Busting the myths: what Graphic Design ISN’T

For a bit of fun I’ve put together a list of things that Graphic Design Isn’t, based on my own experiences and those of others. I hope this will be helpful for designers and clients alike.

Design isn’t free

Asking a designer for a few concepts before committing to hire them is like asking a clothing boutique if you can take a garment home and wear it for a while before deciding if you’ll pay for it. No store would agree to it, and with good reason: there’s no guarantee you’d ever return to pay for the goods. A designer who provides design concepts without a signed contract is at risk of losing their ideas: the prospective client could easily take those concepts elsewhere. Always get a signed contract first, and better still get a down payment too.

Design isn’t copying

It’s reasonable (and often very helpful) when a client gives examples of designs they like and which have a similar feel to what they’re seeking for their design brief. It’s not reasonable when a client provides a design and asks for a designer to create exactly the same thing for them. Don’t ever be tempted to lift another designer’s work, whether you’ve been asked to or not.

Design isn’t random

Every time a prospective client approaches a designer, it’s because they have a problem which needs a solution. This statement underpins all professional design work. Working out the right design isn’t a matter of going with your favourite colour, or some fashionable patterns you found last week. It takes research into the client’s field, their target market and how the design is to be viewed. The right design may not necessarily be beautiful, but it does have to be effective at getting the message across.

Design isn’t IT

This one may not surface very often, but it has for me. A few years ago I worked on a design brief for a group of people who referred to me as the “IT person” throughout. I found them great to work with: very communicative and cooperative, except that my explanations that I was a graphic designer (with no IT training) went unheard. I’ve also occasionally encountered a client who, in the course of a meeting, asks me to help sort out the problems with their email program or their internet connection. Usually these requests come from someone who, again, doesn’t understand where the designer’s role starts and ends, only that you’re a person who is “good with computers”. It’s best to politely decline, and explain that your role doesn’t extend to technical support for their software or hardware.

Design isn’t web hosting

For that matter, design also isn’t printing, marketing, internet security, SEO, or other services which naturally follow on from design. Some designers do offer one or more of these as a supplementary service. However, for the most part, these services will be referred to a third party (e.g. a printing house, web hosting company or SEO firm) and no responsibility for these falls on the designer.

image by alazaat

Design isn’t copywriting

Designers rely on their clients to provide any text required for the design brief. The text may be drafted by the client themselves or by a professional copywriter. Unless otherwise negotiated, the designer doesn’t provide copywriting or proofreading services. It may be prudent to include this in the contract or Terms of Service signed at the beginning of the design job.

Design isn’t a hobby

This isn’t to say that aspects of design may not be a hobby for some people. My point is that graphic design is a profession, with a skill set that requires training, and a good understanding of established techniques and rules. It deserves respect and should be treated accordingly.

Design isn’t neat software

Photoshop is a very popular piece of software. It’s also easy to pick up the basics through night classes, books or tutorials online. Having a grasp on some powerful graphics software (I mention Photoshop simply as an example) isn’t enough to qualify someone as a fully fledged designer, though. Professional designers make use of a range of graphics programs, and know which is/are appropriate for a given design job; they understand how to take a design concept and prepare it for publication (print or screen); and very often the major conceptual work for a design is carried out well away from a computer, using a pencil and sketchbook. These days graphic designers are trained in the use of software programs, but these are just one component in the many tools of the profession.

Design isn’t clip art

If you’re skimming this article, I’ll cut to the chase: don’t ever use clip art in a professional design. If you’re a client, don’t accept the use of clip art in a design.
Design uses a whole range of different materials from varying sources. In some cases, photography or illustrations may be commissioned specially for a design brief. In other instances, stock images may be used (I will be talking more about this in an upcoming post). Stock images are photographs or illustrations obtained from a stock library. There are many stock libraries to be found online, offering a broad range of licensing arrangements for their images. Clip art images may come bundled with software you already own, but in design terms they represent the lowest common denominator of image use. There are so many sources of images which are far superior, even for a low budget, that there’s no reason to use clip art. In particular, the use of clip art to create a logo is fraudulent; it’s certainly not original design work.


Design isn’t filling up all of the space

One of the fundamentals of good design is balance, and a key aspect of balance in design is working with negative space. This means leaving an empty space or spaces in the design, in order to emphasise other details elsewhere. Negative space is also important for making a design easier to read and take in. It’s visually powerful and utilised in graphic design everywhere you look: from packaging to magazines, billboards and television advertising.
If a client asks for all of the space to be filled up, ask them why. Sometimes it’s unavoidable (this is usually when there is a lot of content to be placed in a small space, like on a toothpaste tube). Otherwise, if it can be avoided it should be.

