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[Design] What is Graphic Design?

category: Design | course: Graphic Design | difficulty:

Every design has the same starting point. No matter what you’re doing, you need to have a purpose for your design. Whether you’re designing assets for a game, or designing a software’s interface, or creating expressive paintings – you’ll always have a purpose your design should fulfil.

Most of the time, this purpose will be a message you want to send. Even when you’re just drawing a fantasy character for a game, you want that particular design to send a certain message. For example, the hero of the game should send messages related to that; strong, heroic, the perfect leader, muscular, and so on. As opposed to a minor background character, which should recede in the composition and make itself look small.

Similarly, as I’m writing this course, I am thinking about the best way to present the information I want you to understand – should I use images? What sections and subsections should I use? What colours should I use on the website for this course? How long should I make chapters?

Visual design is all about collecting your content and finding the message you want to send, and then using visuals to send that message using this content you have.

I do want to stress once more that fifty percent of visual design, is a direct result of usability design. Usually, if you focus on making your product as simple, effective and efficient as possible, its visuals will automatically present themselves to you and take shape. Only part of the purpose of visual design is enriching and “beautifying” designs, the other part is the important structuring and messaging of information.

Before we continue, let me just remind you that this course isn’t about drawing (which has its own course), mostly because you’d be missing the point of visual design. Drawing is about learning to represent cubes, spheres, trees, elephants, whatever by drawing lines with your pencil. Design is about putting abstract ideas or information into a visually engaging format.

The 3 Basic Components

Visual design consists of three basic components:

  • Visual Elements: The actual visual marks made on the page. Examples are dots, lines, and squares.
  • Visual Properties: The properties of those visual marks, which we can alter to change their meaning and effect. Examples are colour, texture, and proportions.
  • Visual Principles: Principles, rules and guidelines about how best to combine the other two components. Examples are alignment, proximity, and balance.


This course follows the order in which I presented these components, as every new component builds on the previous one(s). By splitting the whole field into such basic units, I hope to make it easily accessible to anyone, and to keep it as broad and general as possible. After this course, you can pick your software or materials, and perhaps specialize in some aspects of design, and you should be able to do so quickly because you’ve learnt these fundamentals of design.

Of course, on this website I can only show you two-dimensional (computer) designs and not let you touch and look around actual three-dimensional objects, but all the same principles and guidelines still apply to those!

Tools & Software

This course tries to be as general as possible, which means you can use your own tools and/or software to apply the principles. The most popular products, however, are from the family of Adobe products:

  • Illustrator: Software that allows you to easily create simple, clean illustrations on the computer.
  • InDesign: The title says it all. This software was made to design all sorts of things.
  • Photoshop: Perhaps the most popular software on earth, it’s a good choice if you plan on using a lot of photographs and imagery in your design. If not, I think it’s too difficult and expensive to start with.
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