After a degree and 5 professional years as a graphic designer, I shifted my career into product design. In this article, I'll share why I did it, how I made it happen, and the biggest similarities and differences I have observed.
Defining the roles
Before we dive in, let me share how I define these career titles. As both professions are part of the applied arts and design sphere, they do overlap. However, I want to highlight each of their differences, and clarify how each is unique.
What is a graphic designer?
A graphic designer is primarily concerned with applying design principles for communication. You will find graphic designers at branding agencies, advertising agencies, book publishers, and on internal teams at medium to large-sized companies (and many other spots).
Since a graphic designer's primary goal is communication, their focus is often on creating communication artifacts. These are artworks, logos, brand systems, layouts, design artifacts, collateral, etc. All of this helps a brand, book, or entity clarify information, tell its story, and ultimately connect with people in a meaningful way.
A good brand helps you understand the company's history, purpose, values, and beliefs (I call this its "story") through color, typography, photography, logos, etc. The brand story is why certain brands make us feel a certain way. We are connecting with visual storytelling. For example, a good poster communicates key information, while visually telling you the “story” of the event.
What is a product designer?
A digital product designer is primarily concerned with applying design principles for usability. The product design role has its roots in industrial design (which can still use this role title, adding to the confusion) but in this case, we are discussing the role as part of a digital product or software team.
Digital software has become more synchronous with brand identities from the 1990s and into today. Consumers have increasingly high expectations for software and apps to be easy to use, enjoyable, and connected back to the brand “story.”
A modern product designer works between visual communication with user interface (UI design) and usability through user experience (UX design). Some large teams separate these roles, but demand continues to grow for product designers, who can operate inside both of these roles.
Why I made the switch from graphic to product
I graduated from Iowa State University in 2016 with a degree in graphic design. During my college years, I loved learning about design structures, systems, and the interactivity of print and packaging. I loved exploring the tactile and visual nature of the papers, colors, inks, and printing processes, and pairing those with meaningful design work.
In my final year of undergrad, I took a “Design for Social Change” course. The course focus was based on the communication skills of a graphic designer, however, this course highlighted an element of design that I had not yet utilized; the human experience. I got excited about this.
Even as a freshman, I considered applying to architecture or industrial design instead. I now know those careers interested me because of their relation to human experience. That Design for Social Change course was the first time I verbalized the idea of “experience in design.” It began unlocking the part of me that had earlier been interested in architecture and industrial design.
After graduation, I moved to Kansas City and worked in marketing design, brand design, and advertising design. I started to recognize that while I loved the visual design side, my career did not meet my passion for experience design in the way I desired.
How I broke into the product world
This realization led me to a job in a large advertising agency, where I could explore what my passion might be through a wide range of projects. I started reading Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. In their book, they help you apply the principles of Design Thinking to your life and career.
One of the exercises was identifying the moments and projects in your life where you felt engaged and/or energized. Next, write down those moments, and start to mind map them to find a few common threads. The phrase I kept circling back to was “impacting human experience.”
I began discussing this with friends, coworkers, acquaintances, and family members. Eventually, I came up with a few options for “possible career futures” that would meet my desire for impacting visual communication and human experience. The first few ideas were okay but required a return to formal higher education. They only mildly excited me and were not realistic options I wanted to put myself or my family through.
But one possible career future had a glimmer of possibility. “Transition your career from graphic design to product design.” It was a lightbulb moment. I have always been fascinated by quality digital products and apps. I often read articles from UX and UI thought leaders. And importantly, product designers commonly have degrees in graphic design.
I started a year of learning, reaching out to people in the product design field to ask them about what they do, and doing everything I could to work on projects related to product design. Eventually, one of those conversations led to a connection at a company I had found intriguing since I moved to Kansas City (spoiler: yes, it was Crema).
An opening was available, so I began working on a portfolio to show my (limited) experience in product design. I also included examples of those projects that had stood out to me in my Design Your Life mind map because they were human experience-related.
