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Visual designer vs. web designer vs. UX designer: Understanding designer roles

PostsDesign & UX
Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

May 21, 2024

The role of ‘designer’ has evolved drastically over the past 10 to 20 years. What was once a straightforward job description (‘make things look nice’) has since branched off into several distinct specializations, each with unique skill sets: visual designer, graphic designer, web designer, UX designer, etc. New design job titles seem to pop up every year.

You’d be forgiven for feeling confused: all these roles sound slightly similar, and there is overlap between each one. So, whether you’re hiring a new team member, choosing a new career, or simply wondering why your designer colleague rolled their eyes when you asked them to make a logo: you’ve come to the right place. Here’s what they all do.

What is a graphic designer?

Graphic design is the oldest type of design job on the list and has been a cornerstone of visual communication long before the digital age. Graphic designers create visual assets.

Until the advent of the computer, graphic designers worked with paper and ink. Traditionally, they covered print media, such as brochures, posters, business cards, and banners. When print moved into the digital realm, graphic designers started creating digital assets like logos, websites, and ads.

Graphic designer skills

As a top graphic designer, you will likely need the following skills.

  1. Visual design principles: Mastery of design fundamentals such as layout, typography, color theory, and composition.
  2. Adobe Creative Suite: Proficiency in graphic design software, including Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign.
  3. Branding and identity design: Ability to create and maintain cohesive brand identities across various platforms and media.
  4. Print design: Experience in designing print media, such as brochures, posters, business cards, and packaging.
  5. Digital design: Capability to create digital assets for websites, social media, email marketing, and digital advertising campaigns.
  6. Illustration: Skill in creating original illustrations and graphics to enhance visual storytelling and communication.
  7. Photo editing: Proficiency in photo editing techniques to enhance and manipulate images for design projects.
  8. Typography: Understanding of typography and its application in design for readability, hierarchy, and aesthetics.
  9. Layout design: Ability to create visually appealing layouts for publications, advertisements, and marketing materials.
  10. Communication skills: Strong communication skills are essential for effectively conveying design concepts, ideas, and rationale to clients and stakeholders.

What is a web designer?

Web designers, often with a graphic design background, specialize in creating digital assets for web platforms. Most—but not all—graphic designers are also web designers because their skill sets overlap, and working in both fields offers more professional opportunities.

Web designers usually don’t need to code — a skill often left to front-end web developers. That said, many learn this skill to set themselves apart from the competition.

Web designer skills

As a top web designer, you will likely need the following skills.

  1. HTML/CSS: Proficiency in HTML and CSS for creating and styling web pages.
  2. Responsive design: Understanding of responsive design principles to ensure websites are optimized for various devices and screen sizes.
  3. UI/UX Design: Knowledge of user interface and user experience design principles for creating intuitive and engaging web interfaces.
  4. JavaScript/JQuery: Basic understanding of JavaScript and jQuery for adding interactivity and functionality to web pages.
  5. Web design tools: Familiarity with design tools such as Adobe XD, Sketch, or Figma (or Cacoo!) for creating web design mockups and prototypes.
  6. Cross-browser compatibility: Ability to design and test websites to ensure compatibility across different web browsers.
  7. Version control: Familiarity with version control systems like Git for managing and tracking changes to web projects.
  8. SEO basics: Understanding of basic search engine optimization (SEO) principles to optimize web content for better visibility and ranking.
  9. Problem-solving skills: Capacity to troubleshoot and solve technical issues related to web design and development.
  10. Continuous learning: Willingness to stay updated on emerging web design trends, technologies, and best practices.

What is a UI and UX designer?

User Experience (UX) and User Interface (UI) designers specifically work with interactive products or systems, such as websites, software, and apps. They are at the forefront of creating intuitive, user-centric digital experiences. UI designers handle the visual aesthetic or ‘feel’ of the system interfaces we interact with, while UX designers focus on the functional experience they deliver.

In addition to a good design eye, they need knowledge of Photoshop, InDesign, and Illustrator and the ability to use wireframing software. Many UI/UX designers have experience coding in CSS, HTML, and JavaScript as well.

UX designer vs. UI designer

UX and UI design are two similar roles but with a few key differences. Though closely related, entail distinct responsibilities and approaches. UX designers lay the groundwork, conceptualizing user flows and addressing fundamental questions about functionality and usability. In contrast, UI designers refine the visual elements, ensuring consistency, clarity, and emotional resonance throughout the interface.

So, if you think about a typical user journey through an eCommerce site, a UX designer will map the route the user takes, from browsing and favoriting items all the way through to checkout. The UX designer will ask themselves the following questions:

  • Is this functional?
  • What are the steps this user will follow?
  • How will the user know if they’ve been successful?
  • Is it easy for users to achieve their goals?

