Photoshop Has (Almost) Nothing To Do With Graphic Design

Think of the photographer who captures a fraction of time or the illustrator who tells a story. Will these moments not exist if it weren’t for the camera or the pencil?

They exist in spite of the tools used to capture them.

The ideas that we develop for our clients, the messages we wish to communicate, exist in spite of Photoshop or any other piece of software. The lines of code wrapped in an interface do nothing but hold a (virtual) expression of our ideas. Much like the photographer’s moment, the ideas exist whether captured or not.

But so many insist on calling Photoshop mishmash pieces design, when they are nothing of the sort as they hold no idea, just stylistic nonsense. A hammer can help build a house, does that mean hammering two planks of wood together is good enough to be a home?

Oh Photoshop, Your Crown Is Too Heavy

Yes, Photoshop is, today, an essential tool of graphic design. Yes, knowing our tools well make our jobs easier and can help our work become beautiful — there is no denying that.

But it isn’t enough to know the tools well without an idea to which they can be applied. The expressions these tools craft will be without soul, meaning or story.

The idea is not validated by the tools used to craft its expression. But the tool does find validation in the expression. The tool relies on it to be considered valuable. Photoshop is no different than any other tool.

In 100 years, discussions about what version of Photoshop was used to produce the wonderful work today will not be held. It will call it a tool. It might be an wonderful tool to wield, but it is only a tool. It may have changed the way we express our ideas, but it shouldn’t change the way we conceive them.

Think of the photographer who captures a fraction of time or the illustrator who tells a story. Will these moments not exist if it weren’t for the camera or the pencil?

They exist in spite of the tools used to capture them.

The ideas that we develop for our clients, the messages we wish to communicate, exist in spite of Photoshop or any other piece of software. The lines of code wrapped in an interface do nothing but hold a (virtual) expression of our ideas. Much like the photographer’s moment, the ideas exist whether captured or not.

But so many insist on calling Photoshop mishmash pieces design, when they are nothing of the sort as they hold no idea, just stylistic nonsense. A hammer can help build a house, does that mean hammering two planks of wood together is good enough to be a home?

Oh Photoshop, Your Crown Is Too Heavy

Yes, Photoshop is, today, an essential tool of graphic design. Yes, knowing our tools well make our jobs easier and can help our work become beautiful — there is no denying that.

… the tool does find validation in the expression

But it isn’t enough to know the tools well without an idea to which they can be applied. The expressions these tools craft will be without soul, meaning or story.

The idea is not validated by the tools used to craft its expression. But the tool does find validation in the expression. The tool relies on it to be considered valuable. Photoshop is no different than any other tool.

In 100 years, discussions about what version of Photoshop was used to produce the wonderful work of today will not be held. It will be called it a tool. It might be a wonderful tool to wield, but it is only a tool. It may have changed the way we express our ideas, but it shouldn’t change the way we conceive them.

Wait … What’s Graphic Design?

If you were to stop using Photoshop, would you no longer have any ideas? No longer know how to express the message of your client? No longer know how to guide the eye, apply balance, stimulate through colour, harmonize with typography, dictate visual interest via illustrations or attract, entertain and enlighten audiences?

The next time you see a magazine or book proclaiming to teach you the 50 Essential Photoshop Tricks That Will Make You A Great Graphic Designer, do me (or yourself, or the profession) a favor. Destroy it. Rip it into a million tiny pieces and call it the scum that it is and bury it in flames. (Probably best you paid for it first though, though that goes against my point so … maybe just run out of the establishment screaming its name like bloody murder.)

Social media has upped the contrast. An average and random collection of many cousins to graphic design (Photoshop heavy pieces especially, but also motion, photography, illustration etc) can find legs and be thrown around the web at an astonishing speed. And with this average article, average assumptions on behalf of the author are made and taken on as knowledge in much of the audience — they’re being shown work that isn’t graphic design, but is being touted as such.

This Is So Wildly Scary To Me

I fear this because there are many who are jumping online and accepting diluted definitions of what graphic design is, what graphic art is, what typography means, what illustration is, what photography can be and on and on and on. All these wonderful mediums are being abused into a concoction that would best find a home at the bottom of a witch’s cauldron.

It isn’t the fault of … anyone. The author might not know better (right?) and when the audience is young-in-experience, they definitely don’t know any different. But those of us who ‘get’ the elegance that is found in design (rather than just see them as ‘vintage and cool Swiss design’) should say something, shouldn’t we?

We should bother to do so because of the coming years. With a loose definition of graphic design it’ll become harder to study it independently and talk about it with those who call themselves graphic designers. Most importantly, selling it to our clients will be trickier — what their last graphic designer did might be utterly different to their next.

A rose by any other another name

Graphic art isn’t something to look down upon. Nor is illustration or photography. I believe without these mediums that graphic design would be a horribly dull vocation and give such results 90% of the time. These things are essential to the work we do and enliven in ways a purely typographical and geometric-shaped laden design cannot — to say otherwise would be simply foolish.

That is why I hate when I see a piece of graphic art declared graphic design — it diminishes what the illustrator and artist does (as people think that if you’re a designer, you’re an illustrator or vice-versa) and it confuses what the specialty of the designer is, as if all our skills are so easily interchangeable — it’s lose/lose.

I don’t believe that graphic design is a strictly restricted practice and devastatingly sharp lines need to be drawn between the disciplines that touch it. Many graphic designers are very talented illustrators or graphic artists, so there is often a definite overlap. But what I worry about is that there might not be any lines what so ever, and rather than aspire to be masters of any, our new practitioners are attempting (assuming?) to be jacks of too many.


