Graphic Design and User Experience Design can seem closely related, with many overlapping skills. Indeed, many excellent UX designers started out with a graphic design education, and transitioned into UX. With increasing demand and focus on UX design as a profession, it’s important to take a nuanced look at how the two disciplines are similar and where they differ. At a foundational level, both Graphic Design and UX are about solving problems through design, and there are also some differences to note.
Graphic design is a form of visual communication, and graphic designers use images, color, symbols and text to communicate messages and ideas. Humans have been communicating visually since the very early days of our existence, with the advent of printed media bringing about further revolutions in the application and use of graphic design.
User experience design, on the other hand, is less fundamentally about communication, and more about enhancing the experience of using a product or service, typically a digital one. UX design has its roots in human factors and ergonomics, as well as Human Computer Interaction. UX design grew from the necessity of designing how people interact with machines and computers.
Graphic Design Skills Can Serve As a Head Start in UX
Having a grounding in graphic design offers some very transferrable and relevant skills for UX design. Chief among them is the ability to make things aesthetically strong, using principles like alignment, information hierarchy and strong knowledge of approaches to layout. Great visual design is definitely an asset to a user experience – so much so that there is a principle known as ‘the aesthetic-usability effect.’ As Kate Meyer of the Nielsen Norman Group explains it, “users have a positive emotional response to your visual design, and that makes them more tolerant of minor usability issues on your site.”
Graphic design’s attention to details and focus on communication work really well in support of a great user experience, and can enhance a digital product. Design can certainly be in the details, and graphic designer’s skills are often oriented towards thoughtful consideration of details, for example kerning and alignment.
These skills can also enhance some other aspects of UX practice – for example being able to present research findings in visually compelling ways. For a UX practitioner without a graphic design background, this can sometimes prove to be a more challenging task. In general, the ability to layout documents and slide decks in a polished, beautiful way will always be a great skill for anyone working in a design field.
Key Mindset Shifts for UX Design
That said, UX design has some notable underlying differences from graphic design, that may require some mindset shifts for graphic designers who would like to make the transition. UX design requires static designs get taken further through a more robust design process that incorporates user research, psychology, and testing to name a few key things. Here are three perspectives that are key to UX design:
The right fidelity for the task (rather than pixel perfection):
Graphic designers are often used to creating beautiful, polished products. Concepts are often presented at a fairly high level of fidelity, to fully communicate ideas. For UX designers, being able to pick the appropriate level of fidelity for efficiency of process is key. In some cases, a quick whiteboard sketch is sufficient – like in the case of an agile team that is working without heavy documentation. Even when it comes to user testing, selecting the level of fidelity to test prototypes at depends highly on the research objectives and the stage of the process. Being able to let go of a desire for highly polished and ‘complete’ looking work when necessary is a key UX design mindset.
Designing for use (rather than communication or aesthetics):
UX design is all about creating experiences that people can use with ease and delight. It can feel a lot more functional and less creative than communicating through visual puns and clever, exploratory typography. As Paul Adams, VP of Product at Intercom has put it, “time and again we have witnessed ugly looking products succeed (for example Craigslist), and beautiful looking products fail (for example Color).” The crucial perspective to internalize for UX design is that “how something looks should be serving how it works.” As mentioned earlier, aesthetics can have a very real effect on the experience and even usability of a product, but they cannot be the be all and end all in a UX designer’s work. It’s also worth bearing in mind that some UX designers don’t ever touch a visual design layer! Designing for use also means developing an understanding of concepts.
Research and testing (rather than creative inspiration):
A key part of the UX design process is research – both generative research to understand user’s needs and contexts, and evaluative research to usability test products during the design process. While some graphic design might be a more solo endeavor, UX is inevitably about interacting with and understanding other people. Being able to conduct user interviews, dig deep on people’s needs and motivations, and being willing to see your design work fail miserably in usability tests are non-negotiable for UX designers. The ‘need finding’ and user research may require some additional learning for graphic designers. The books Interviewing Users and Just Enough Research are both great places to start. In general, UX designer requires a relentless focus on the user. The mindset is very much about facilitating an experience for the target users, and recognizing that you are not your user. Whether the end product appeals to you or satisfies your creative and aesthetic sensibilities is less relevant for a UX designer, as your user determines success or failure of your work.
Complementary, But Different
While there are many specialized UX tools, the great news for graphic designers wanting to make the switch is that there are also overlaps in the toolsets of both disciplines. This is especially becoming apparent with new tools like Adobe XD closing the gap in toolsets around tasks like UX prototyping.
Graphic design and UX have some skills in common, and are certainly interrelated fields. Understanding the nuances between them will help in making clearer career decisions, as well as supporting the development of related skills.