The design (sometimes represented as a wireframe at this stage) then moves over to the UI designer, who will refine that interaction by tweaking colors, shapes, and layouts to make it clearer and more pleasant for the user. They’ll ask the following questions:

  • Is the user journey easy and enjoyable?
  • Does the interface look aesthetically pleasing?
  • Is the aesthetic consistent with the overall brand?
  • Do the visuals build an emotional connection with the user?

UI and UX design can be separate or combined roles, but they always go hand in hand. Together, these designers refine the way different elements of the system or website interact with each other and how users make their way through the interface.

UX designer skills

As a top UX designer, you will likely need the following skills.

  1. User research: Proficiency in conducting user research to understand user needs, behaviors, and pain points.
  2. Information architecture: Ability to organize and structure content in a way that enhances usability and findability.
  3. Wireframing and prototyping: Experience in creating wireframes and prototypes to visualize and iterate on design concepts.
  4. Usability testing: Knowledge of usability testing methods to gather feedback and validate design decisions with real users.
  5. Interaction design: Understanding of interaction design principles for creating intuitive and engaging user interactions.
  6. User-Centered Design (UCD): Familiarity with the principles of user-centered design to prioritize user needs and preferences throughout the design process.
  7. Accessibility: Awareness of accessibility guidelines and best practices to ensure designs are inclusive and accessible to users with disabilities.
  8. Analytics and metrics: Ability to analyze user data and metrics to evaluate the effectiveness of design solutions and make data-driven decisions.
  9. Collaboration and communication: Strong communication and collaboration skills to work effectively with cross-functional teams, stakeholders, and clients.
  10. Empathy: Capacity to empathize with users and advocate for their needs and experiences throughout the design process.

UI designer skills

As a top UI designer, you will likely need the following skills.

  1. User interface design: Proficiency in designing user interfaces for websites, web applications, and mobile apps.
  2. UI design principles: Understanding of user interface design principles such as usability, accessibility, and visual hierarchy.
  3. Wireframing and prototyping: Experience in creating wireframes and interactive prototypes to visualize and iterate on design concepts.
  4. Visual design: Skill in creating visually appealing UI designs that align with brand guidelines and user preferences.
  5. Interaction design: Knowledge of interaction design principles for creating intuitive and engaging user interactions.
  6. Responsive design: Understanding of responsive design principles to ensure UI designs are optimized for various devices and screen sizes.
  7. UI design tools: Familiarity with design tools such as Sketch, Adobe XD, or Figma (or Cacoo!) for creating UI design mockups and prototypes.
  8. Typography: Awareness of typography principles and best practices for UI design to ensure readability and clarity.
  9. Iconography: Ability to design and incorporate icons and visual elements that enhance navigation and usability.
  10. Collaboration and communication: Strong collaboration and communication skills to work effectively with cross-functional teams, developers, and stakeholders throughout the design process.

What is a visual designer?

The visual designer role is a flexible mixture of all of the above. Their job involves bringing a brand to life across web, mobile, and print assets.

Visual designers are more conceptual in their work. Rather than just designing a logo or picking colors, they’re often responsible for developing the ideas behind a brand aesthetic. As such, visual designers need good communication skills because their job often involves presenting concepts to clients.

A broad understanding of graphics, UX, UI, and web design is vital for visual designers. They use the same tools as graphic designers and work with wireframe software. Many know how to code, but it’s seen as a string to their bow rather than a job requirement.

Visual designer skills

As a top visual designer, you will likely need the following skills.

  1. Graphic design: Proficiency in graphic design principles such as layout, typography, color theory, and composition.
  2. Brand identity: Ability to develop and maintain consistent brand identities across various platforms and media.
  3. Visual communication: Strong communication skills to convey ideas and concepts visually.
  4. Adobe Creative Suite: Mastery of design software such as Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign.
  5. UI design: Understanding of user interface design principles and best practices.
  6. Typography: Knowledge of typography and its application in design for readability and aesthetics.
  7. Print design: Experience in designing for print media such as brochures, posters, and packaging.
  8. Digital design: Ability to create digital assets for websites, social media, and digital marketing campaigns.
  9. Presentation skills: Capability to present design concepts and ideas effectively to clients and stakeholders.
  10. Collaboration: Capacity to collaborate with other designers, stakeholders, and clients to achieve project goals.

Which design role is right for you?

