Advertising Design vs. Graphic Design: What’s the Difference?

Learn six areas of difference between advertising and graphic design—the products each focuses on and their purpose in marketing processes.

Graphic Design
Graphic Design

Table of Contents

Advertising design is one category of graphic design, focusing on visually attractive and effective ads. But graphic design is a much more complex job. In this article, we will talk about the distinguishable differences (and similarities) between the two.

Advertising design is a non-negotiable need for every business with a solid marketing strategy lately. But businesses need much more than well-performing ads in order to attract customers: visual identity, branding identity, a good social media strategy, great web design, and many, many things that advertising design doesn’t encompass.

Although graphic design and advertising design overlap in some aspects and follow the same design principles, the latter is just one cog in the bigger system. Also, graphic designers can specialize in many other areas, such as UX design, product packaging, branding and consulting, etc.

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We’ll elaborate on the differences between these two “disciplines” of design in six categories:

  1. Artistic freedom & possible constraints
  2. Ownership of the product
  3. Research and development process
  4. Deadlines and timeframes
  5. What products do they encompass?
  6. Importance

Artistic freedom and possible constraints

Right off the bat: graphic design that doesn’t have a direct commercial purpose (i.e. a catchy ad that makes you click) and also does not have as many constraints as advertising design.

In advertising, the designer has to comply with many factors and conditions, such as format, size for SEO reasons, text to image ratio, color psychology, design elements that inspire action, etc. For example, in digital marketing, just in advertising on Facebook there are different sizes and formats for ads, unpaid posts, stories, mobile vs desktop view, carousel, placement on Facebook Marketplace, and only 20 percent of the image can be text, otherwise, Facebook won’t let you sponsor it.

And all of these constraints come even before we think about the fact that advertising design has a much more detailed brief that the designer will base the product on. Let’s say you’re promoting a webinar. The brief would be: put a layout of the speaker, the name and subject of the webinar in legible and professional typography that is no more than 20% of the whole visual, use a stern and professional color palette. Oh, and make it 1,200 x 628 pixels. Not much artistic freedom and space for experimentation, right?

But a graphic designer working on branding will get a condensed brand story, a vague idea and reference of how the logo and other branding assets might look, and they’ll do immense research and build a brand guide based on that. It’s not that their hands are completely untied, but the artistic freedom here is much greater. However, that also takes more skill and responsibility and most likely guidance by a creative director or a team collaboration.

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Ownership of the product

Both in advertising and branding, the final product belongs to the company or person that commissioned the graphic designer or design studio. A logo is the brainchild of a designer or design team, but the owner is the company that uses it.

However, advertising agencies and art directors use their big projects in portfolios and marketing pitches. Sometimes they have exclusive deals with companies to be the only party that provides all design needs to them.

However, if a company has an in-house designer who only caters to advertising design purposes, all the products part of their job description and belong to the company. When you stumble upon, let’s say, an infographic, you rarely see the designer’s name on it, right?

Still, it is a matter of contract and individual policies. Some companies don’t mind outsourced designers using their products for their portfolios, whereas some might claim complete ownership and copyright protection.

Research and development process

Whatever the design services are, the designer needs to base the product on research if they want a well-performing visual. There are many factors that will shape the way a graphic design performs: color psychology, motion, typography, composition, theoretical knowledge, fluency in using design software and following trends, design and art in general.

Generally, advertising design is mostly focused on seasonal, campaign, and ad-hoc marketing, which means more, smaller products. Graphic designers that work on branding have bigger projects that rarely need to be repurposed or redesigned (logos, brand guides, and packaging shouldn’t be changed often), so they’ll spend more time researching and developing the final product.

Visual communication is extremely valuable for the overall perception of a brand, so graphic designers will spend a lot of time researching and creating a concept. Design skills are absolutely essential, but knowledge of theory and market research is also inevitable if you want a strong and recognizable brand. The designer will have to research the brand story and mission of the company, the target audience it aims to attract, the tone of voice, important policies, and other distinguishing factors. The research is both focused on the client, and design trends and theoretical knowledge of design and its psychological effects on the audience.

In advertising design, the research is more concentrated on current trends and regulations. For example, in digital marketing, for an ad to perform well, you have to also take care of placement, segmentation, narrowing down the audience, and using good copywriting. The designer also has to know the latest updates in rules and regulations, such as dimensions, format, usage of logos and other trademarked signage, and the latest interests of the target audience. If you’re advertising clothes for youth, the design should be playful, colorful, maybe motion design, placed on Instagram Stories. You don’t want banner ads with serious and cold colors placed on Facebook’s feed, cause young people are flocking away from this social network.

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Deadlines and timeframes

As we already mentioned, branding design needs more research and time for development, while advertising design can be campaign-focused, ad hoc, and more susceptible to redesigns and changes.

For bigger projects and important branding assets, the timeframes and deadlines are usually more flexible, at least if the business expects good and genuine designs. Of course, that means more than one proposed version, variations and reworks, new strategies, and maybe adding new assets, so it is a lot of work.

For advertising purposes, deadlines are usually shorter because it means creating assets that will be used for a given period of time. it’s not uncommon to have a late notice project or to tweak a finished design because it’s not performing well. There are also many examples of real-time marketing, that were created really quickly but helped a company gain traction because it sends the right message at the right time. So, products don’t need as much time to be developed, but there can be unplanned reworks and repurposes.

What products do they encompass?

To make it clear: advertising design and other types of graphic design aren’t mutually exclusive.  It is very likely that a graphic designer will work on ads in their career path, but might specialize in something else. And vice versa, a designer that usually works with ads in an advertising agency can work with other assets and do design process research.

That also means that all graphic design created for advertising purposes is also part of the overall visual identity of the company. So, advertising design strictly means visuals that have to provoke action, i.e. inspire the customer to make a decision to buy: ads, promotional materials, posters, flyers, pamphlets, static display banners, email banners, etc.

All other graphic design assets elevate and nurture the brand as a whole and help boost sales. Here we can sort anything, from website design, and the look of mobile apps to email marketing, images used in public relations, collateral, and social media posts.

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Both advertising and graphic design have invaluable importance in order for a company to have a well-performing and effective marketing strategy. It is a different arena, but the wanted outcome is the same: better sales and better brand perception.

There are many different ways to get good advertising design: freelancers, advertising agencies, in-house graphic artists, or unlimited design services.

For more branding-focused needs, you can rely on seasoned design firms and creative agencies, or try to find top-notch professionals to outsource.

The most important thing is to define the purpose of your campaign or branding asset, so you know if the goal is to inspire a buy or build trust and recognition for your brand. And of course, graphic designers aren’t the only ones responsible for how your marketing performs: there’s also web designers, copywriters, social media marketers, PR specialists, and other important players that will form and define the brand identity of a business.

Hopefully, this article helped you understand what advertising design is, and how much of overall graphic design belongs to this category. You should now be able to plan your strategy and campaigns more effectively and know what to focus your design on.

Learn six areas of difference between advertising and graphic design—the products each focuses on and their purpose in marketing processes.

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