61 thoughts on “Photoshop Has (Almost) Nothing To Do With Graphic Design

  1. A thought-provoking topic, and I’m sure no one could have explained it better :)

    A great deal of thoughts and ramblings have been on a rise since decades, about the true definition of Graphic Design and every time a theory is put forth, we are back to square one because there is no symphony in those theories nor are they satisfactory enough to maintain an equilibrium between Contemporary art and today’s “Art”……

    It all seems to obvious to us that Photoshop has transformed the way we embrace the ‘Digital’ art of this generation but the question is, ‘Is it good?’ ‘Is this revolution not destroying the very foundation of Art and Design, the foundation that has been laid upon by true artists and designers of the yesteryear!’

    You make a thorough point when you say that Photoshop is just a ‘Tool’… Design is not about learning 100 tricks to create a glossy text effect!.. It is about learning how to adopt the basic elements and principles and apply them to our works!…. When we are creating some fancy typography (usually), we are just learning how to use the ‘Tool’ and not learning whether or not it qualifies to be a ‘Design’.

    As Milton Glaser rightly puts it, “An artist shouldn’t touch Photoshop (even a computer for that matter) until he reaches 42” :) I dare not to imagine what would happen to the design world 50 years from now, if this trend of Photoshopping continues!

    Anyways, those were my 2c ..

  2. Jeff Blaine July 29, 2010

    This is what I recognize as the standard angst of any craftsperson experiencing an oversimplifying explosive growth of his/her chosen craft due to advances in, availability of, or (more likely) the growing *knowledge of the existence of* … the tools.

    It happens.

    I wish I had a dime for every blog entry I’ve read from veteran photographers grousing about the same thing due to the existence of affordable pro-sumer DSLRs. “My clients keep using inexpensive Joes who have no real clue what they’re doing. They acknowledge my better work, but can’t justify the cost for the difference.”

    That is to say, “I hear ya, but I hope you don’t lose sleep over it or expect to be able to change it much.”

    Thanks for the article(s). I am enjoying the site so far.

    (An IT Guy with varied interests who ended up here as an RSS subscriber)

  3. Some great points. Also the funniest article you’ve done in a while :) (the bit about burning the magazine). The creative world is in constant motion. I guess, once upon a time, the term ‘Web Design’ didn’t have the ’12-year-old-kid-who-knows-html’ feel to it that it does today. Just like the term ‘graphic design’ may, within ten years or so, be synonymous due to oversaturation of skill-less chumps. Thing is, those with real vision, will keep on keepin’ on. And it won’t matter what they’re called. The stuff they make will be GOOD.

  4. Hey Guys :)

    Hey buddy, thanks for such a nice comment :)

    I love the Glaser quote, thanks for sharing it. And you’ve tapped into something when you design isn’t about learning a mountain of text-effect tricks, but is about elements and principles. It’s so easy to run through a tutorial and have something that (may, or may not, but often the latter) look aesthetically pleasing – and because it uses a professional graphic design tool, declare it graphic design.

    Always love hearing comments from people not within the industry, so thanks for dropping past :)

    I think you might have misunderstood where I’m coming from though. I have zero problem with photoshop. As a designer, I’m a child of the photoshop boom that happened about 10 years ago, when it was easier than ever to get a pirated copy and everyone was playing with it.

    I’m glad more people than ever are using it and are entertaining the thought of, or are actively, joining the design community – nothing but good can come of this.

    My problem is more one of definition. A lot of newer designers are under the impression that if it’s been done in photoshop and is a dog’s breakfast of filters and tutorials and stylistically drunk, then it’s design. When design has a lot more to consider than a photoshop-heavy illustration.

    The biggest worry is that client’s will start to think this too and will have an ever poorer understanding of the value of design. You know the argument, “my 14 year old nephew has photoshop, he can do this for me for way less money”.

    It’s kind of like wanting to be a chef but only focusing on how to cook with a microwave. You might learn how to deal with various ingredients (type, images, texture, shape, illustration, etc), but it’s so limiting and they’d miss out on the bigger picture.

    That being said, I understand why you might think that’s where I’m coming from – I guess you’ll have to trust me when I say it isn’t ;)

    Glad enjoyed the light-hearted stuff.

    Ultimately you’re right – no matter what the perception of graphic design is, if you’re doing good work, you’ll keep doing good work and find client’s that understand what it is you do.

    I use to be more interested in doing web design than print. I’ll never forget the time I told a (rather distant) relative this, who was a couple years older than me. The response was what I’d later learn is quite common – “oh easy! I’ll show you how to do it in a few minutes” … he then loaded up front page, picked a theme and put my name in the header text. “See! Easy as! You should get Front Page.”

  5. Jeff Blaine July 31, 2010

    [ “You” below is whomever, not necessarily Alexander ]

    Alexander, I think I got your message, so maybe instead I wasn’t clear in my reply. I think we’re on the same page, but I want to reply further now :)

    “The biggest worry is that client’s will start to think this too and will have an ever poorer understanding of the value of design. You know the argument, “my 14 year old nephew has photoshop, he can do this for me for way less money”.”

    Maybe I’m simple and this is super obvious, but I think this quote leads to some questions that are hard to answer.

    What is “the value of design” ? Are you (whomever) sure you can elaborate on this with conviction?

    How do you convince a client of “the value of design” ?

    Isn’t this weeding out process something that will establish your standards for *your* acceptance of *clients*? That is, if you are unable to describe “the value of design” (more specifically the value of YOUR proposed design) to the point where the client is convinced it’s worth your pay rate, what will your course of action be?

    To me, there are two kinds of worry.