Choosing the right design role requires self-reflection, an understanding of your strengths and interests, and awareness of the unique responsibilities and skill sets associated with each role. Here are some key considerations to help you determine which design role aligns best with your goals and aspirations:

1. Assess your skills and strengths:

  • Reflect on your strengths, skills, and areas of expertise in design. Are you more inclined toward visual aesthetics, problem-solving, or user research?
  • Identify your technical proficiencies in design software, prototyping tools, and other relevant technologies.
  • Consider your soft skills, such as communication, collaboration, and attention to detail, which are essential for success in any design role.

2. Explore different design disciplines:

  • Familiarize yourself with the various design disciplines, including graphic design, web design, UX design, UI design, and visual design.
  • Research the responsibilities, challenges, and opportunities associated with each design role to gain insights into what each entails.
  • Look for real-world examples, case studies, and interviews with professionals in each design discipline to understand their day-to-day experiences and career paths.

3. Identify your interests and passions:

  • Consider your interests, passions, and areas of curiosity within the field of design. Are you drawn to creating visual identities, designing digital interfaces, or improving user experiences?
  • Reflect on the types of projects, industries, or design challenges that excite and inspire you the most.
  • Explore opportunities to work on projects or internships in different design disciplines to gain hands-on experience and clarify your interests.

4. Define your career goals:

  • Define your long-term career goals and aspirations in the field of design. Do you envision yourself specializing in a specific design discipline, pursuing leadership roles, or starting your own design agency?
  • Consider the growth opportunities, career paths, and advancement prospects available in each design role, and how they align with your career goals.
  • Seek mentorship, networking opportunities, and career guidance from experienced professionals in the design industry to help you navigate your career path.

5. Stay open to exploration and growth:

  • Be open to exploring different design roles, industries, and opportunities as you progress in your career.
  • Embrace lifelong learning and continuous growth by seeking out new challenges, acquiring new skills, and staying updated on emerging trends and technologies in the design industry.
  • Remember that your career journey in design is dynamic and evolving, and it’s okay to pivot, adapt, and redefine your path as you gain experience and insights along the way.

By considering these factors, you can make an informed decision about which design role is the right fit for you. Whether you choose to specialize in graphic design, web design, UX/UI design, or pursue a broader role in visual design, your unique talents and passion for creativity will guide you toward a fulfilling and rewarding career in design.

How to begin a career in visual design

The best thing about visual design disciplines is that the workforce is heavily diversified. Professionals from various backgrounds gravitate to design because it combines art, creativity, communications, logic, and technical know-how. The design industry evolves so quickly that people who are willing to learn new technologies and keep growing their skills can enter the field with little experience.

The most common way to become a visual designer (or any type) is to get a Bachelor’s degree in a related field, such as:

  • graphic design
  • web design/development
  • visual arts
  • visual communications
  • software development
  • market research
  • marketing

While a degree is helpful for learning the principles of design and getting traditional employment, it isn’t absolutely necessary, especially for freelance visual designers. The alternative route is to take vocational or online courses in specific skills.

With this approach, it’s a good idea to decide which design field you want to target and read job postings to make a list of the most valued skills. Find out which software and tools are essential to succeeding in the industry. After all, you can develop other skills later if you want to expand your career options.

Build a design portfolio

Whether you choose a degree or self-guided education, the most important thing is to develop a robust portfolio as you learn.

A great design portfolio showcases your skills, experience, and creativity while effectively communicating your design style and expertise to potential clients or employers. Here are the essential elements of a great design portfolio:

1. Introduction or About Me section:

  • A brief introduction that highlights your background, experience, and design philosophy.
  • Personalize it with a photo and a short bio that showcases your personality and passion for design.

2. Portfolio projects:

  • Showcase a selection of your best work that demonstrates your range of skills and expertise.
  • Include a variety of projects, such as branding, web design, mobile app design, print design, and UX/UI design.
  • Provide context for each project, including the client or company, project goals, your role, and any challenges or constraints you faced.
  • Present your work with high-quality images, screenshots, or mockups to visually showcase your designs.
  • Include a brief description or case study for each project, highlighting your process, design decisions, and outcomes.

3. Design process:

  • Offer insights into your design process and methodology, illustrating how you approach projects from concept to completion.
  • Include sketches, wireframes, prototypes, or design iterations to demonstrate your problem-solving skills and creativity.
  • Explain your design thinking, research methods, and decision-making process to provide context for your work.

4. Skills and expertise:

  • Highlight your technical skills, software proficiency, and areas of expertise relevant to your design discipline.
  • Showcase your proficiency with design tools such as Adobe Creative Suite, Sketch, Figma, or other industry-standard software.
  • Include any additional skills or certifications that demonstrate your commitment to continuous learning and professional development.

