Graphic Designer VS Illustrator: What’s the Difference?

Naomi Wilkinson illustration portfolio

The global graphic design industry was worth around $45.8 billion in 2020. Yet, it’s surprising that many people still don’t have a clear idea of what graphic designers do.

There are many types of graphic design and it is important to know the difference between them. If you don’t know about the field you are interested in, it can be difficult to establish your career.

Countless times, illustrators have mistaken themselves as passionate graphic designers. It’s not uncommon for someone to say he or she is a graphic designer when they’re clearly not. If you take a look at their work it might be something like this:

Naomi Wilkinson illustration portfolio
Image credit: Naomi Wilkinson

Now, although that looks awesome, it’s not exactly graphic design. If you were to apply for a graphic design position with a portfolio like that – there’s lesser chance for you to land the job.

Employers are constantly on the hunt for designers that can elevate their branding. To maintain efficiency, they need to have the right person to fit the job description. Knowing the difference between an illustrator and graphic designer will be crucial for you to decide which job you want to apply for.

What is Graphic Design?

Before going into the differences between graphic designers and illustrators it is first important to know what these two terms mean.

Graphic design is the art and profession of using visual concepts to communicate ideas and messages. Graphic designers use imagery, color, typography and layout techniques for this visual communication.

In graphic designing, you usually identify a target audience first – people who are potentially interested in your brand. Then you design for them in a way to communicate your message that would resonate with the audience.

Graphic designers need to have good knowledge on typography, color, branding, and the market they are operating in. For example, if you are designing a poster for a local football tournament you need to know which fonts and colors would attract football fans.

What is Illustration?

Illustration is visual imagery used to explain something. Illustrations are used to tell a story, convey an idea or decorate something.

Drawings – which are usually drawn by a drawing tablet – are the most common form of illustration. Modern drawing software such as Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator have given designers the ability to make custom brushes. This allows them to get the same look and feel of pencils, ink and charcoal in their digital drawings.

Illustrations are widely used by digital and print media. Illustrators are becoming more and more busy as many companies have started to incorporate illustrations in their branding.

You can find many examples in print media such as magazines, books and posters. In digital media, you’ll see almost every site use icons to suggest things like navigation. Websites have vector icons for their menu, settings, services etc.

Graphic Design vs Illustration

Both graphic designers and illustrators are mainly in charge of creating design elements. However, they each have different skills and responsibilities as well as employers.

Graphic designers are mainly focused on turning ideas and messages into visual communication targeting potential customers. Illustration on the other hand is more about creative expression and explaining an idea in your own creative style.

Since the nature of these fields is similar, illustrators are also given some training on graphic designing. But, illustration focuses more on the artistic side of things. You can expect to learn a lot about art history, sculpting, painting and drawing as an illustrator.

If you are majoring in graphic design, your coursework would include advanced concepts on design and communication. This could include learning about typography, color, marketing, branding etc.

As a graphic designer, you would mostly be working on branding, product design, web design, logo design and publication.

An illustrator might also work on the above but focusing more on the illustration part. This could include things like designing graphics for product packaging, illustration for a magazine cover design, or drawing comics.

Let’s discuss the job description of each to get a better idea of what to expect.

Graphic Designer Job Description

Below are some skills and responsibilities of a graphic designer:

Graphic Designer Responsibilities

  • Create and design materials for various mediums including print and digital.
  • Reach deadlines on time and maintain budget constraints.
  • Study and research on design briefs and identify customer requirements.
  • Create design concepts and rough drafts.
  • Create visually pleasing designs with proper use of color, typography and imagery.
  • Work with other departments to ensure smooth production of final design.
  • Testing designs on various mediums and gathering feedback.
  • Revise designs based on user feedback and data.

Graphic Designer Requirements and Skills

  • Relevant graphic design experience.
  • Degree in Fine arts, Design or any related field from a reputable university.
  • High-quality portfolio.
  • Experience in using graphic design software (Photoshop, Illustrator, Affinity, Coreldraw etc.)
  • Sharp eye for attention to detail.
  • Great team working and communication skills.
  • Ability to meet deadlines and stay within budget constraints.