    There’s worrying about what others might do, and this is almost always wasted energy. You can choose to expend an enormous amount of time and energy evangelizing and advocating for Good Design in an effort to confront this worry productively somehow. If you’re not going to do that, then let it go from your conscience because you can’t control or influence the world by worrying about it. Act on it, or let it go. Maybe a “The Value of Design” PDF file for clients is a good project to start on? :)

    And there’s worry from a lack of confidence, and the lack of confidence comes from not doing your best work and completely understanding the decisions you made as part of the creation process. That is, if you have made thoughtful design choices based on your expertise in the field, and are pleased with the final piece of work, then you have nothing to be worrying about in the big picture. If a client rejects your work for no quantifiable reason that you can take in for consideration, or for reasons that are simply ignorant, then your head should still be held high – proud of your effort.

    Am I making any sense? Sorry if that was a long-winded pile of doodie.

  6. Great response Jeff!

    You’re question about being about to convince a client of the ‘value of design’ really got my mind going, to the point that I think I’ll write on that very topic.

    I think you convince a client of the value that good design has through education. Show them examples of how and why more successful companies think of and work with design, talking to them about how it helps them build a better relationship and have more meaningful, interesting and memorable conversations with their customers and how the seemingly smallest of things (including the choice of colour, fonts, imagery) can make a big difference to how their company is viewed.

    But to get it more on point – much of what is photoshop heavy design isn’t design in the sense that it has no shelf life. Much of it is stylistic novelty that won’t last aesthetically or communicate concisely for more than a few months, a year, maybe two or three. This kind of thing results in constant reshuffling and starting new conversations with the customers over and over and over, resulting in a schizophrenic kind of feeling about the company in the eye of their audience. It wouldn’t do them well to have a three year old ad be looked at and giggled at because it’s aged so poorly. Good design avoids this, Photoshop reliant “design” often runs straight for it.

    You know, you’re right. it’s an utter waste of time to spend time worrying about what others are doing, and generally I don’t. But I really love the audience I’ve got here and I’m sure some of them are new to the industry and might currently be infatuated with what Photoshop can do and think that’s all there is to it, when it’s merely a tool. So if I can help someone realise and look at themselves and attitude towards design and make it a little bit better, then why not? Though I must say that I’ll probably not write anything like this, take part in too many conversations on it or think about it much more for quite some time.

    I’m also concerned that they’re losing valuable time in learning design principles and theory and history, which is far more valuable than knowing how to make beveled text and 3D bubbles in Photoshop.

    That last comment about it being a lack of confidence really got me thinking. Much of what us bloggers write, especially the advice stuff, is simply aimed at ourselves. While I’m not a Photoshop Jockey (anymore ;)), perhaps I do have a concern that all this time I’ve spent learning about history and theory and so forth might be for nothing if everyone is convincing their clients that style and fad is worth being concerned with. I should just remind my self that it is their clients who are thinking this, not mine, and it is up to me (and those who might agree with me) to guide the clients in the right direction.

    That being said, as you and Matt mentioned, people who perform good work will find clients who want good work, so why worry about those who aren’t interested?

  7. re. the frontpage moment you mentioned…


    Yeah, it’s easy! Put in your name, a picture of your cat, a rotating email address on an envelope… oh! oh! and to prove you have a presence there…

    and ‘under construction’ stickly man!

  8. So beautifully written and so true.

    As only a humble desktop publisher who occasionally gets to work with some of those so called Graphic Designers. I expect to be learning something from them and have discussions about design ideas instead I end up being thoroughly disappointed.

  9. Matt
    Hahaha, I love the description, takes me RIGHT back to Geocities and … um … umm… Angel Fire, was it? Ah, good times!

    Thank you :)

    There are a lot of very, very smart, passionate and encouraging designers around who are more than happy to talk about theory and concepts with anyone who would listen. Unfortunately there are others who aren’t that way inclined. Luckily we have the internet that let’s us talk to whomever we wish to, about whatever delights us.

  10. Your article stimulated and depressed me all at the same time. I wrestle with the ideas you expressed about GD in my own head every time a client says ‘I love it, but can we try making it blue instead?’. If blue works I would have used blue! I’m oversimplifying here, but more and more I feel like I’m just a pair if hands pressing the Photoshop buttons the client wants pressed, because they don’t know how to press them. I struggle to validate the design choices I have made in the service of the client’s needs, and always have to succumb to their direction.

    Excuse that rant please, I really wanted to thank you for tackling the subject, and I intend to take a cue from your article when explaining the ‘whys’ of my work to clients in the future.

    Nice site by the way but did you consider . . . .nah, just kidding . . ..

  11. Hi Cesare, I know how you feel about being a mac-monkey (I once accidentally wrote “Where’s my banana” and a work request after a stressful day, was interesting when a coworker saw it and said “… banana? Rough day?”) but it does come with the territory I’m afraid.

    That being said, I think it’s the designer’s role to try and educate the client as best they can, and as you said, try to explain the reasons why, which often works wonders (asking them why they want to make a change to something that you don’t think is the right way to go does great things too), but unfortunately there’s just some client’s who will never see our profession as, well, a profession. If they can’t be educated, then it might be best to just avoid them if/where possible. Good luck! Let’s hope those clients start listening to you, the professional in the room.

  12. All very true sentiments.
    Those of us who are art and design graduates know that real design goes a lot deeper than the latest web 2 Oh! puffery.
    But we also know or should acknowledge that in the right hands Photoshop gives us an awesome capacity to really go wherever our imagination takes us, and in some style too.
    So pros and cons as usual , hey ho.

  13. I agree that programs are relied upon on a lot to produce artwork but looking at a blank screen or document in photoshop will not bring forward any ideas for that design. You need to be creative and a designer, taking influence from everywhere and only then use the tools such as these programs to bring your ideas to something visual. Anyone can get their hands on these tools but it takes a designer to use them effectively.

  14. Chris
    Photoshop can definitely give marvelous results, but as you said, it’s about it being used in the right hands with the right goals in mind.

