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Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus

Visual communication design and graphic design

January 22, 2020

By Raja Sharil Azhar bin Raja Abdillah

The field of graphic design was established centuries ago. The field continues to grow during the industrial revolution when the birth of new businesses required ‘promotional’ collateral items coupled with the existence of print press machine that made the mass production of materials possible.

Graphic design field could possibly be said to reach its pinnacle roughly in the 1980s when in the US, new businesses sprouted up, hence, creating stiff market competitions. The trend rubbed off on companies globally, making graphic design field an important business partner. Design agency businesses were booming, design graduates were sought after and designers somehow, had their own ‘status’ in society.

Those days, graphic design dealt with printed materials such as posters, billboards, magazines, and newspapers. The birth of the World Wide Web (www) later changed this landscape by directing graphic design works to a digital outcome. We could say that graphic designers in that era faced a bigger challenge as they had a global audience as compared to the 1980s where they had a much narrow target audience.

Nowadays, the challenge in reaching out to a more global audience reaches its peak. With mobile communication technology in place, reaching out as effective as they can to the target audience remains a challenge to graphic designers. Nevertheless, the success in connecting will translate to, among others, wider brand’s awareness, propelled level of trust and eventually a bigger market gain.

The complexities in reaching out to global target audiences nowadays require graphic designer to be more than just ‘good visual creator’. One thing for sure, they can never rely on traditional design outcomes anymore. Posters are hardly required, printed magazines are getting side lined by e-book or e-magazine and people are just not easily amused by hard-selling advertisement anymore.

Graphic designers are required to have more well-rounded knowledge. They need to be good in storytelling and understanding the economies; global cultures; racial and political issues; technologies; and communication trends. Thus, graphic designers need to have a strong grasp of different design strategy and willing to utilise them when needed.

The strategy includes understanding the story they want to tell; images and colour schemes to be used; the format and text to be included; the language; and down to the best media outlet to project the design. Eventually, these are the fundamental traits any graphic designers should possess, and most of the time their success is measured by the effectiveness and the level of positive impact their design has on the target audience specifically, as well as the society generally.

The ever growing complexities of visual communication, hence, render the term ‘graphic’ obsolete and misleading. Now, graphic designers are considered different than visual communication designers due to the different level of complexity. In reality, not all graphic designers label themselves as ‘graphic designer’ as some have embraced the title ‘visual communication designer’.

In the professional field, the terms make no big difference. Businesses need good visual presentation, and the designer who could provide them the service will get paid regardless he is a graphic designer or visual communication designer. It is in the academic domain that these terms are used to differentiate the depth of knowledge and learning the students have to acquire.  

According to London College of Contemporary Arts, visual communication is “Communicating with consumers using visual mediums, so students may be required to learn graphic design, animation, photography, illustration (…) the tasks involve anything within the domain of visual communication, whether photography, editing, video-filming, preparing materials to share information with clients, and so on”, whereas graphic design “has a narrow focus as it only focuses on creating graphics for websites, advertising campaigns and marketing materials (…) the tasks include designing elements for print and digital platforms”.

Hence, the obvious difference between both is the scope covered. In academic setting, being in visual communication design programme means students learn subjects related to visual communication without being constrained by specific outcomes. Visual communication design students are generally required to have a more well-rounded knowledge and may need to engage in a more thorough design exploration.

Graphic design programme, on the other hand, generally will mould the students into specific outcomes which may be connected to current trend of the industry. So which is a better option?

It depends on the students’ future plan. Ideally, visual communication design graduates are expected to be more inclined towards entrepreneurship rather than seeking out employment. This is due to the robust body of knowledge that they have acquired during their academic years.

Meanwhile, graphic design graduates are expected to provide their specialties either through employment or freelancing. However, this is not set in stone. The future career of either graduates may interchange as graphic design graduates may become successful entrepreneurs, while visual communication design graduates may remain as freelancers. One thing for sure, both field deals greatly with business, and as business trend changes, graduates are expected to embrace these changes as well.

Raja Sharil Azhar bin Raja Abdillah is a design lecturer from the Faculty of Business, Design and Arts at Swinburne University of Technology, Sarawak Campus. He can be reached via email at sabdillah@swinburne.edu.my.