Design isn’t an afterthought

The value of good design cannot be understated. It can get a company noticed, make them stand out from the competition, provide professional credibility, or it can be one of the foundations of their brand identity. Good design is a legitimate investment in a company’s future. The best clients are the ones who understand the value that a well-researched and well-executed design brings them.

What else would you add to the list of Design Isn’ts?


  • Jo

    May 27, 2009 at 8:10 am

    Design isn’t just making things pretty, it’s making things work too!

  • inspirationbit

    May 27, 2009 at 8:47 am

    Design isn’t something that can be done in a matter of minutes or few hours only…

    Design isn’t something that your neighbours friend can do for free…

    Thanks for putting this list, Tracey. I’ll be referring my clients to it.

  • Jake Bartholomew

    May 27, 2009 at 9:00 am

    What a great article I can’t agree with you more on all your points. Another point to maybe add to your list would be “Turn around time”.

    I know in my situation I not only do in-house design for the company I work for, but I also get to work with the clients doing design work for them. And it never seems to fail that someone has a deadline to meet and are running behind and come to you with a project with only a day or two to get it done. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to tell clients and coworkers alike that design is not done fast or slow, but at the right speed for the given project.

    Thanks again Tracey for a great article.

  • David Airey

    May 27, 2009 at 9:31 am

    Love it, Tracey. Great idea, and well written.

  • Joann Sondy

    May 27, 2009 at 9:41 am

    Thank you, Tracey; nice article. Think I’ll print and reference when frustration emerges.

  • Daniel

    May 27, 2009 at 9:44 am

    Design isn’t cleaning up after someone who has already tried to do it in PowerPoint and then got themselves in such a pigging mess that the only solution they can come up with is to plonk it onto “that guy in the corner who has a Mac for some reason”.

    Spleen: vented.

  • wink

    May 27, 2009 at 9:46 am

    Very cool article! We should hang this on the front door of our office… so every client that enters the building is on the same page 😉

  • divinefusion

    May 27, 2009 at 9:48 am

    Tracey, thank you for this post. I want to attach it to my contract, please?! lol And I will include @inspirationbit’s remarks too. : )

  • Tamixes

    May 27, 2009 at 9:51 am

    Great article! Another myth I’ve come across is the client who just wants a ‘simple’ design. There’s a big misconception that a clean and minimal design style is just ‘simple’ and therefore qualifies as a quick, easy and cheap project. They have no understanding that white space is actually designed (as per your 2nd last point).

  • Brian Yerkes

    May 27, 2009 at 9:52 am

    Really enjoyed this post Tracey, unique topic and well written as David said…this was a fun post to see in my feedreader this morning, thanks Tracey

  • Steve

    May 27, 2009 at 11:13 am

    Yeah, I second that… I guarantee a few of my clients are going to be forced to read this.

    Great job.

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  • Deirdre n√≠ Dhubhghaill

    May 27, 2009 at 11:31 am

    Even when the Graphic Design is preceded by Typo (typographic design) it doesn’t mean the Graphic designer is a typist who’ll type up your CV or Thesis.

    I think you captured the rest rather nicely. Thank You

  • Kyle Gallant

    May 27, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    I work in-house for a group of funeral homes, I’m printing this out and putting it up in our office.

    This was very well written, and exactly what I needed to see this afternoon… and for that I thank you.

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  • Andrew Houle

    May 27, 2009 at 3:00 pm

    Wow, fantastic perspective Tracey! I’ve definitely faced most, if not all of these issues. I always feel guilty adding so many disclaimers in my contracts, but if you don’t then before you know it you’ll be asked if you can network the client’s laptop and pc!

  • Greg Wallace

    May 27, 2009 at 4:10 pm

    Tracey, great points made here. Thanks for posting.

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  • Manda Szewczyk

    May 27, 2009 at 5:13 pm

    I absolutely love this article, and agree wholeheartedly with every point. I have experienced all of these myths at one time or another in my design career, and it felt really good to read through your points and know that I am not alone in my experiences. Thank you!

  • Tracey Grady

    May 27, 2009 at 6:03 pm

    That’s true not only for graphic design but all areas of design.

