Graphic design versus communication design

We should probably start with a general “what’s the difference” and “why do we care?”. And it’s a fair point. Just because some people prefer one term and others another, is this really an issue for the study and profession of … well, whatever we are going to call it. With that in mind…

What’s the difference between graphic design and communication design and why do we care?

It matters because these two terms are the dominant ones for an academic discipline and industry profession that many people appear to be unclear about – not least of which are graphic/communication designers themselves who have little love for either term (Meron, 2021).

As ever with such a fractured discipline (Ambrose et al., 2020), it depends on who you’re talking to and the terms have often been used interchangeably (Barnard, 2005). Graphic design is a far from perfect and often misunderstood term that often doesn’t easily describe the practice (van der Waarde, 2020). However, it is probably fair to say that it is by far the more common term within industry and Google Trends seems to agree.

Google Trends graph indicating that graphic design is a vastly more searched for term than communication design.
No hard evidence on why the decline in the use of the term graphic design from 2004. But it seems to have stabilised over the past decade. Either way, there seems little interest in elevating communication design as the dominant term, outside of academia.

In the 21st century, communication design seems to have grown as a preferred term within academia – Jorge Frascara prefers it for example (Frascara, 2004). Although, among university departments both terms are sometimes used concurrently (Meron, 2020).

A more appropriate term for the 21st century, or another cop-out?

Communication design appears to manifest as a slightly more up-to-date term to describe the practice. Indeed, graphic design tends to conjure up images of a 20th century design for print paradigm. Communication design positions the practice more solidly within wider communication theory, taking on board interactivity, social media and other digital technologies.

But is it actually more helpful or accurate? I would speculate that some of the reasons for the increasing use of communication design are other than its arguably more descriptive (and at the same time perhaps more vague and confusing) title. Anecdotally, it may just be the use of a more prestigious or all-encompassing term to attempt to add a veneer of authority to graphic design – a practice that often seems to be subsumed within broader visual arts practices and professions (Poynor, 2011; Triggs, 2011).

But that veneer is, as best, superficially helpful (if at all). If graphic designers, communication designers, or whatever it is we’re calling ourselves this week, really want to elevate our design capital, then we probably need to look toward something more meaningful than what we call ourselves on our business cards (virtual or otherwise).

Ambrose G, Harris P and Ball N (2020) The Fundamentals of Graphic Design. London: Bloomsbury.

Barnard M (2005) Graphic Design as Communication. New York, USA: Routledge.

Frascara J (2004) Communication design principles, methods, and practice. New York: Allworth Press,, xv, 207 p. ill. 223 cm.

Meron Y (2020) Re-performing Design: Using dramaturgy to uncover graphic designers’ perceptions of stakeholders. Exchanges: The Interdisciplinary Research Journal 8(1): 71-90. DOI: 10.31273/eirj.v8i1.701

Meron Y (2021) Terminology and Design Capital: Examining the Pedagogic Status of Graphic Design through Its Practitioners’ Perceptions of Their Job Titles. International Journal of Art & Design Education 40(2): 374-388. DOI: 10.1111/jade.12353

Poynor R (2011) Does Graphic Design History Have A Future? Print 65(4): 30-32.

Triggs T (2011) Graphic Design History: Past, Present, and Future. Design Issues 27(1): 3-6.

van der Waarde K (2020) Graphic Design as Visual Arguments: Does This Make a Reliable Appraisal Possible? In: Raposo D, Neves J and Silva J (eds) Perspective on Design: Research, Education and Practice. Cham: Springer International Publishing, pp.89-101.