A while ago, I was hired to do a design project, along with several other artists and designers, so that the client would have a variety of styles in their promo campaign. The project was fairly simple but it involved die cutting, and we were each required to supply a file ready for print. (I should mention that the deadline was insanely short.)
No exact specifications were given from the printer in advance, so each of us did the project the way we thought was best. I used a 3 millimeter bleed because that’s the setting I usually use. (“Bleed” is the additional space alongside the borders of the artwork. Its purpose is to make sure that if the paper is not cut precisely along the borders, you don’t get the ugly white edges.)
It turned out that the printer required a larger bleed which I was able to fix easily, but other artists had trouble even creating a file the printer could use. Some of them used Photoshop to create their art.
If you’re a graphic designer, you’re probably cringing. If you’re not a designer, you may not know what the fuss is about, and that’s exactly why I’m writing this post.
Artists vs. Designers
I consider myself both an artist and a graphic designer. I value and respect both creative paths, and I’m not in any way implying that one is better than the other. I’m able to see the similarities and differences between the two, because I’ve been on both sides.
And believe me, there are differences.
The issue that came up in this project is that the majority of artists hired were not graphic designers. Maybe they did some graphic design on the side (just enough to know their way around the software), but they didn’t have experience with sending things to print.
The client was forced to go back and forth between the artists and the printer a dozen times before they got what they needed. It was frustrating for everyone involved. This problem would’ve been easily avoided if the right people were hired for the job, ie. actual graphic designers.
From what I've seen, artists with no design training sometimes make the worst design solutions – worse even than the people with no training in visual art. The reason is that artists have the confidence in their own sense of aesthetics and make bold choices, while non-artists are aware they’re not good at design, so they don’t risk with picking too many colors, clashing fonts, overly visually complex graphics etc.
How do I know this? I’m glad you asked – I was one of those artists as well.
There’s a first time for everything
In my early years, my website designs, logos and posters were very “artistic”, and not very good from the design standpoint (you can see some horrifying screenshots here). Thankfully, I’ve found people online I could ask for advice and critique, and gradually my design skills improved.
While I was working in my last agency job, we shared an office with a brand and packaging designer. When I had a tricky print project and wasn’t sure what to do, I’d ask her for help, and she'd give me some pointers.
You don’t know how to do something until you do it. Reading about it is good, but nothing can compare to solving a real life problem. Every amateur needs a chance to become a professional. Usually those “chances” are unpaid jobs for friends, relatives and local non-profits.
You don’t wake up one day with the skills and knowledge of an experienced graphic designer. It took me about 16 years of trial and error to get where I am today, and I’m all for giving young designers the opportunity to learn and prove themselves. Just not when the stakes are high, and the deadline is just around the corner.
Whose fault is it when you hire the wrong person?
There are several layers to each problem, and we can’t blame just one person for the misunderstanding.
The problem arises when neither the client nor the professional are sure about the meaning of the terms. In the case of a “print-ready file”, the professional (artist) understood this to mean a JPEG or PNG image with certain features, and the client didn’t know any better until the printer warned them.
If the professional (artist) was aware what the print-ready file requirements were (ie. they knew about this topic enough to know what they don’t know), they might have chosen to do one of two things:
- Admit that they’re unable to provide the print-ready file and recommend a professional (designer) who can.
- Learn how to make the print-ready file, either by asking a colleague (designer) for help, or looking up information online.
Unfortunately, most artists don’t know how much they don’t know, and so they assume that a PNG file is suitable for advanced printing jobs (which it’s not).
We could say the same about logos, and how many clients end up buying unusable logo designs because they're not careful.
For a client, a logo is just a graphic you put on your website header and business cards. It’s not the client’s job to know specifically what file formats they need – they’ll happily accept a flat JPEG from their logo designer, and then stare at you blankly when you ask them where their vector version is.
An artist may not be aware that logos are not created using Photoshop. When someone offers them a job to draw a logo, they’ll happily accept it and create the logo using the only tool they know how to use. After all, the client didn’t specify they needed a vector logo, did they?
The client is not the one that has to specify this. It’s the professional’s responsibility to be aware of industry standards and perform their work accordingly
That’s the difference between a professional and an amateur.
Sadly, most clients have no way of knowing the difference, and who can blame them? Anyone can call themselves a designer, you don’t even need a degree (in fact, I don’t).
The only way the client can know whether a person they intend to hire is indeed a professional, is to verify that the designer has a portfolio that backs this up. Does the designer’s former work demonstrate their ability to work in exactly the mediums you require?
Not all web designers can do print projects. Not all brand designers can do mobile-friendly websites optimized for conversion. Not all print designers can create good brands. And many artists are not be able to do any of those jobs well.
There are certain types of print jobs that I don’t do, because they’re not my specialty (such as packaging). And if I decided to expand into this area (which I don’t intend to), I would look up all kinds of information available about this type of projects, such as books, tutorials, more experienced colleagues etc. to make sure I’m doing it right.
There’s more to design than pretty looks
And there’s more to design than using certain software.
Every area of graphic design (such as branding, websites or print) has specific challenges which you can only learn how to deal with through experience. (If you want to learn more about different areas of graphic design, read my post Beginner's Guide to Visual Design Services.)
While the sense of aesthetics cannot be taught, and it’s something you can transfer from one area to the other, this still doesn’t guarantee that you’ll do well in that new area.
Transferring from art into graphic design requires not only learning the software and technical skills, but also a different way of thinking. Graphic designers need to learn how to look at the world through other people’s eyes, and create design solutions that make sense to other people. Designers are fluent in the visual language that makes our modern civilization run, because our ideas are not “open to interpretation”—they serve a very specific purpose that our clients pay us for.
Artists don’t have to concern themselves with how other people perceive their art, and they do their best while being free of all external expectations. (I wrote about this topic more in my post Who are you really creating your art for?)
A person that can do both very well has to be able to switch between those two mindsets at will.
Who do you need on your team?
I hope this post helps in clarifying the difference between artists and designers, and identifying which one of them you need for your next project.
I have plenty of experience in different types of design projects, as well as arts, so feel free to take a look at my services and contact me if you’d like to collaborate. I can accept a very limited number of projects this year due to my teaching engagements, and the available spots fill up fast, so make sure to book your project well in advance.
Whether you choose to work with me or not, my desire is for you to find the right partner who can help you in boosting your creative business’ success.