    Both excellent points. I’m glad to hear you want to refer your clients to this post, it’s a great compliment.

    I really like your explanation to clients that design is not fast or slow but the right speed for a given project. Thanks for sharing it here.

    Thanks, and I really appreciate your tweeting about this too – it’s put this post in front of a much wider audience.

    It’s nice to think this can be of help for you during those most frustrating times 🙂

    Hope you’re feeling much better after venting your spleen! 😉
    You’ve made a very good point, and you sound like you’re writing from an in-house perspective. A freelancer would (and should) charge a fee that’s appropriate to the clean-up job or else advise that the work will have to start again from scratch. But an in-house designer probably has too much work on their plate already and no net benefit for taking on jobs like this too (correct me if I’m wrong).

    I would love it if you did hang the article on the front door of your office!

    I’m glad you’re finding the post so useful!

    White space=cheap design: yes this is a big misconception. Well put. It’s an example of a prospective client seeing something they like personally (in this case because it looks like a quick turnaround) and thinking it will work for them too, when there are so many other considerations.

  • Japh

    May 27, 2009 at 6:28 pm

    Love it! Right on the money!

    I’m feeling a little inspired to write a companion post on my blog titled “what Web Development ISN’T”… would you mind? (The main thing being… Graphic Design!! ;))

  • Nick Pettit

    May 27, 2009 at 6:59 pm

    EXCELLENT post. I especially like that you pointed out how designers are sometimes thrown into the IT category. This happens more than most would like to believe. 😀

  • Mokokoma Mokhonoana

    May 28, 2009 at 3:17 am

    Design isn‚Äôt random: “Every time a prospective client approaches a designer, it‚Äôs because they have a problem which needs a solution”


  • Aaron Russell

    May 28, 2009 at 4:12 am

    Great read Tracey. Love every word of it, and so true! Stumbled 🙂

  • Tracey Grady

    May 28, 2009 at 5:02 am

    Thanks, your feedback and the tweet you sent promoting this post are much appreciated.

    Be gentle with your clients! 😉

    Ah, I missed out the all-important role that designers play as typists (ha!). How could I have overlooked that one?

    I’m glad to have written a post which made your afternoon. It’s nice to get such positive feedback.

    I know exactly what you mean about disclaimers in contracts; I find myself scanning mine from time to time, asking myself “does that really need to be there?”. The answer, of course, is yes.

    Glad you’ve enjoyed reading this!

    In many instances the misunderstanding is genuine, but disheartening when it happens time and time again. I hope you have a good bunch of clients who respect your work these days.

    Go right ahead! If you do write a companion post, let me know and I’ll link to it from here.

    One thing I’ve learned is that design talk can be just as baffling to non-designers as programming talk can be to non-programmers, so in that sense perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised when someone confuses a designer for an IT specialist. I still find it very amusing though.

    So simple and so true.

    Thanks for the Stumble (and the tweet too)!

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  • Harrison

    May 28, 2009 at 11:09 am

    Design isn’t styling.

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  • Ovi Dogar

    May 29, 2009 at 4:41 am

    Hey Tracey ,

    Really nice article…

    Keep up the great work!

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  • brian

    May 29, 2009 at 12:32 pm

    I enjoyed reading this post. I wish I could get some clients to read this as well.

    It seems that even after explaining some of the things you are talking about here, that they still don’t get it.

    I’ll be sure to pass this one on.

    Design is not pushing buttons and expecting great things to happen.

  • Bonnie Adamson

    May 30, 2009 at 7:28 am

    Great post! Having started my career in the dark ages before computers, I’m particularly sensitive to “designers’ who know only how to plug in a template.

    Amplifying your well-articulated point about clip art (thank you!): design isn’t illustration–many designers (myself included) are also illustrators, but design and illustration require two different skill sets. Original art for editorial layouts, for instance, should always be priced separately. And designers who do not illustrate should keep a list of freelance artists to whom they can subcontract.

  • @mimojito (aka Efren)

    May 30, 2009 at 11:20 am

    Great article! One more thing of note: Design follows function. Always. Clients tend to forget that and try to jam as much info and graphics into as small a space as possible. It’s up to us to guide them and guide the design. Also we need to be impartial to criticism especially when it is an emotional response. Clients have a hard time distinguishing between how the page is laid out versus elements on the page. Images can be changed and colors swapped but guiding them through that path can be treacherous.