    It’s the last thing you said about anyone being able to get their hands on the software that got a lot of what drove this article started.

    With so many getting copies of it and learning that it’s a tool for graphic design, it’s easy to think that’s all that’s needed, which kind of puts down all the effort the rest of us go through. But more than that (as we’ve spoken about a little in the comments), we shouldn’t bother ourselves with these kinds of people too much. I’d just like to influence them a little to maybe look deeper and see all that wonderful stuff that plays a bigger role in the strength of graphic design than the latest tutorialized fad.

    Thanks for stopping past and taking the time to leave a comment!

  15. Hello Alexander,
    Great article. It’s a topic we touched on many times while I was going through design school (VCU). It generally came down to the question, “how am I different from anyone with a computer and photoshop?”

    I think it’s about creative thinking. As designers we’re not coming up with arbitrary visuals and slapping text around the page. We’re employed to create solutions to problems by using our creative minds.

    Along those lines, my question, as a recent graduate, is based on your statement, “But what I worry about is that there might not be any lines what so ever, and rather than aspire to be masters of any, our new practitioners are attempting (assuming?) to be jacks of too many.”

    I started looking for a job in the middle of the big downturn in the economy. It seemed to me and many of my fellow graduates that it wasn’t enough to be a designer with a degree. You needed that just to get an interview. Once you got the interview they asked if you were good at anything else. “Can you write code?” or “have you ever designed a website?” were common interview questions.

    It seems to me that you can’t just be a graphic designer anymore. You need to possess some added quality or qualities that make you a desirable employee. It’s those added attributes that might become your primary objective, in essence you’d no longer be a designer. You would be a coder/photographer/illustrator/etc with design knowledge.

    Are we doomed?

  16. man, this article was so boring and jard to read through , the style is so dated and demotivational.

  17. Mike
    Hey Buddy, great comment, thanks for taking the time :)

    “We’re employed to create solutions to problems by using our creative minds.” This is greatly along the lines of what I’ve been thinking about lately (for another, upcoming, article). So I agree with you 100% there.

    As for needing multiple skill-sets – I think there is absolutely some validity in it. However, I think the case should be, to be the strongest in the long run, is to be excellent and focus much of your energy into one area and have peripheral ones that still get attention, but isn’t your specialty.

    I think it’s about balance and deciding what’ll be your major focus in your career and what will sit on the sidelines, being called into the game from time to time. You couldn’t really be a hardcore developer, photographer, illustrator, copywriter, designer, UX expert, tech support, database admin, server admin, printer, prepresser, binder, cuter, marketing expert, advertising expert and so on.. In my mind it’s worth picking one, maybe two, (say, design and photography) but learning enough to be able to have intelligent conversations with any of the above and even do the majority of the above work to some degree – just not be an expert at it. Put 80% of your effort into one, 20% into the rest, just to throw random numbers at it ;)

    Though a base knowledge of a lot of that periphery stuff will come about naturally, I think.

    That all being said, design is one of those fields that has some very universal principles for any creative output. Things like balance and contrast are true in photography, graphic design, illustration and fine art, so learning about some other fields will be easier than others.

    What do you think?

    Ah well :)

    I write in way that feels natural and fun to me – there’s going to be many who find it “dated and demotivational”, what can I say? But hey, I have to thank you for taking the time to read it and leave a comment. So thank you :)

  18. I definitely agree with you.

    I feel like the exception to the rule is for freelancers, small businesses and startups. Working for any of those requires you to wear multiple hats to get the job done or to have strategic partnerships with people that know more than you do on the subject.

    That being said, I’m curious about your numbers. I know they were just thrown out there, but for me it’s about finding where those numbers pan out. Is it 80/20 over the course of a day, week, year or lifetime? I decided, for me, it works out better if you consider your lifetime. Spending the time early on to learn more about more subjects lends itself to being able to master more than one or two subjects over the course of a lifetime.

    Of course, I could just be blowing smoke.


  19. Yeah, absolutely, for a small business owner or freelancer, you have to play multiple roles, but they’re not all inherently creative, are they? (everything can be creative, but you know what I mean). You’re using different parts of your brain and using different ideas and theory to perform the tasks you’ll have on your list – admin is different to budget, which is different to creative and so on.

    Interesting point about figuring out what the numbers might mean (or over what length of time they apply). Focusing on multiple subjects early on will be of great benefit, but I think there are few people who could do this passionately – that being said, as we spoke about earlier, it might just be a simple case of developing a mental process and not so much about developing practice. Without going over what was said earlier, really understanding fundamentals of creative expression (balance, contrast, framing, cropping, pace, etc) and being free in your mind enough to apply them to any expression means that, yeah, you could master multiple subjects.

    BUT! It’ll take time to be able to master them, wouldn’t it?

    Lifetime might be a good length to put the balance in perspective, but I’m thinking it might be better to consider, perhaps, 10 years? Or whenever natural career path turns occur? And I’d imagine every time you aim to master a topic, it’ll be easier than it was previously. So perhaps you could master multiple subjects in a life time, maybe four or five? Or if you stay within the same field (and it’s cousins…), maybe six or seven? More?

    Of course, I could just be blowing smoke ;)

    What do you think, Sir?

  20. Jimmy Dick August 20, 2010

    First of all, I must say that I love the site. It is beautiful. I also really like that you spend the time to respond to comments thoughtfully and seem to get only thoughtful comments.

    I think the average quality of work for design might be going the way of penmanship, grammar, and punctuation; because it is so cheap to “publish” and deliver through electronic media the supply has become infinite and its value has dropped. I think there is kind of a human-effort economy at work that has decreased the demand for good quality because many deem it too expensive to deliver the quality that would not have been acceptable on bar napkins in times past. I do not advocate this. I am only searching for reasons.

