Graphic Designer vs. Illustrator: Who Should You Hire?

Graphic design and custom illustrations - sometimes you just need the best of both worlds. But can a graphic designer do it all? Let’s settle the differences.

July 31, 2023

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Creative visuals are a non-negotiable need for your brand. And with the overload of graphics readily available, yours must be unique. With this in mind, it’s a smart move to hire a graphic designer and one-up your competitors. But what if you need illustrations; is illustration graphic design?

Graphic design and illustration are two disciplines closely intertwined. No wonder they often get mixed up. If all you wanted were striking visuals to enhance your brand, the technical talk is enough to cause frustration.

This article will clear up the difference between illustration and graphic design. We’ll zoom in on both disciplines, showing you the similarities and differences.

What is graphic design?

Let’s start with the basics: What is graphic design? Graphic design is the profession of using visual elements arranged in a certain way to solve problems and convey a message. Elements range from typography, imagery, color, and form.

Graphic design is all about communication with a target audience and is heavily influenced by marketing and branding strategies.

Both the print and the digital world have a wide variety of different graphic design types. Posters, business cards, and brochures are examples of print graphic design. Examples of digital graphic design are web design, newsletters, and social media graphics.

What is illustration?

An illustration is a visual to portray or accompany a story. They can be purely decorative, as well as explanatory. Illustrations come in many forms, both manually and digitally. The story it accompanies can be literary or of commercial nature.

Illustrations can be found anywhere, but especially in published media. Magazines and books often use the discipline to accompany a certain text. But illustrations have a presence in the digital space as well.

The most common form of illustration is a manual drawing, created by pencil, watercolor, or charcoal, for example. However, more and more illustrators are turning toward a digital approach, with technologies developing fast.

Digital illustrations can be created using the freehand technique, drawing on a tablet, for example. Or they can be made using vector graphics (colors and shapes that mimic an illustrative style).

Illustrations have the unique freedom to exist without accompanying words, while still communicating ideas through vivid storytelling. It’s a powerful tool to evoke emotions and develop a connection with your audience.

Especially when you run a startup and are in dire need of branding and design, getting custom illustration done is a fantastic way to spruce up your website, for instance.

An illustrator vs. a graphic designer

Now, here’s where things get a little tricky; graphic designers can be illustrators as well, and vice versa. But being a graphic designer doesn’t necessarily mean you are an illustrator. Are you still with us?

So when should you hire a graphic designer, and when should you consider an illustrator? Or is illustration graphic design as well?

Graphic design and illustration both have their own set of techniques, mediums, and artistic goals. Although they often overlap, there are a few clear differences between the two.

Authorship vs. anonymous

Illustrators are artists. Therefore, they are often sought out based on their art skills and their personal style. An illustrator would more likely sign their work, whereas a graphic designer would seek anonymity.

That shouldn’t come as a big surprise, considering a graphic designer focuses on transferring someone else’s message using classic design elements.

Let’s look at two examples. A children’s book often relies heavily on custom illustrations accompanying the story. More often than not, you’ll see the illustrator’s name mentioned on the cover or inside the book.

A flyer telling people about a discount at a certain store will mention the store and possibly the brand of the discounted items. However, the name of the graphic designer will almost never be included in the design.

Artistic vs. commercial

Graphic design and illustration both have different drives. Simply put, graphic design takes its motivation from a commercial aspect, whereas illustration takes the artistic route.

Graphic designer Adrian Shaughnessy gives us a more elaborate explanation:

“Graphic design’s ability to deliver explicit messages makes it a major (if little recognized) force in the modern world: it is embedded in the commercial infrastructure. Illustration, on the other hand, with its woolly ambiguity and its allusive ability to convey feeling and emotion, makes it too dangerous to be allowed to enter the corporate bloodstream.”

Who should you involve?

Now that you know the key differences between illustration and graphic design, let’s look at how you can use one or the other for your business.

Graphic design for your business

Do you want to communicate or promote a product or a concept with various visual elements? Graphic design is the answer. A graphic design professional can help you get your message across in an appealing way.

You can use a graphic designer to enhance your brand in many ways. Let’s have a look at some common ones:

Visual identity

Is your company eagerly looking to transform from a business to a brand? A graphic designer is your greatest ally here, as they can provide you with a memorable visual identity.

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Your visual identity consists of various elements such as your logo, typography, color palette, and images. Combining them with customer research and marketing knowledge will lead to a unique brand identity that will leave your audience wanting more.

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Marketing material

After carefully crafting your brand identity, it’s time to promote your business. Again a graphic designer comes in handy here, with their ability to design marketing material. Think of a digital banner, a flyer, or a brochure.

Whether you need digital or print marketing materials, a graphic designer is your guy.

cta good example.jpg

Illustrations for your business

Do you want artistic visuals that are drawn specifically for your project? Then you should consider joining forces with an illustrator rather than a graphic designer.

Unique and customized to your preferences, your illustration will definitely grab your audience’s attention. Here are some other project ideas that an illustrator could help you with:

Print media cover

One of the most classic examples of an illustration project is the cover of printed media. Think of the cover of The New Yorker that features a different illustrator for each issue. They are bespoke works of art evoking an emotional reaction from their audience.

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Cover of M&K Magazine by Ana Duje


T-shirts, mugs, caps; slap a logo on it, and suddenly, you’ve got promotional material. But if you’re not an established brand yet, chances are that other than your parents, nobody really wants your merchandise (yet).

A custom illustration can change that. Now that you have a unique t-shirt, cap, or tote bag with actual art on it, you can get your audience excited.

illustration tote bag.png

Tote bag for 25 Coffee Roasters via Behance.

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Simple cardboard boxes with a sticker aren’t going to cut it. Original packaging design can create an experience for your customers and contribute to the recognizability of your brand. The way to original packaging? Custom illustrations!

illustration packaging.png

Illustrated packaging via MINJI LEE.

Graphic illustration: the perfect middle ground

Custom illustration and graphic design are fantastic on their own. But what if you need both? Blend them together, and you’ll get the best of both worlds: graphic illustration.

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Sometimes, you need to convey a message and convince your audience to perform a particular action. But in a unique and artistic way. Graphic illustration combines classic design principles to organize and showcase original artwork.

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Illustrations by our designers

In conclusion

In the end, it depends on your project whether you need a graphic designer or an illustrator on board. As long as you know the differences, you won’t find yourself in a situation where you hired the wrong candidate.

Do you want to be on the safe side or utilize the benefits of both disciplines? Luckily there is always graphic illustration. Find a creative designer that is specialized in graphic illustration, hire a design agency that does both, or look into a subscription-based design service that can do it all.

The design era we currently find ourselves in is vast and ever-evolving. The existence of both graphic design and illustration offers a chance for them to overlap and share potential. Graphic design, illustration, and graphic illustration provide fantastic opportunities to take your brand to the next level.

Simone is a writer, dividing her time between native Netherlands and 'home away from home' Malawi. Whenever not stringing words together, she's either on her yoga mat or exploring any off the beaten track she can find.

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