What do graphic designers need to know?

This is the 2015 edition of the AIGA Career Guide. For a better understanding of the changing landscape of design, and help navigating the new disciplines, trends, and challenges, see The AIGA Guide to Careers in Graphic and Communication Design (Bloomsbury, 2017).

Technology, social context, and ways of working with others will change. In order to become and remain relevant in their practice, designers need to continuously learn and develop formal concepts, methods, theory, and techniques.

While designers often focus on a specific field, no one works in a vacuum, so it’s important to know and understand the histories, theories, and background of the field as a whole. Many of the first programs in graphic design, fashion design, and interior design began in urban areas in the early 20th century to give workers in the new industrial economy the chance to rise beyond their specific tasks. Without education in the field, the worker had to fight to compete with others who could do that specific task faster or cheaper. The same situation exists today: designers who can learn to do one thing and also understand the big picture stand a better chance at a design career, as opposed to a one-off design job, especially as skills and job expectations are changing all the time.

Formal Concepts

The way something looks has always carried meaning. To understand that connection, designers first need to be able to look at the world and understand why things look the way they do, both historically and in the present day. From there, they need to be able to put type, forms, and images together and be able to judge whether or not they convey an intended message. Then they need to learn how to use these systems of relationships, sometimes articulated as rules or guidelines.

Knowing how to do that requires learning basic layout principles such as balance, rhythm, movement, and proportion, executed through scale, position, value, and color and using line, shape, texture, and space. From there, a designer needs to know the relationship between typographic form and meaning, as well as how the arrangement of type, also known as typesetting, conveys meaning. Designers learn these principles by observing, analyzing, and evaluating them through critique.

The relationship of form and meaning changes with audiences and visual associations over time. An advertisement typeset in Helvetica meant something different in 1964 than it does today. Just as colors are perceived differently in different contexts, forms are read differently depending on what’s around them, what they’re associated with, and how they’ve been used before. A basic understanding of art history, design history, and the history of communication technology is necessary to understand and communicate the relationship of form and structure to meaning.

Building systems of relationships also requires a deep understanding of hierarchy and contrast. Designing an alphabet is the ultimate exercise in formal systems: each letter must be distinguishable from the other, but no letter may be more different than the others, making them all similarly different. For example, in a font the “a” must look clearly different from the “e,” and you need to be able to tell an “i” from an “l.” But if the “w” or the “m” is heavier or bigger than all the other letters, it’s distracting. The same abstract principles can be applied to branding systems, wayfinding systems, advertising campaigns, and books.


A design method is a repeatable way of doing things that can further be broken down into processes. Methods determine the what and when of doing things in a design project. All design methods include some version of research, ideation, prototyping, iteration, and presentation, but may approach each of these categories differently depending on the medium, the audience, and the purpose of the communication.

A commercial website project, for example, may start with an analysis of available systems and a survey of the people who’ll use the website, while a redesign of a brand identity may begin by collecting images and expressions of competing and associated brands. A book or a website will often start to become real through the use of a grid, while a book cover or art-directed image may start with a series of pencil or gouache sketches. All of these are approaches are methods.

A designer can learn methods through study or practice, but ultimately needs to know how to select, communicate, and execute appropriate methods for specific design problems.


Theory refers to any system of ideas that help explain or speculate about why we do the things we do. Of course, designers regularly read and incorporate theory from other areas of study such as art, architecture, economics, anthropology, sociology, technology, or science, but reading and writing design theory is how designers speak to each other about the things that matter and discover commonalities beyond day-to-day questions about business or technique. Theory also shifts and builds with culture and technology, as new relationships, tools, and modes of consumption create new questions.

Theory is often presented as the opposite of practice, but in reality it comes from practice, as designers encounter the same questions over and over again in seemingly unrelated situations. What’s the influence of technology or tools on aesthetics? Should designers regard themselves as authors? Do designers have ethical responsibilities? Is there such a thing as a mainstream and a counterculture today? Are there universal truths in design, or is everything relative? What is the role of the designer if everyone can now create and distribute work?


Technique is about how to do things. It’s the most recognizable yet rapidly changing part of what designers know. At the time of this publication, a designer is, at minimum, expected to know how to manipulate type, forms, and images for both print and digital media using contemporary software, how to put them in motion with or without audio, and how to make and modify templates and working prototypes for web and mobile (where the content itself may be continuously changing) through basic programming in HTML, CSS, and Javascript.

Techniques aren’t limited to making physical things. It’s equally important to develop the skills necessary to communicate design ideas through writing and speaking. A successful designer has the ability to write clearly and precisely for a specific audience, discuss a concept one-on-one, and present a project to a larger group. It’s also important to recognize that designers don’t often work alone. Excellent listening and negotiating skills are necessary for working with non-designers, whether they’re the people ultimately making the work, clients, or prospective audiences.

Formal concepts, methods, theory, and techniques are not learned only once, and then applied. Designers are learning all the time, and sharing their learning with each other through writing, talks, and classes, and this shared learning is what makes up the discipline.

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About the Author:

Juliette Cezzar is an Assistant Professor and Associate Director of the BFA Communication Design program at Parsons / The New School, where she was the Director of the BFA Communication Design and BFA Design & Technology programs from 2011-2014. She established her small studio, e.a.d., in 2005. While books anchor the practice, her work has spanned a variety of media for clients such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, RES Magazine, The Museum of Modern Art, Vh1, The New York Times, Eleven Madison Park, and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Art, and Planning. She is the co-author of Designing the Editorial Experience with Sue Apfelbaum (Rockport) and author-designer of Office Mayhem (Abrams), Paper Pilot,Paper Captain, and Paper Astronaut (Universe / Rizzoli). She holds an MFA in Graphic Design from Yale University and a professional degree (B. Arch) in Architecture from Virginia Tech.