  21. Randy Clark August 21, 2010

    Enjoy reading your thoughts. A Student sent me your way.

  22. This is a troll, outright — If my client or boss tells me they want to see something in blue, I would at most once offer why blue is not a good selection, and thence give them blue forever more.

    Workers are paid for their advice and their performance — their advice alone makes them merely a critic.

  23. Jimmy Dick
    Hey! Thanks for such an awesome comment on the site, it made my day! I figure if people are willing to take the time to not only read my articles but actually consider a response, type it up and hit submit, the least I can do is reciprocate :)

    You’re reasons make a lot of sense. The ratio of professionals to amateurs is going completely out of whack as we only see the master-apprentice style relationship between designers dwindle to a little blip on the horizon. Now it seems to be a lot more aprentice-apprentice-apprentice relationships, which the internet help bring about. A lot of people stumbling their way through design with the help of photoshop tutorials and the like.

    But I can’t say it enough – i really think that as long as you’re a professional and do the best that you are capable of, you’ll always land on your feet and deliver quality work. I just hope more people realise this and that design isn’t just about pushing out ‘creative’ work :/

    Randy Clark
    Oh great, thanks for dropping past (and thank you to the student!).

    You’re a lecturer of design then?

    Digital Suishi
    I guess we’re made up of different wills then :)

    I believe that if you know better then you should do what you can to convince your client or boss otherwise – mentioning it once (and I’m guessing half-heartedly if you’re giving up after one try) and considering that’s all you need to do is a disservice to yourself, your client and your work.

    And i think doing what you can (within reason of course) to give your advice repeatedly (to be a critic, as you say) is a big part of your performance.

  24. James Tau August 24, 2010

    photographer : furniture maker :: graphic designer : interior decorator

    All very important, yet misunderstood, professions in my book.

  25. lovely blog. nice post. i use photoshop to design on a daily basis but i know what you mean.

  26. First off, love your site, second, great post, and fully agree with your points, we are in an age where there is a dearth of ‘design’ magazines revolving around what you can do with photoshop, no doubt this promotes a false sense of what Graphic Design is and any kid dabbling in the step by step tutorials may consider themselves as designers because from their point of view they can do it, however the reality is different, these tutorials don’t actually deal with principles of the ‘why’ just the ‘how’.

    I was lucky that when I was taught Graphic Design in college we didn’t rely heavily on the computer, we learned Design with traditional tools, rotring pens, bromides and even typesetting with metal type, I believe this is where you get the best grounding, because the principles of the ‘why’ are ingrained from the start. The magazines, don’t teach the principles of the grid, how to correctly kern type, colour theory and other important topics and therefore learning this way is just learning parrot fashion and promoting design that may look ‘cool’ but the chances are that the finish product may be inappropriate.

    Sure if the kids that read the magazine then want to pursue design through a college course, then it’s a good thing, but on the other hand if they just want to make a quick buck on the fast track, then that’s dangerous and a saturated market of less gifted designers is bad for us all when clients are looking for more ways to save money.

    Graphic design is the art of visual communication, it’s primary purpose is to deliver a message, photoshop is only a tool to get that message across.

    Anyway, enough waffle from me :D

  27. Don’t think I meant to say ‘Dearth’ in that first paragraph, read as ‘an abundance’

    P.S. I think that Photoshop has a place a modern medium for Art and don’t really agree with people who say that a painting must be done with a brush, it’s just another medium, I’m sure people looked down on Da Vinci when he chose to paint in oils rather than egg tempura.

  28. Illustration has become a severely overlooked and underrated skill for a graphic designer to have. As you say, it is a common misconception by both clients and employers that graphic designers are illustrators by trade, and/or worse, web developers and even IT administrators. I see job post after job post looking for a “graphic designer” or “graphic artist” that is clearly looking for web developer. In the eyes of the hiring manager, the tools DO in fact make the designer.

    Try telling a hiring manager that you don’t really use Photoshop–actually try telling her that you don’t social network. They don’t know the process, only what the common perception of the process is. These days it’s all “photoshoped”; like we “Google” up a concept, apply two filters, and Paul Rand appears to upload it to WordPress.

    Very soon video will dominate where photography is now. The video editing and 3D functionality in Photoshop will continue to become more prominent. When high-end set design and 360° moving advertisements are littering our iPads and Kindles, will it be graphic designers managing the creative work, or will the term be swallowed up and rendered nearly obsolete like airbrush artist and polaroids?

  29. I know I skated past your point in my previous comment. Yes, we must have an understanding of why we put a concept together, and no we don’t need Photoshop to do it. But then again, I don’t need a car to drive 87 miles to work, but it’s in my best interest.

  30. James Tau
    Absolutely agree :)

    I actually surprised my self when I read your comment – if asked to put together a similar list, i wouldn’t think of furniture maker, but you’re absolutely right.

    Evan Skuthorpe
    Thanks Evan, I use it daily too, and while you might use it every day to design, I’m sure you bring more to it than knowledge of what buttons to press :)

    Sean Slater
    Enough waffling? No way! You could have written five times as much and I reckon I would have enjoyed it all as much as I enjoyed that comment.

    I love that you touched on the (would you say traditional?) education you had! We did a few things similar, though it was a lot of time spent on the computer. Our first semester of typography was deliberately computer-free. We had to learn and draw type by hand to get a better feel for it. I’ll never forget trying to kern type (and balance lines of copy) by hand using cut up paper and glue.

    It works very well though, doesn’t it? It helps us realise that it does us well think of design elements as physical objects that need to have a respectable amount of space and balance.. it’s so easy to hop onto a computer and movie and warp and twist things, but its very rarely necessary to do absolutely anything to, say, a piece of type, other than set it beautifully.