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  • Tracey Grady

    June 1, 2009 at 6:18 pm

    Design is definitely not easy, and neither is the on-going job of educating clients about what we do. If you do show this post to some of your clients I hope you get a good response.

    As a designer who also illustrates, I couldn’t agree more. I usually break down my design work into various “tasks” when quoting and invoicing, so it’s easy to charge separately for illustration. Do you find there’s confusion from clients between the two services? (design and illustration).

    Great points. Explaining the function to the client from the outset, and coming back to that explanation when necessary, is a good rule of thumb.

  • Luiz Pryzant

    June 1, 2009 at 8:04 pm

    Design isn’t branding.
    Even though an designer could understand branding like no other professional, branding need diferent approaches and tools, as well as a different service quotation.

  • Anthony Hortin

    June 2, 2009 at 3:31 am

    You’re spot on with all that. What a great post Tracey. Good stuff!!

  • Michael Lajlev

    June 2, 2009 at 3:36 am

    Looking forward to the post telling us, what design really is. Basic coaching learned me, that its too easy to spot mistakes. Try spot the positiv trends instead.

  • Donald

    June 2, 2009 at 3:41 am

    Although it may be transparent, design isn’t silent. The harmony of the shapes, spaces and colors must communicate with a given audience.
    Design isn’t alone.
    Definitely needed this post. Good show!

  • Respiro

    June 2, 2009 at 4:41 am

    This article had to be written. Let the TRUTH make us free, in this case, too!

  • Tracey Grady

    June 2, 2009 at 5:17 am

    Designing for a brand identity is just one aspect of the broad work involved in creating a brand. Many designers specialise in brand identity; it would be interesting to see whether they experience confusion from clients as to how far the designer’s role goes.

    Anthony, Respiro:
    Great to hear how much you like the post!

    It might be easy to spot mistakes, but it’s also crucial that you do spot them and then address them, as I’m sure basic coaching has also taught you. This article aims to be helpful to designers and clients alike.

    Design isn’t silent: that’s a very elegant way of stating the importance of design as a communication tool. I’m really glad you shared it here.

  • Jo√£o R.

    June 2, 2009 at 7:32 am

    Great article. Really great article.

    Design isn’t a detail. It works with details too, to create something really big.

  • Jonathan Stevens

    June 2, 2009 at 7:36 am

    You mentioned a few jobs that design gets mistaken for – but there are a lot more.

    Design isn’t illustration, web design, flash design, flash animation, flash programming, animation of any sort actually, video post production, 3D realisation, photography, branding, copywriting, printing, hosting, IT support or voluntary slavery.

    These skills are also cool to have, but clients should know this and graphic design graduates should also figure out what they want to be as soon as they can before they become a kind of jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none as i learned when I finished my course.

  • rbc303

    June 2, 2009 at 1:44 pm

    I love the “Design isn‚Äôt IT”!!
    An analogy I use is Doctors. Would you ask a podiatrist to do brain surgery? They are both doctors with different specialties! Don’t ask me how to fix your email!!!

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  • Boris K

    June 2, 2009 at 11:07 pm

    Great post!

    graphic design isn’t ad booking, and i don’t know how much an ad in the phone book costs!

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  • Michelle J

    June 4, 2009 at 7:31 am

    What a great post, one I’ll be referring too often! Thank you.

  • HWD

    June 8, 2009 at 8:19 pm

    As someone who has graphic designers on staff this is a great article and helps me see it from the other side of the coin. I’m a web developer who has a passion for design, but I am no graphic designer. That’s what I leave to the pros.

    Great article!

  • Kingsley

    June 10, 2009 at 11:44 am

    Thank you for eveything and i mean it
    i was just doing work now and i came across your site
    made me understand a lot of things as i had the same kind of experience but less drama lol
    i wish i had this site a year ago 🙂

  • Tim Wright

    June 15, 2009 at 12:44 pm

    It also isn’t Web Design. You can always tell when a graphic designer tried to build a web site

  • Dave DeCastris

    June 15, 2009 at 1:24 pm

    Thank you. I will reference this list to all. I’ve been doing this 12 years and the kind of respect I get from inquiring businesses borders on a game I play called “How hard can I bite my tongue before I snap?” I mean it. Lately, I’ve found more reasons to make money being homeless than to be a designer. You will be referenced left and right.

  • Spencer R

    June 15, 2009 at 1:50 pm

    Absolutely fantastic article. I wish everyone in the general populous could read this article. In all fairness, it’s not their fault; most people just don’t know. We don’t educate kids in design growing up in the American education system like we educate them in math or history. I imagine it is too much too hope for to think that the arts will ever take a forefront position to other programs that are cut from schools.

