Graphic Design vs Web Design — What’s the Difference?

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If you’ve been confusing graphic and web design, don’t worry — you’re not alone. After all, both of these spheres focus on design and often cover the same types of projects.

That said, they are by no means the same thing, and if you want to know who to turn to for each specific part of a given project, you’ll want to know the difference. Therefore, we’ve decided to consult some of the leading website marketing companies and create this detailed guide breaking down each role and the critical differences.

Obviously, individual skills will vary from person to person and from team to team, but there are a few essential staples of web design vs. graphic design that don’t really change. These are what we will focus on today to define the roles and explain the overall difference between the two disciplines. 

Graphic design vs. web design — definitions

Before we talk about the differences between graphic design and web design, we should probably define each of them. This is what we will focus on in this part of the article. Let’s begin with graphic design.

What is graphic design?

We define graphic design as the discipline that deals with creating the visual side of a product. Graphic designers are tasked with communicating many different things through visual assets, including icons, illustrations, and other “graphics,” as well as photography, typography, and even templates.

Graphic design vs. web design

All of these mediums can and should be used by a graphic designer or team to create the visual composition of a product.

The most apparent distinction that can be made between graphic design and web design is that a graphic designer is not expected to have technical knowledge. That said, great designers do not rely on their visual skills alone — they supplement them with an ability to research problems and a significant level of understanding of user behavior.

This is the reason graphic designers tend to do so well with setting up page layouts. They are capable of designing the front and according to how they expect users to behave.

Moreover, graphic design is about much more than just drawing and illustrating — it requires a firm grasp of color theory (the science of color interaction), psychology, and visual hierarchy. Graphic design may be an area that doesn’t require the deep technical knowledge needed for digital projects; it most certainly requires an extensive understanding of user behavior, visuals, and how the two interact.

What is web design?

Web design is the combination of methods and skills used to produce and maintain a website. This includes not only technical skills, such as search engine optimization and coding but also design-based skills, such as optimizing the user experience through interfaces and other elements.

What is web design

This is an active process from the very beginning, regardless of whether you’re dealing with a team encompassing the required skills or an individual web designer. Think of it as product design for websites — one must understand the website’s goals and how users will interact with it. They must also be able to plan a path forward and choose the appropriate technologies to use in production.

All that being said, we did just talk about web design including visual skills. This is why we often see people with graphic design backgrounds within web design teams — the most likely cause of the initial confusion between the two terms — but it is essential to remember that web designers are primarily responsible for handling website infrastructure.

We should also point out that website design is often considered a more complete skill set. While websites share many visual elements with other types of software, websites tend to have unique technology choices. This may change with the rise of progressive web apps, as the boundaries between apps and websites become increasingly blurred.

In this day and age, we can no longer treat websites as entirely separate entities from other software applications, particularly in the business domain. As a result, we are also seeing a more extended need for web design skills. 

Differences between graphic design and web design

Now that we’ve gone over the definitions of each of the two disciplines and explained what they cover in a bit more detail, we can talk about the most apparent differences between the two. We will discuss these in the following section of the article, in no particular order.

Dynamicity

Needless to say, graphic design has been around for much longer than web design as much of its history is tied to physical media, such as books, magazines, billboards, newspapers, etc. Conversely, web design purely focuses on digital mediums.

One of the key differences between the two disciplines stems from this fact. As you know, in a book or a magazine, content has a very specific, static order, and the design suits that. On a website, on the other hand, designers can’t use a pre-established pattern, as each user forges their own path through the experience.

This means web designers must make sure that each viewport can stand on its own and fulfill its respective purpose. They must also provide the users with the appropriate tools to navigate the website or app intuitively.

The creativity web designers need to showcase is becoming even more apparent in the age of dynamic, personalized content. E-commerce provides an excellent example of this, as today’s digital stores are expected to recommend products based on user preferences, prioritize items based on historical trends and data, etc.

In a printed catalog, none of this is necessary — in fact, it is not possible — so the dynamic nature of web presentations is an entirely new area that designers must incorporate into their work.

Creativity

One of the many catch-22s of building a great website is that it needs to be both familiar enough to make it effortless to use and unique enough to stand out from the crowd. A plain product catalog with few graphical embellishments may be easy to navigate, but it is unlikely to get people talking.

Creativity

Internet users today expect websites to make an effort visually, and this requires web development teams with creative people on board.