    Also, i agree about the art through photoshop thing too – i saw a digital artist give a talk earlier this year (Alexia Sinclair) and the work she showed was absolutely astounding – hundreds and hundreds of hours invested into doing something that was absolutely beautiful, all in Photoshop.

    David Ciccone
    Haha, i love the Paul Rand comment ;)

    You’re right in that a lot of people who do the hiring (for in-house studios in particular I’d imagine) wouldn’t have the proper perception of what a graphic designer does and that’s a big problem. But I think that as long as we can continue to do the work to the best of our abilities and stress to anyone who doubts it (who is in a position of power/responsibility) that it’ll change person-by-person.

    While more people are claiming themselves to be graphic designers who are nothing of the sort these days, there’s also a greater understanding of what design is in general and what it can do for a business. So hopefully those of us who care about what we do can align ourselves with these kind of people.

    I don’t think that graphic designers will disappear just because another medium is coming to the forefront though – there will always be printed materials and websites that will remain static. I don’t think video is as important or as impressive as a lot of people would like to believe – there is always going to be content that just needs to be read and design that needs to stand still.

    Thanks for the great comment David!

  31. First I should probably say that I am not a creative person in the traditional sense, I choose programming languages as my medium of expression. When it first came out, programming that is, in a way that it was easily understandable to those who would be patient – it sort of had a following of people behind it. A sect, if you will, of people who did understand what a programming language was and there were those who didn’t but understood that was indeed something that could be terribly complex but was needed because it made things function.

    Over the years, the popularity of “coding” exploded, languages came out with a low learning curve – notably PHP & JavaScript for the web, VB6 for the PC, etc. This sect became large to the point where the mystique of the profession was lost.

    Developers who have an honest love for the craft, who wish to develop applications that can grow and conform to the needs of the users are being overwhelmed by people who want a quick buck because it seems the easy way to go.

    I say all this because it seems like this is whats happening with the Graphic Art profession. Though the way seem entirely different and they may indeed be, in the modern medium called the internet, the two are inseparable. So I don’t put down Graphic Artist (and it is the unfortunate truth that many a developer put them down as overpayed snobs).

    So, I suppose what I’m trying to see is be ready for Graphic Art to go the way of Programming. Taught in a highschool class, giving the impression that any teenager can do it.

  32. I think that the issue here is of two models, but one casual reference.

    In the beginning of a craft, there are the singular masters that define it. As it becomes popular, laymen seek to reproduce reasonable facsimiles at affordable prices. Competition drives costs down. Lower costs correlate to lower quality.

    So to take your example of a software engineer, from the old school, i.e. an original coder that loves her craft, and then to take from amidst the unwashed masses of hack PHP programmers out to put wonderbread and Jif on the table, of course we see the singular reference of coding branch into two models: The highest quality, and the mediocre.

    Why do we not pay Picasso to design CSS, and George Boole to design our twitter login; why does the bride and groom pay 3000 for wedding photos, but their guests are quite happy to live with digital shots stolen from over the photographer’s shoulder? And why am I allowed to diddle with photoshop, as a software engineer, producing graphics for my website and my paying friends, with no notion of design?

    It’s because none of the people paying for the output have any notion of why Picasso’s, Boole’s, or the photographer’s work is better. Or if they do, they certainly aren’t paying 10x for each 1% better it is than the previous cost.

    Why am I dangerous? Because I can get paid by 80% of the people who have no idea my graphics are crap. Do I get upset when the kid down the street outbids me on a PHP project? No! Because I am a software engineer, I can pick what I work on. I can work on the interesting things, the difficult things. And there are not so many of me. The 20% that notice? They are my wonderbread and Jif.

    So it balances out. There’s a rich minority willing to pay the minority top of any field, and there’s the poor majority with no insight or care and unwilling to pay for either.

    When I think of PHP and Javascript, I tend to think, good — making the tools easy allows non-professionals to participate. Look at what the web 2.0 model has done! Everyone is a publisher now. How do journalists feel? Look at the decline of print! Those 80% who bought newspapers now read twitter. All media evolves to extinction or to mediocrity. Do we suppose our dear host Mr. Charchar feels any compulsion to stop robbing “real” journalists? Everyone literate is now involved in everyone else’s business. We’ve gone vertical!

  33. Andres,
    I worked with a programmer from Napal, he’d give the shirt off his back to help you and spent easily 50-60 hours a week at his work–always learning to make things better, more functional. Should have been making $200k for Google with his skill and dedication. The company we worked for (a Fortune 100 company) squandered him on building Mas90 reports because he was the only one smart enough to do it, and because they didn’t see what he really did as important.

    I constantly read big name designer’s diatribes about how the client needs to be educated. The client doesn’t want to be educated–she wants to like the result–and often times that result cannot go beyond her scope of comprehension.

    Here’s an oldie but a goody to put things into perspective:

    For you I assume everyone wants you to imitate the latest trends in web development, “make it look and work like Train’s WordPress site, but with our logo.” For me, I get locked into a box of Helvetica, Impact, and Trajan Hell–praised for conformity, slapped down when I spread my wings. The results in both situations are meager, unmemorable, unrewarding.

    So what to do? Do we go 37 Signals on the world and break most of the rules hoping to grab a name? Do we learn every production skill for marketing and advertising? Time will tell. I just hope my bartista at Starbucks never learns my secret Photoshop action for putting a drop shadow on a beveled, feathered box with rounds corners and a glassy shine.

    graphic artists, designers, and photographers ARE snobs. The reason for this is as you say, their vocations are becoming commonplace–simplified to a point of redundancy. The two sides of the snobbery are either to guard their techniques against tutorialization and imitation, or they simply believe that their experience and skill is unique and unquestionable. They spend most of their adult lives learning and relearning their craft and pour money into typefaces, literature, and equipment. To be undercut by a 12-year-old basement designer in India with a hacked version of Photoshop and unlimited time for pennies on the dollar makes honest creatives into Curmudgeons.

