Illustration or Graphic Design: Which Is the Best Major for You?

Drawings, illustrations, logos, brochures – these and many other types of visual art are all around us, and we see them every day. On the billboards, on the internet, in shop windows, everywhere you look, you see art. 

But who is creating that art? Artists, right? Well, what kind of artists? Was a particular billboard done by an illustrator or a graphic designer?

Indeed, there are quite a few points of contention between the two arts. Which one does what? Which one is better than the other? Which one should you major in?

Well, let’s try to answer some of these questions! In the following article, we’ll attempt to unveil the two artists and better understand what each does and how they do it. Let’s go!

What Is an Illustrator?

Let’s start with the illustrator. 

Now, the first thing we want to say is that, while the two artistic “schools,” you might call them, create art, it is the way in which they create it (or, rather which tools they use) and what they create the art for it is what separates the two. 

So, what does that mean in terms of being an illustrator?

An illustrator is somebody that primarily uses traditional tools and ways of creating art. They are what we would most closely associate with the word “artist” in its most basic sense of the word. Illustrators create “illustrations” – a more freeform type of art that is primarily interpretative, rather than descriptive, of its source material. 

So, for example, an illustrator would be hired to create illustrations for books, art for a restaurant menu, illustrations for a fashion company (for advertisements or for a product), and many other types of art that don’t have too rigid guidelines about the art itself. 

Another common job among illustrators involves comic books. Many of our favorite comic book heroes were created by very talented illustrators. Others, yet, teach people how to draw themselves, like in this dog drawing guide by BioWars

Now, that doesn’t mean that their art isn’t commercial – we’ve already mentioned how their art can be used for advertisements, but they aren’t constrained by the brand and the company as much when creating their illustrations. Instead, they’re very much a part of the brand creation process rather than being used to reinforce it. 

When it comes to the tools of the trade, it’s easy to misconceive an illustrator as somebody who only uses traditional means of creating art. 

Sure, many illustrators use pencils, pens, brushes and paint to create their art, but that doesn’t mean they don’t use digital tools either. 

In fact, illustrators often use them, especially in their lines of work, as it lets them create illustrations faster, with more precision and more in line with our modern ways of consuming art and artistic content. 

As for how to become an illustrator, it starts at a very early age. Illustrators are good artists to begin with, so they often have a good dose of natural talent and a penchant for drawing or painting. 

Illustrators are often part of their schools’ art classes, both curricular and extra-curricular or do a lot of drawing and painting outside of the school context. In terms of a degree, illustrators don’t have to hold any particular one, but they usually go for an undergrad or a degree as a Bachelor’s or Master’s of the Fine Arts. 

In terms of software that illustrators ought to master, they’re much the same as graphic designers, with a few minor differences. Their digital repertoire should consist of Photoshop and Illustrator at least, and, from there, they can tack on whatever piece of software they need to further their work. 

All in all, being an illustrator is a lot more freeform than graphic design. As an illustrator, you’ll work closely with your clients, putting an artistic spin on their work and interpreting it through your sketches and drawings. 

You’ll work closely with graphic designers, too! The relationship between the two is a close one, and illustrators and graphic designers collaborate on a daily basis in order to achieve maximum impact when creating a brand for their clients. 

So, You Want to Be a Graphic Designer?

So, we already gave hints as to how a graphic designer differs from an illustrator in the previous section, but let’s put those words on paper now. 

A graphic designer mostly creates visual concepts using design software. What this means in layman’s terms is that they create mostly commercial art, such as fonts and logos. 

Essentially, a graphic designer creates art that captures the essence of their client brands. They are masters of “commercial” art, and their handiwork can be seen almost anywhere, in any medium.

Just think about it – almost every brand has a logo. It is their signature, their staple, their proof of quality, and their mark of excellence. And all these logos were, at some point, created and/or updated by a graphic designer.

This puts a graphic designer much closer to their client than an illustrator. Graphic designers work closely with a brand, extracting as much information as possible, and work on creating not only a piece of art, but a visual statement for that brand. 

In terms of tools, a graphic designer mostly leans toward digital tools rather than traditional ones. A computer/laptop and editing software are a graphic designer’s best friends.

However, that doesn’t mean that a graphic designer can’t use a pen or a pencil to draw out a logo. After all, logos and fonts have been employed by companies to distinguish themselves for a long time, and somebody had to create those by hand. The Coca-Cola Company was founded in 1892, and somebody had to have created their logo by hand.

Also, it should be noted that graphic design and illustration often mix. An illustrator can also be a graphic designer and vice-versa. Since both “schools” are in the business of creating art, there is no reason why a single person cannot embody the skillsets of both of them. 

When it comes to their education, graphic designers can either hold a degree in graphic design or be self-taught. Since the advent of the internet, information has become easily available to the masses, and so have the secrets of creating graphic designs.

However, just because it is more technical, doesn’t mean that graphic designers are less talented than illustrators. 

A talented graphic designer is also a good people reader, has an eye for detail, and is an excellent judge of style – he knows what’s catchy and striking to the eye, and he knows how to extrapolate the essence of the brand and put it into a very condensed artform. 

Which One is Better – a Conclusion

So, which one is better for you? Well, that’s for you to decide. It depends on your skills and your aspirations.

If you’re more of an “artistic soul,” as they say, and you have an inclination toward sketching, drawing, and painting while also enjoying not being tied down and constrained by rules, then perhaps you should pursue illustration. 

On the other hand, if you like working within set boundaries, and are already very familiar with editing software, then you should consider the work of a graphic designer. 

However, there is no reason to think so binarily. As we said, the two lines of work often overlap, and there is no reason you shouldn’t adopt skills from both “schools” somewhere down the line. 

After all, being an artist is a constant process of self-exploration and boundary-pushing, so go out there and explore!

Author bio:

Tomas is a digital marketing specialist and a freelance blogger. His work is focusing on new web tech trends and digital voice distribution across different channels.

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