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  • Writer's pictureJason Vita

The Designer vs The Artist

If you are a fan of this particular spirit, then you know the saying: all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.

This philosophy holds true for the roles of today’s graphic designer and graphic artist: all designers are artists, but not all artists are designers. Often, a client makes the mistake of choosing one, when they really wanted the other. Just like whiskey, the distinctions lie in the minutiae. In fact, the confusion often stems from the fact that many graphic designers ALSO double as graphic artists (myself included). What surprises me, however, is the misinterpretation of these roles by the creatives (be they designer or artist) themselves.

…so…in an effort to clear things up, I’m here to shed a little light on the situation and what to expect of the designer/artist relationship, from all sides: artist, designer and client.

The Graphic Artist:

This is the easiest to spot. They’re the passionate ones. The ones that create masterpieces of color and form, texture and shadow, balance amongst the chaos. Yet, they never seem to find satisfaction in what they produce. There’s always something to improve upon. Always a work left incomplete. The graphic artists are the dreamers. The “Imagineers” of their Magic Kingdom.

They’re also the ones that are non-negotiable. Disagree with their creation and be prepared for a tirade of obscenity, often with the phrase “NO ONE UNDERSTANDS MY VISION!!”

A graphic artist is exactly as their name implies: they are creators of artwork, according to their interpretation. They are illustrators, street artists, painters, photographers and inkers, to name a few. As a client, you can commission them to create artwork, but will have little to no say over what the graphic artist’s interpretation of the subject might be. You are paying them to create artwork from their point of view. Clients: if you are hiring Shepard Fairey to decorate your walls, don’t expect him to replace Andre The Giant with Donald Trump. If you ask him to, and he accepts, don’t be surprised by his interpretation of your request:


Graphic artists, however, are not always graphic designers. A graphic artist has the luxury of tossing aside rules, logic, form and structure to bend his or her will onto the canvas of their choosing. If the artist deems an apple to be square-shaped, then that’s what it is and the public will be responsible for justifying it (by calling it “a cubist phase, ” or “a deconstruction of malus domestica”). A graphic designer, however, does not always have that freedom. Working effectively within budgets and restrictions is one of the strengths of a graphic designer; for a graphic artist, they are handcuffs to their creativity. You’ll find that artists tend to butt heads with management over creative differences, refusing to put their signature to their work, while designers will be more apt to say “hey, it’s your dime. I’ll make it any way you want it.”

… which brings me to…

The Designer:

Graphic designers are artists, in their own right. Just like the graphic artist, they create masterpieces of color and form, texture and shadow, balance amongst the chaos. Yet one distinct difference lies between the two: audience.

A graphic designer’s primary role is to understand an audience (read: target market) and translate visual message into a form that is relateable to them. I often like to say that graphic designers are mathematicians of the art world: problem solvers, despite what they think of the outcome. When a client pays an artist for work, the client get’s what’s inside the artist’s mind. When they pay a graphic designer, they are getting a pair of hands and a translator. A designer’s job is to realize the imagination of the client and present it in an aesthetically pleasing and effective way.

Take the earlier case of malus domestica, for example. You (the client) wanted an apple to appear in the artwork. You did NOT want the apple to be square. Hiring a graphic artist means you are getting the square apple, like it or not. Cut the check.

Hiring a graphic designers means that you have the option to say,

“hey, I’m not crazy about this apple. Can you give me a real one?”

To which the designer replies

“Sure. Any particular brand of apple? Color? Size? Perhaps a Granny Smith, since it seems to match your subject’s eyes…”

The graphic designer, while he/she may not agree with the choice, understands (or should, at least) that this work doesn’t represent them. It represents the client. Designers are merely the problem solvers, with an incredible ability to extract a client’s visions and arrange them in a visually effective manner. A good designer is often armed with more than just keen problem solving abilities. They are great communicators, possessing an ability to “sell” their best solutions. They employ sets of rules that have generated results in specific areas (aka color pairings that evoke hunger or the use of serif fonts in body copy, because of legibility).


There is a structured system to graphic design, from font pairings and sizes to distances from the edge of a piece of paper. There are grid lines and axis marks, degrees of rotation and percentages of enlargement. To designers, these are terms of beauty through structure and calculation. To artists, these are terms of control and limitation. Neither are wrong. They are simply two sides of the same coin.

To sum up, when hiring a graphic professional, please make sure to understand what type of artist you are getting. You wouldn’t look up a foot doctor to perform your back surgery, would you?

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