    I love this board. Thanks for letting me vent. I am a mediocre designer, illustrator, photographer hoping to one day produce something memorable and relevant.

  34. Great post! Roger Zelazny expressed a very similar sentiment in his short story “For a Breath I Tarry” with the single line “The tool does not describe the designer”.

  35. Andres Galindo
    You’re spot on in the design isn’t a mystery occupation anymore, not by a long shot. I also know that schools have been teaching graphic design at a highschool level for at least five years now.

    I understand that there are going to be many, many new people that come into design who have no respect for what’s come before and no interest in learning how to best do something (in this case, communicate). The ratio is going to get worse – we’ll have more low quality designers to high quality ones.

    But I have no doubt that in that pool of the misinformed that there will be a select few who want to understand the serious side of design and not just the quick-buck side – this article was my way of trying to reach out to those few who want to become a master of this craft.

    So I do agree wit hou – Graphic Design/Graphic Art is going the way of programming – but just because that might be the case for both of our professions, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to reach out to those who strive for quality.

    What do you think?

    Welcome back and thank-you for a great comment :)

    I love the point you’ve made, though the one thing I wanted to comment on was that I’m not sure it’s a ‘rich’ vs ‘poor’ minority of clients who are willing to pay top dollar. I think there’s a lot more grey area than that on both sides of the coin.

    I don’t think a client would need to spend a huge sum of money to get quality work if the attitude within the community started to shift a little. Of course, that’s just a fantasy, but it’s one I’m holding on to because I believe in my profession. Though I also would like to think that the attitude towards quality design (and the community’s appreciation and understanding of it) is slowly on a shift upwards.

    I’m concenered less with client’s though – if a client is willing to spend a low amount on a low-quality designer, then that’s their call, there’s nothing I can do about it and it’s not as if I think I’m losing business (if I freelanced, for example). If the client only wants to spend a low sum, chances are they don’t have an understanding of design and they’re probably not someone I would want to work on – as you said, we all have the opportunity to pick the clients and jobs we work on.

    But I am concerned with the designers. I just want to try and point out to them that the field is a lot deeper and has a lot more to offer the photoshop trickery. It’s about solutions to problems, not band-aids for bullet wounds.

    Thanks again for the killer comment.

    David Ciccone
    pssst, can i get your drop shadow on a beveled, feathered, round cornered box Photoshop action? ;)

    I’ve been thinking of late about the kind of education a client needs to go through and I keep coming to the same point – they just want to like the solution we give them, they don’t want to feel like they’re going to school when they come to us.

    But i think that when the rockstar designers talk about educating their clients, it’s not so much about “this is why blue works” but “This is where strong branding can take you”. And in that, I think they’re right. But as was touched on by Digital Sushi above, there’s probably only so far you can take your client when it comes to understanding what we do. They’re interest will only stretch so far.

    I feel a lot of the ‘education’ comes down to an education of trust more than anything – we need to allow them a chance and give them the opportunity to develop a trust for what we do. I have no doubt that high-end designers get many of the same innate requests the rest of us do, but with their name and reputation comes a built-in trust when they say “woah, no, bad idea”.

    What do you think, Sir?

    I also don’t mind a little bit of snobbery in the company of professionals. Why not? Someone that works hard, puts a lot of effort and thought into their business is allowed to be proud of it.

    When it comes to design though, it’s not about being snobby about how to do something in photoshop or indesign or having the right typeface (many modern-legend designers seem to hardly do any of the grunt work), but about having the knowledge and experience to offer a creative solution, which is immaterial to the software or techniques used.

    It’s no coincidence that some of the best work being produced (and has always been produced) would be considered horribly boring to someone very new to the industry.

    Jason Landry
    Glad you liked it Jason :)

    Thanks for the introduction to the roger Zelazny short – am off to find it now!

  36. @Alexander

    Upon a re-read I suppose my comment sounded a bit anti-competitive, it was really more of veiled rant. I’m all for the diversification of our profession, I’ve always believed that stagnation leads to damnation; the one thing that I don’t like and I suppose is mutually inclusive to a widening pool of people in our professions is a larger bell-curve related to skill level (much like the bell-curve representing a population’s IQ) without much in the way of a great understanding amongst the general populace of how to judge or at the very least identify this skill as – a lack of insight into the field as David Ciccone points out.

    The argument could be made that if skilled enough, given the visual medium that the web is, that skill will make itself obvious but I’m sure we’ve all had those clients who hired “professionals” who were, to us, obviously of a lower caliber.

    What I really think is, as you’ve used this post for, we need a better way of reaching out to these driven (if not necessarily talented, this can be grown and nourished) individuals.

    (on a side note, Firebug tells me what ever is being used to enable the remember me functionality isn’t defined. Perhaps nothing but, just a heads up and yes, I do have firebug open at all times)

  37. Damn, cancels photoshop CS5 order!

    I’ve just started down this exciting route of graphic design, and I’m realising quickly that the tools are only part of it.

    Expressing ideas, communicating concepts, conveying a message, drawing attention, leading a story. The whole area a lot bigger than I thought. A lot bigger! Thankfully there are fantastic resources out there on the web and in print that I am learning from and what an interesting and exciting journey it is.

  38. Adres Galindo
    I think with the recent upswing in content heavy design blogs that has occurred online, we’ll see more and more people leaning towards taking graphic design seriously – by which I mean the practitioners, not the clients.

    Hopefully that’s the reaching out you speak of :)

    haha, you still might need photoshop for a couple of things ;)

    It’s great that you’ve realised what design is so early on – there’s many designers who have been practicing for decades who still think it’s about pretty pictures and just giving the client exactly what they asked for, even if it isn’t suitable or sustainable. Good luck and have fun!

