Illustrator vs. Graphic Designer: Who to Hire?

Are you a beginner in the world of illustration? Or looking to get some illustration work, but don’t know what you want? This list of the most vital styles of illustration is a good place to start.

May 20, 2024

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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? Who should you hire - graphic designer vs. illustrator?

Graphic design and illustration are closely intertwined. No wonder they often get mixed up

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 to solve problems and convey a message. Some basic graphic design elements include, lines, shapes, typography, and color. 

Graphic designers’ work is heavily influenced by marketing and branding strategies, as they create visuals that should communicate to a specific target audience. 

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. Illustration design can be purely decorative, as well as explanatory. Illustrations come in many styles, 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. Editorial illustrations are found in magazines and books often as an accompaniment to text. But illustrations have a presence in the digital space as well. 

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

Illustrations can 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. 


An illustrator vs. 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. 

A graphic designer and illustrator both have their own set of techniques, mediums, and artistic goals. Although they often overlap, there are a few clear differences between the two. 

Diverse skills vs. illustration skills

Those that pursue graphic design as a career focus on learning the basics of design and perfecting a range of skills

On the other hand, illustrators are artists. They need to spend as much time perfecting skills like digital painting, as they do researching other’s work and getting creative inspiration. 

Authorship vs. anonymous

This is an important aspect of the illustrator vs. graphic designer distinction you shouldn’t overlook. 

Graphic designers are responsible for transferring someone else’s message using design. So their work is often uncredited. Illustrators often sign their work (e.g. children’s book illustrations and newspaper comics). 

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.

Graphic designer vs. illustrator: who to hire?

Now you know what’s the difference between a graphic designer and illustrator in theory. But what are the different projects these professionals can tackle, and how to choose the right person 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 looking to transform from a business to a brand? A branding graphic designer is your greatest ally, as they can help you develop a  memorable visual identity. 

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. 

mp visual illustration.png
Brand design by ManyPixels

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
Ad design by ManyPixels

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.

illustrated print media.png
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


Product packaging design is definitely a task best left to the pros. Aside from technical considerations, such as materials, printing techniques and size guidelines, packaging also needs to grab attention and help your product stand out.

You can hire a graphic designer to create product packaging. However, if you really want to get something out of the box (pun intended) custom illustrations are the way to go!

illustration packaging.png
Illustrated packaging via MINJI LEE

Get the best of both worlds

We hope this helps you understand the difference between graphic design and illustration. 

Generally speaking, graphic designers' focus is much broader, so they’re a better fit for full-time hires and most small businesses. Illustrators usually work on specific projects, so if you require one it’s best to find a freelancer whose skills and style match your needs.

But what if you need both of these types of skills? After all, that’s probably why you’ve landed here in the first place.

You can always hire a traditional design agency.  You’ll get access to a team of design professionals, with skills to suit virtually any project. However, be prepared to pay thousands of dollars for a single project.

A much more affordable and equally effective solution are unlimited design services, like ManyPixels. You’ll get all the perks of working with a design agency (access to a team of design pros, project managers, professionalism, etc.), but at a fraction of the cost.

Our design subscription starts at just $549 a month, and includes a range of design projects: from web design to custom illustration!

Sign up today or get in touch and tell us about your design needs!

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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