  • Dave

    June 16, 2009 at 9:00 pm

    Design isn’t decoration

  • Konkurrence

    June 21, 2009 at 4:22 am

    I agree with you that design isn’t just anything you have written, good design give values and credibility to a company. I really like this article and I like your point of view. thanks…

  • shahrul

    June 22, 2009 at 12:05 pm

    a good read
    thanks for putting in words what i myself cant

  • Jasper Van Proeyen

    June 24, 2009 at 8:50 am

    I’d first like to quote Steve Jobs:
    “Design isn’t just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

    Furthermore I must say that, unfortunately, it helps to have expertise in some of the other stuff too (e.g. web design, IT, marketing, ‚Ķ). That’s just how the “real world” works :-! Regarding this fact, the post of your title should be:
    “Busting the myths: what Graphic Design SHOULDN’T BE”

    Finally I’d like to compliment you with this superb article. It couldn’t be described any better and I‚Äôll be referring it many times. Thanks!

  • Greten

    July 8, 2009 at 2:03 pm

    Ha ha ha! Nice post you got there. Can relate but my case was kinda opposite. I prefer to call myself web consultant instead of web designer because I’m not really much into designs. I’m more into CMS, functionality and cross browser compatibility (somehow an IT person), and I’m having difficulty when my standards of beauty are not at par with my clients.

  • Chance Lay/Bayou Design

    July 14, 2009 at 10:36 am

    Hello Tracey,
    After reading this, I can tell you are a true designer by nature. Everything you have mentioned here, I have come across a time or two. The only thing I can add is that design isn’t a debate. The clients sister in law does not know what would make it look better because she took a scrapbooking class last Wednesday. The client should leave the art to the artist. That is why they hire us, isn’t it? If sis-n-law could have done it, they wouldn’t be spending money on us.Usually the artist’s first impression is the one to go with. That can’t be debated. Very deep post.
    Yours truly….
    Chance Lay

  • SVS-NS

    July 15, 2009 at 7:16 am

    Design is not “improved” by getting “opinions” from clients’ wife, husband, parents, aunt, uncle . . . ; or by letting the 8-year-old-next-door—as lovely as she is—”have a go at it.”

    : )


  • Dougie B

    July 15, 2009 at 10:55 am

    You’re right Tim! You can tell! A web site designed by a GD always looks great but functions (code wise) like crap while a Web Designer can make a website function wonderfully but make it look stale and boring….

    Sorry, just had to poke a little fun at that! 😉

  • Jennifer Farley

    July 19, 2009 at 3:46 pm

    Hi Tracey

    Wonderful post. I wish all clients would read this, both for their sake and mine!

  • HFdesign Webdesign

    July 27, 2009 at 7:19 am

    Yeah a common question I get when I tell people I’m a designer.. “Oh you’re a designer, you must know everything about computers. Can fix my hotmail, I can’t login?”

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  • DennisBB

    August 25, 2009 at 3:21 am

    Agree with most of it.

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  • jnik

    October 27, 2009 at 7:19 am

    Great article. I liked my graphic design teacher said we are not secretaries. You no the type who type up letters throw in a clip art picture and think its graphic design all in a matter of 20 seconds. No offence to secretarial people they no word processing but they are not graphic designers.

    We are artists.

  • Larissa

    October 27, 2009 at 1:45 pm

    Thanks. This is great. I have run into so many of these with my own clients!

  • Firdouss

    February 24, 2010 at 2:28 am

    Very nice write! Love it. This speaks for almost all corners of being a designer! Keep it up!

    ps: I don’t understand why some clients are shopping for designers and then told each one of these designers that “my nephew can do it in 17 minutes in ms word”. Why don’t they ask the nephew to do it then?
    .-= Firdouss´s last blog ..Thinking of buying the iPad? Why don’t you try out web surfing on it before you do? =-.

  • bleh

    February 10, 2011 at 6:35 pm

    I just found this article, and I think it’s great! I find that a lot of these apply to illustration as well. I can’t count how many times someone has come to me asking for a “quick” and “simple” design or illustration for free, that because they think you have talent or do it for a hobby, it’s easy for you and wouldn’t mind doing it “pro bono.” I agree with Tamixes up there–NOTHING IS EVER SIMPLE, EVER.

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