  39. This article was sent my way via a design peer. I thoroughly enjoyed the aspects discussed. I thought its great that is topic is be aired out while the box I’m typing in right now, is granting forum discussion. We need more of this. Preferably in person. Any who, I have friends of my own who find out I’m working on completing my design undergrad and the topic of design then comes up. They feel that obtaining a copy of an Adobe Creative Suite grants them the equality to crit the work I’ve done while categorizing any digital design (it could be a circle with their name in it) as graphic design. The ease of the digital medium is diluting common perceptions on what qualifies you as a designer. The time spent in the classroom and in the field become meaningless with their view. I mean if I own a monkey wrench, then by association I am a mechanic, right? No. I know just from personal relations that the best is to take it with a grain of salt and well take it as a compliment. Shoot well again thanks for just typing your thoughts or I wouldn’t have typed mine. That’s an RBI for you my friend. Also I thank my and professor out their who wouldn’t let us touch a computer until the completion of our first year no matter on experience.

    And for the next guy who reads this, why not share this article with one of your design friends, eh?

  40. “I mean if I own a monkey wrench, then by association I am a mechanic, right?”

    Hrm. Well to that, certainly not. But it’s the first step towards a validation. If you own a monkey wrench, and I see you torquing on pipes, I will further validate you as a plumber, or a drunk mechanic. If I see you torquing pipes with a monkey wrench, wearing coveralls, under a sink and see a lady paying you to fix her broken sink, I might even reasonably validate you as a plumber.

    To the next end, if you tell me you are a plumber, is this further evidence that you are a plumber? Or do you require a certificate to be a plumber, a lineage endorsed by your state or commonwealth; did you train under the great plumbers? Did Luigi touch your shoulder and bestow divine tutelage?

    If your friends obtain Adobe Creative Suite, why do they not deserve the equality to critique your work? In fact, why did they need to obtain the software at all? If someone has greater skill in some subject, they should be able to deflect criticism with rational retort. And if such a retort is not accepted due to their inability to assess its correctness, why stress yourself out over the opinions of laymen?

    Esoteric knowledge cannot be made general. Not simply because it would lose definition, but because there is only so much that a person can learn. To appreciate someone else’s esoteric wisdom indicates the appreciator’s understanding and appreciation as well.

    People who understand a subject only topically are window-browsers in a store you sell at. They aren’t coworkers with whom to talk shop. Their interest is fleeting, their criticisms redundant and unmeasured. Why consider their affect long after they have hopped to the next window, lost in a sea of ephemeral thoughts?

  41. Gregory L. Christian & Digitalsushi
    I actually agree with both of you – I think there is definitely a change of opinion and perception of what it is a designer does because of how easy it has become to, essentially, play around in Photoshop or print something from (gasp) Powerpoint.

    I’ve known people much like you Gregory – they think that what I did was just playing around in photoshop using textures found on the web and not much else. I once had a friend spend twenty minutes explaining to me the ‘perfect’ website as he envisioned it. It sounded awful. In the end, all I could say was “oh yeah, sounds interesting” because I knew rebuffing anything he said would lead to the age-old “well, that’s all you do anyway”.

    I think you said something really important Digitalsushi – how much weight should we give the criticism of the layman? And if we are professional and knowledgeable in what we are doing, we should be able to respond with logical, legitimate answers.

    But as we all know, through dealings with clients, everyone thinks they’re a creative and their opinion is as valid as the professional’s.

    The difference between us and, say a plumber, is that we don’t grow up playing plumber throughout our schooling. But people do grow up playing creative – we all draw when we’re kids, then we play designer when we layout assignments in Word and Publisher. Which might be why many people assume that what we do isn’t that much of a challenge and they’re only a piece of software away from doing what we do.

    Which brings us back to your point(s) and the topic of this essay – when we play the role of the designer, the software is merely a prop.

    Awesome discussion everyone :)

  42. Excellent! Thank you! A tad late catching up – but good stuff doesn’t get old!

    So…..whenever I meet colleagues of This Profession, and reveal my nasty facts, I get instant ostracization (can one even say that?). Because 1) I work on a PC 2) I use Corel Draw rather than Adobe and 3) the platforms I work with are Microsoft based.

    Funnily enough, among many of our clients, this creates credibility. “Ahh, finally something different! We’re so tired of Mac-Operators in designer glasses and a black turtleneck….”
    Then again, others are disappointed for not getting exactly that.

    Go figure. We may say that our tools are not our profession, but the outside certainly draw a line between the two.

  43. Birger
    Glad you liked it Birger :)

    On one hand I cannot grasp the need for Corel Draw when the Adobe Suite seems to be the best option out there. On the other hand, we’re all different, aren’t we? And as is the point of this article – the tools don’t mean anything more than what we instil in them. I think we should all be proud of what you use and how you go about it if it allows you to do work that solves problems.

  44. A very great article. I tell this to people all the time and I’m constantly amazed by how many people are convinced that Photoshop effects are the core of design.

  45. Yeah agreed, it’s like photography. Anyone with a digital camera thinks they are a professional photographer.

  46. being able to use photoshop is really just the first step…anyone who needs anything serious done, will always go to a professional


  48. ALEX BOWSHER January 3, 2012


  49. Randy Kooistra January 3, 2012

    placement is right….. PeOplE:)

  50. heeelloooooo

  51. you go karen

  52. True, but it allows people to do a lot of basic stuff, that they woudln’t be able to do otherwise.

  53. In my view Photoshop without camera is useless although we can use it as a tool to help us to improve our art works.

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  58. The name is PHOTOshop.. not GraphicDesignShop… idiots… huh

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