such as creating business cards, logos and branded letterheads, right the way through to full branding across websites, social media, billboards, banners, print and digital advertising. As part of this, graphic designers may also include illustrations and motion graphics.

With the skills to visually convey ideas and bring projects to life, graphic designers are true communication experts. They are able to help businesses in myriad ways, allowing people to see problems and solutions in a new light.

To give yet more examples, graphic design services could include visual identity design, infographics, case studies and white papers — all created to grow and strengthen your brand.

At Design Buffs, we’re your one-stop shop for stunning graphic design. Explore our full graphic design services and join hundreds of marketers doing design at scale, without breaking the bank.

Wait... so what about “graphic illustration”?

We started this guide by mentioning three professional areas: graphic design, illustration, and graphic illustration.

So where does graphic illustration sit in the graphic design vs illustration debate?

It sits somewhere in the middle. Graphic illustration is the bridge that links the artistic and commercial aspects of these two creative practices.

While graphic design leans towards commercial communication and illustration more closely resembles fine art, graphic illustration is a marriage of the two.

Could it be the best of both worlds? Possibly.

Graphic illustration takes the foundational principles of graphic design (including shape, layout, colour, negative space and typography) and uses these ideas to manage and display original illustrative artwork.

Like graphic designers, graphic illustrators focus on clear communication and expression. Similarly to illustrators however, they prioritise creative expression alongside established design principles.

Your team of tried-and-tested graphic design masterminds

Whether you’re looking for help from expert graphic designers, illustrators or graphic illustrators, Design Buffs can help. Hundreds of marketers, agencies and company founders already rely on our graphic design services to achieve quality, reliable graphic design at affordable prices.

Book a call today to discover we can help you achieve your design goals, no matter how big or small.

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