Why modern graphic designers are functional artists

Graphic designers sometimes feel quite mysterious. Mostly creative looking, often found shuffling around their Apple Macs and living somewhere between techy and arty. They are also often left to their own creative devices in the business world, because people don’t quite understand what they do, kind of like a unicorn in a suit.

So who are Graphic designers? A lot of people think they design nice looking logos and brochures and spend hours picking out fonts and colours. Which is kind of like saying a chef is someone that just adds lots of ingredients together in a pan.

They are actually the people that build a bridge between art and functional design, to target a specific audience. They design with a practical purpose in mind and use visual arts, communications, and psychology to translate beautiful visuals into tangible goals – which is no mean feat.

Any marketer worth their salt, knows that strong visual branding and sharp wording are the magic markers for a successful campaign. Graphic designers, copywriters and marketers also share a common thread – they use the arts and social patterns to create something that sits between creativity and practicality. Something that is a representation of the current status quo or where a trend is heading.

Behind the looking glass

Graphic designers kind of live between two worlds, or have one foot in each. They are not quite tech engineers and not quite pure artists (although many do wear both hats).

To be a successful graphic designer, you can’t just know what colours or lines go where, how to use a software tool, or go full pelt into a commercial brief without thinking of the artistic beauty of a design. You also can’t just do what your artistic tastes dictate, because you need to listen to the audience and be in line with the intended message.

Pure artists normally design according to what they want to see produced, and if the public like it then that’s a bonus, but not the point. A pure artist creates from their own experiences or because of a need to express themselves. A graphic design creates an experience for the other person and expresses an external viewpoint or how a brand wishes to be perceived. Much like the difference between copywriting and poetry.

Graphic design trends are also directly influenced by already established art movements and are then painstakingly translated into functionality. Minimalism, modernism, cubism, pop art and even the surrealist art movement are all huge influences for modern design.

Brick by Brick

But perhaps the most important is Bauhaus, which was also the first art movement to remove the distinction between artist and designer, and helped pave the way for the multi-faceted graphic designer.

Bauhaus artists were the original functional designers, the minimalist rebels who created shining and unflinching modernism in the wake of a dark and subversive time in Germany. The movement was a huge advocator for marrying art, craft, industry, and technology together – which is still a prevailing concept across both creative and commercial design.

Some of the most famous Bauhaus artists also wrote streams of papers in the 1920s and 30s which predicted our own future relationship with design. Wassily Kandinsky wrote about how objects can relate to one another on a page and how they can guide a viewer’s eye and Paul Klee explored how colour can create an instant reaction with an audience.

Bauhaus ended in 1933 as the Nazis took power, but it still managed to shine a long and unfaltering beacon into the future which helped create the foundations for graphic design, user experience and modern ideas of harmonious beauty.

Practically Beautiful

When I think of graphic designers, I mostly think of tech savvy and commercially-minded artists.  I like to think celebrated painters from 200 years ago might have put down their paint brush and opted for Adobe Illustrator if they’d had a MacBook to hand.

I often work with graphic designers because of what I do, and I’ve found they come in all shapes and sizes and really range on the creativity kaleidoscope. Some create mind-bending design from the most boring of products, some go off on a creative tangent throwing two fingers up at caution, and others stay tightly within a brief and prefer the mechanics of design rather than edgy visuals.

What I’ve always found impressive with graphic designers is that they manage to make art a mainstream conversation, they manage to shine a light on it without making it pretentious. They help influence ideas about modern design and beauty and even how products are sold, but they do it quietly behind their sleek desks.

I love that most people hardly even notice them adding cubist shapes or surrealist design processes onto an album cover or a product brochure. For me, what graphic designers do best is that they create something visual that changes opinions and trends without people seeing each and every design stepping stone.