5. Testimonials or client feedback:

  • Include testimonials or quotes from clients, colleagues, or collaborators that validate your skills and professionalism.
  • Share feedback that highlights your strengths, contributions, and the impact of your work on clients or users.

6. Contact information:

  • Make it easy for potential clients or employers to get in touch with you by including your contact information.
  • Provide multiple ways to reach you, such as email, phone, social media profiles, or a contact form.

7. Visual design and layout:

  • Design your portfolio with a clean, professional layout that highlights your work and enhances readability.
  • Use consistent branding, typography, and color schemes that reflect your personal style and attention to detail.
  • Ensure that your portfolio is visually engaging and easy to navigate, with clear navigation menus and an intuitive user experience.

8. Responsive design:

  • Optimize your portfolio for mobile devices and different screen sizes to ensure a seamless viewing experience.
  • Test your portfolio across various devices and browsers to ensure compatibility and responsiveness.

9. Update regularly:

  • Keep your portfolio up-to-date with your latest work, projects, and achievements.
  • Remove outdated or less relevant projects to keep your portfolio fresh and focused on your best work.
  • Consider adding a blog or news section to share updates, insights, or articles related to your design industry.

10. Personal touch:

  • Infuse your portfolio with your personality, creativity, and unique style to stand out from the crowd.
  • Showcase your passion for design and storytelling through engaging visuals, animations, or interactive elements.
  • Let your portfolio reflect who you are as a designer and what sets you apart from others in your field.

By incorporating these elements into your design portfolio, you can create a compelling showcase of your skills, experience, and creativity that captivates potential clients or employers and leaves a lasting impression.

Designing in collaborative and cross-functional teams

Collaboration lies at the heart of modern design. Visual designers no longer work in isolation but collaborate closely with cross-functional teams comprising developers, marketers, product managers, and other stakeholders. This collaborative approach not only fosters creativity and innovation but also ensures that design decisions align with broader business goals and user needs.

Benefits of collaboration for visual designers

  1. Diverse perspectives: Bringing together individuals with diverse backgrounds and skill sets enriches the design process by introducing fresh perspectives and innovative ideas.
  2. Holistic solutions: Cross-functional teams enable a holistic approach to problem-solving, considering factors beyond design aesthetics, such as technical feasibility, market viability, and user experience.
  3. Effective communication: Collaboration facilitates effective communication and alignment across teams, minimizing misunderstandings and ensuring that everyone is working towards a shared vision.

Cross-functional team dynamics

  1. Design-Development collaboration: Close collaboration between visual designers and developers streamlines the transition from design concepts to functional prototypes, ensuring that design intent is preserved throughout the development process. Utilizing tools like Cacoo, a versatile online diagramming tool, allows designers and developers to create wireframes, flowcharts, and mockups collaboratively, facilitating seamless communication and iteration.
  2. Design-Marketing alignment: Collaboration between design and marketing teams ensures that design decisions are informed by market insights and user research, leading to more targeted and effective design solutions. Backlog, a project management application by Nulab, provides a centralized platform for teams to track project progress, share feedback, and prioritize tasks, fostering alignment between design and marketing initiatives.
  3. Design-Product Management integration: Integrating design with product management helps prioritize features based on user needs and business objectives, guiding the iterative development of products and services.

Strategies for effective design collaboration

  1. Clear communication channels: Establish clear communication channels and processes to facilitate collaboration, such as regular meetings, project management tools, and shared documentation platforms. Backlog’s intuitive interface and customizable workflows empower teams to communicate effectively, ensuring that everyone stays informed and engaged throughout the design process.
  2. Cross-functional workshops: Organize cross-functional workshops and design sprints to encourage collaboration, ideation, and rapid prototyping, enabling teams to explore and validate design concepts together. Cacoo’s real-time collaboration features enable teams to work synchronously on design documents, fostering creativity and innovation in a virtual environment.
  3. User-centered design workshops: Involve stakeholders in user-centered design workshops and usability testing sessions to gain valuable insights into user needs and preferences, fostering empathy and understanding across teams.

Visual designer tools

In an increasingly interconnected and dynamic world, collaboration among cross-functional teams is essential for driving design innovation and delivering impactful solutions. By embracing collaboration, fostering open communication, and cultivating a culture of shared ownership and accountability, organizations can harness the collective creativity and expertise of their teams to create meaningful and memorable experiences for users.

And by leveraging tools like Cacoo and Backlog, design teams can streamline collaboration, foster creativity, and align efforts toward shared goals, ultimately enhancing the effectiveness and efficiency of the design process.

This post was originally published on December 11, 2019, and updated most recently on May 21, 2024.

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