This is where graphic design comes in. Designers take whatever information they have on their target audience and use it to produce visuals that resonate. Some of the broad branding aspects also come into play here. The website must also match everything else the business does in terms of branding, including printed materials and brick-and-mortar shops. The brand’s loyal followers should have zero problems identifying the website.

Performance and optimization

Large files can cause performance issues on a website, including slower loading times and graphical glitches, which not only affect the user experience but hamper your search engine optimization efforts as well. It doesn’t take a web design expert to understand that people do not enjoy slow websites and will be tempted to click away if they’re experiencing lag and other performance issues.

Moreover, while people like beautiful UI animation and graphics on their websites, these are usually the exact culprits for the issues mentioned above.

While graphic designers don’t necessarily have to worry about this type of stuff, especially if their designs are meant for printed media, web designers need to think of website performance. Aside from ensuring that the images are as “light” as can be, they also consider the process of loading in the content, the actions performed behind the scenes, and any other aspects that may impact a site’s performance.

Scale and viewports

In print media, page size and aspect ratio tend to remain the same. This is something graphic designers can consistently rely on to produce perfectly proportioned elements. In a digital world, however, screen sizes often differ.

As a result, web designers are forced to think about various settings and make their designs compatible with different computer monitors, not to mention smartphones and tablets. They can do this in many different ways — the prevalent practice today is to load content dynamically, based on the device used to access it, instead of having a separate mobile variant of a website. However, sometimes the latter option may be preferable, depending on a broad set of factors we will not go into here.

In other words, web designers need to create elements that adapt to scale dynamically. This means they have to work with adaptable assets. For example, images will not only need to be scaled down for smartphone viewports, but they will also need to be moved and adjusted to fit the text.

This also influences typography and other areas, meaning there is much overlap between web design and graphic design concerns. No matter how beautiful the graphic design team's font picks, the web team will have to test how easy it is to read on a small screen.

Visual theory

We briefly mentioned visual hierarchy and color theory earlier. This broader visual theory is essential to building websites. The visual presentation on the front end directs the user once they land on the site. The faster they can understand what they should click, where they should move, and how they can find what they’re looking for, the more successfully the website will address their concerns.

This means graphic designers need to understand which colors they should use, how to make use of white space, and emphasize the most relevant aspects of the page and how each of these choices will influence the overall experience.

Support

Once a graphic designer is finished with a visual asset, that’s it — their work is done. However, a website must constantly adapt and evolve. New sections and pages must be added, and new technologies adopted to make the site even more responsive. Moreover, these changes often mean a partial or complete redesign of existing elements, not to mention additional planning.

Websites are expected to be more adaptable and responsive with each passing day. This means web designers need to keep up with new developments in the industry, and these new developments can sometimes be quite Earth-shattering. 

For example, the rise of smartphones led to mobile websites becoming more and more important, while desktop browsers have brought out technologies meant to keep them in the race.

Yet, graphic designers are rarely concerned by these issues, as their work focuses purely on the front end. Graphic design does enter the picture (pun intended) when the visuals are impacted by technology choices, but until that happens, the web designers are the ones that bear the brunt of the technological impact.

Analytics

As we’ve already discussed, web design is an ongoing process. This means web designers need to analyze the performance of a given website, along with other data, measure the site’s success and plan for potential improvements.

analytics

Typical website analytics focus on the bounce rate, most-viewed pages, and website performance. Keyword performance and other SEO aspects are also important, telling designers the most common sources of traffic.

Depending on the type of website, the crucial analytics change. For example, e-commerce stores will focus more heavily on user activity. On these websites, it is doubly crucial for users to be able to find the exact items they’re looking for, as this often makes or breaks a sale. The same goes for payment processes and the overall checkout procedure.

All of these factors, and more, can indicate if something is not right and improvements need to be made. 

Graphic design vs. web design — conclusion

If you’re planning on building a website, you will need both web designers and graphic designers. The former will bring forth knowledge of visual theory and user behavior to create engaging assets and ensure the frontend is as inspiring and user-friendly as possible. The latter will be active from the initial stages of the project by helping developers implement every design element correctly and offering their expertise during the support phase.

It is crucial to balance the two if you’re looking to create a graphically compelling product that performs well on various devices and across various demographics. To succeed in today’s market, graphic design and web design need to work hand in hand.

About the author 

Christopher Oldman

Christopher is a digital marketing specialist and a freelance blogger. He is focused on new web tech trends and digital voice distribution across different channels. In his free time Christopher plays drums and Magic: the Gathering.

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