Illustrator Job Description

Below are some skills and responsibilities of an illustrator

Illustrator Responsibilities

  • Brainstorm ideas and concepts.
  • Understand customer requirements and make rough drafts.
  • Reach deadlines on time and maintain budget constraints.
  • Combine traditional and digital illustration techniques to create concepts.
  • Appropriately use colors, graphics and effects to create visually-appealing illustrations.
  • Format images using computer-aided design (CAD) software.
  • Work with marketers, copywriters and editors to create complete illustrations.

Illustrator Requirements and Skills

  • Relevant experience in illustration, graphic designing or similar role.
  • Bachelor’s degree (BSc) in Design, Visual Arts or any other related field.
  • Strong portfolio showcasing high-quality and attractive illustrations.
  • Experience in traditional art techniques and using illustration software (Illustrator, Photoshop, Inkscape etc.)
  • Strong drawing skills using hand and digital tablet.

Career Paths and Job Outlooks

Hopefully, by now you have a good idea of what the skills and responsibilities of a graphic designer and illustrator are like. It is helpful to know the career paths available to you so you can determine the scope of your chosen field.

Graphic Design Outlook and Opportunities

Graphic design has a lot of opportunities for new and experienced designers. Employment of graphic designers is projected to increase about 3% from 2020 to 2030. There are an estimated 23,900 job openings for graphic designers proving there’s a clear demand for graphic designers.

As for the career opportunities there are many paths you can choose. Here are just some you can explore (income estimations source):

  • Logo Designer – 17.67/hr
  • Photo Editor – $16.32/hr
  • Web Designer – $22.32/hr
  • 3D Designer – $53,386/year
  • Video Game Designer – $57,335/year
  • Visual Designer – $69,810/year
  • Art Director – $72,297/year
  • UI/UX Designer – $70,000 – $80,000/year

I have written a detailed post on the 11 highest paying graphic design jobs so check that out for more info.

Illustration Outlook and Opportunities

Due to the ever-changing dynamic of this industry, new trends come and go. Many businesses have started to demand professional illustrators to give their brands a creative twist.

The demand for illustrators is estimated to grow about 14% from 2020 – 2030 (source). However, certain fields of illustration design such as medical illustration may be more in demand than others.

Here are a few options you can choose from as an illustrator (income estimations source):

  • Illustrator – $48,692/year
  • Comic Book Artist – $41,985/year
  • Animator – $43,259/year
  • Medical Illustrator – $62,000/year
  • Concept Artist – $78,406
  • Storyboard Artist – $98,750/year

According to BLS, illustrators are usually self-employed and work on a commission basis. So, if you plan on choosing this career path keep in mind that the competition is extremely high.

There are many qualified artists but not as many job openings for this career. But, working on commission can open up a lot of opportunities and lead to a decent income.

Which is Better: Illustrator or Graphic Designer?

Although the answer to this question comes down to personal preferences there are some factors that come into play.

Becoming a graphic designer will open up a lot of fields for you. Many of the fields, including illustration, are linked to graphic design. No matter which field you choose you would have to learn some basic graphic design terms.

So, in my opinion, becoming a graphic designer is a much better option than an illustrator. Choosing to become an illustrator would limit your options as you would be specializing in one field. If you have great experience in illustration then specializing might be better but if you want to stay open to more options, graphic designing is the way to go.

Think of illustration as narrowing down to a specific niche of graphic design. If you have a good grip on your drawing and illustrating skills becoming an illustrator might come natural to you. However, to ensure you have a good future you should choose to specialize in one field of illustration.

Frequently Asked Questions FAQs

Do Illustrators Get Paid Well?

Unfortunately, illustrators don’t get paid that much. With more experience you can increase your demands but many entry-level illustrators are poorly paid. Most illustrators work on commission and make a decent income by working with individuals and publishing companies.

Can You Be a Graphic Designer with an Illustration Degree?

YesSince graphic designers and illustrators share similar tasks and responsibilities it is possible to pursue graphic designing with your illustration degree. 12% of illustration graduates went ahead to become employed as graphic designers in 2021 (source).

However, keep in mind that both professions do require a different set of professional skills. You would need additional training on graphic design principles and concepts to be qualified for a graphic design position.

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