What is the Difference Between Graphic Designer and Illustrator

Hi! I’m June, a graphic designer who loves illustrations! I guess I can call myself an illustrator too because I did get a degree in creative illustration and I did some illustration projects for clients. 

So what’s the difference between a graphic designer and an illustrator? A quick answer would be: 

A graphic designer works with design software, and an illustrator draws with their hands

That’s so generic and the part about illustrators isn’t 100% true, because there are graphic illustrations as well. So here’s a better way to understand it:

The biggest difference between graphic designers and illustrators is their purpose of work and the tools they use for work. 

Now let’s get deeper into the topic of the difference between a graphic designer and an illustrator.

What is a Graphic Designer

A graphic designer creates visual concepts (mostly commercial designs) using design software. Drawing skill is not a must for a graphic designer, but it’s helpful to sketch out ideas before creating a design on a computer.

A graphic designer can do logo design, branding, poster, packaging design, ads, web banners, etc. Basically, making artwork and text look good together to deliver a message or sell a product. 

Actually, creating illustrations can be part of a graphic designer’s job work as well. It’s quite trendy to have illustrations in commercial designs because hand-drawn stuff is more unique and personalized. 

However, not every graphic designer can illustrate well, that’s why many design agencies hire illustrators. An illustrator does the drawing part, then a graphic designer put together the drawing and typography nicely.  

What is an Illustrator

An illustrator creates original designs (mostly drawings) for commercials, publications, or fashion using multiple mediums including traditional media such as pen, pencil, and brushes. 

Some illustrators create graphic illustrations, so besides the hand-drawing tools, they also use digital programs such as Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, Sketch, Inkscape, etc.

There are different types of illustrators, including fashion illustrators, children’s book illustrators, advertising illustrators, medical illustrators, and other publishing illustrators. 

A lot of freelance illustrators work for restaurants and bars as well. I’m sure you’ve already seen those cocktail menus or walls with cute drawings, yup, that can be an illustrator’s job too. 

So an illustrator is basically someone who draws? Hmm. Yes and no. 

Yes, an illustrator does draw a lot and some people think that being an illustrator is almost like an artist’s job. But no, it’s different because an illustrator works for clients upon requests while an artist usually creates based on his/her own feeling.

Graphic designer vs Illustrator: What’s the Difference

As I mentioned earlier, the biggest difference between these two careers is the job functions and the tools they use. 

Most graphic designers work for businesses and create commercial designs, such as advertisements, sales brochures, etc. 

Illustrators work more as “interpreters”, especially publishing illustrators because they need to communicate with the author/writer and convert the text content into an illustration. Their work purpose is less commercial but more educational. 

For example, not all illustrators are good at graphic software, but graphic designers are required to master the design programs. On the other hand, graphic designers are not required to have excellent drawing skills. 

Honestly, if you ever decide to become an illustrator, I highly recommend learning at least one design program because in most cases, you’ll need to digitalize your drawings and work on the computer. 

FAQs

Know that you know the major differences between a graphic designer and an illustrator, here are some more questions about these two careers that you might find interesting.

Is an illustrator a good career?

Yes, it can be a good career especially if you’re an art lover who likes freedom for work because most illustrators work as freelancers. According to Indeed, the average salary of an illustrator in the US is around $46 per hour

What should I study to become an illustrator?

You can get a four-year bachelor’s degree in fine art, which will cover almost everything you need to know about drawing and art. Another option is studying illustration and drawing in short-term programs, which many art schools offer. 

What qualifications do you need for graphic design?

Besides learning the design tools, creativity is the most important quality you should have as a graphic designer. Other requirements include good communication skills, stress handling, and time management are all important qualities that a graphic designer should have. Learn more from this graphic design statistics page.

How do I start my graphic design career?

If you’ve studied graphic design and looking for a job, the first thing you need to do is put together a good portfolio that includes 5 to 10 pieces of your best projects (school projects are fine). Then go for job interviews. 

If you’re new to graphic design and want to become a graphic designer, the process is much longer. You’ll need to learn graphic design software, build a portfolio, and go for job interviews. 

Can I be a graphic designer without a degree?

Yes, you can work as a graphic designer without a college degree because usually, your portfolio is more important than a diploma. However, for higher positions like a creative director or art director, you should have a degree. 

Conclusion

Graphic design is more commercial oriented and illustration is more art-oriented. So the major difference between a graphic designer and an illustrator is their job functions and the tools they use. 

Many graphic designers specialize in illustration, however, if you only know illustration and don’t know how to use the graphic software, you can’t work as a graphic designer. 

About June Escalada
Graduated from Creative Advertising major, worked more than eight years as a graphic designer focusing in branding and Illustration. Yes, Adobe Illustrator is my best friend and I’m passionate about art and design.

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  • Precious Njolo

    Most impressed with your differentiation between a graphic designer and an illustrator.I myself am an illustrator,doing everything by hand….I have done a few jobs illustrating educational books for a local publishing company…but as you said,and rightly so…an illustrator need to at least know one or a few graphic design programs to digitize and enhance the work on computer….but coz I only know how to draw ,my work has to be finished by another person before a graphic designer as a result I lose out a lot…I get peanuts,sometimes I am even left out in favour of someone who can both illustrate and digitize…..I would really love to learn graphic design to at least diploma level…..but resources at my disposal are limited…I don’t even have a computer otherwise I would teach myself the basics,coz I have worked with computers before…but not for graphic designing.Are there opportunities for scholarships in this field out there?

    Reply
    • June Escalada

      Hey there,

      It’s definitely helpful to take some graphic design courses, but you can learn on your own as well (if you have access to a computer), there are some free graphic editing software such as Inkcape that you can use for free to digitalize your illustrations.

      Reply