At the suggestion of a product designer friend, I wrote about those non-digital projects as if product design projects, detailing the problem and how my design solutions solved those problems. I accepted an offer after the interview process, joining Crema in January of 2022.
Graphic design vs. product design observation
Now that I’ve spent some time within both career tracks, there are a few things that have stood out to me between the two.
Starting with similarities is easy. An essential part of the product design role is visual, or UI, design skills. There is so much overlap that graphic designers would find themselves using the same design principles they would use for any project. The UI design skillset relies on effective visual communication.
Any app or software connects to a brand of some kind. This digital product must tell the brand's “story” and advocate for the product as a problem solution. Take Apple, Inc. as an example. Apple has a brand that comes to life in almost every imaginable way. Architecture, industrial design, packaging, marketing, etc.
So, the digital software Apple designs should follow the same cues and tell the same brand story as all of these other elements. Everything Apple feels like Apple. When you see something designed by Apple in any of these design spheres, you can instantly connect it to the others.
When you get down to Apple software, you see a similar ecosystem at work. Everything unites through a common language determined by a user interface design system. Any native Apple app feels like an Apple app because it uses the same language to tell the same brand story. It speaks of ease of use, simplicity, efficiency, value, quality, power, relatability, and on it goes.
A product designer’s role is to effectively weave this story throughout everything they create while using design principles to guide them to more technical results like legibility and hierarchy. These elements help to ensure an enjoyable and easy-to-understand design. These are the same principles that rule a graphic designer’s skillset.
Where product design begins to branch into its own is the addition of interactivity. Of course, some experience elements are essential for packaging and wayfinding designers. You will always find overlap between the design disciplines because their histories are interconnected. But the differences are in the details.
A product designer creates a communicative UI, representing the product’s purpose, story, and values. But interactivity is a critical element of a digital product and, in most cases, must be a guide to the UI.
The user experience allows someone to begin using a product and quickly feel it is natural to them. UX is much more ethereal than UI because it is inherently more structural than UI. UI impacts UX through hierarchy and legibility, but this is only the tip of the iceberg.
To truly master UX you have to start with the user, long before creating any design work. User interviews and research help a designer ensure that a product’s purpose and goals match the desires and goals of a user. A product that does not meet user needs has no value. We design products for people, so people have to be at the center of what and why we design.
Once the product and user priorities are aligned, a designer can begin creating a user flow structure for the product that simplifies achieving the user priorities as much as possible. This often takes balance, as simplification of one priority may complicate another.
During this process, the designer must also account for requirements in accessibility and development. Ignoring these may render much of the design useless. With these elements held in a delicate balance, the designer can begin to apply UX principles to individual features and pages and apply visual communication through UI design.
Sometimes this feature-based UX work is done through early wireframes. Other times, it is done in tandem with the UI design after establishing the user flow structure. Without understanding these strategic and interactive UX principles and guidelines, a designer can achieve a beautiful design but may find users frustrated or blocked entirely from effective use of the digital product.
All that said, here’s the key differentiator
While there are many overlaps between graphic design and digital product design, a key differentiator comes in valuing and understanding the strategy behind a positive user experience. It front loads a designer’s process with usability and goal-oriented user research for understanding how to serve users best.
The most skilled graphic designers steep themselves in similar research, but their research focuses on the story they are trying to communicate. They start with the brand story and communicate that story to the user through research and design. A product designer begins with the user and works back to create a product that serves user needs while uniting it to the brand story of the product.
A final word from the writer
My process of moving from one career to another was neither quick nor easy. I routinely listened to the small voice in me that was not satisfied with where I was, even though I loved so many aspects of my graphic design career. It was a fervent dedication to following that voice in me that wanted to affect the human experience.
I do not regret making the switch five years into my career. I actually value my diverse background in advertising, branding, packaging, and wayfinding design. It provided me with a different way of thinking and gave me experience that I would not have otherwise had. I am excited to continue this career journey, continue to push on my passions, and find ways to define, refine, and narrow in on what I most love to do.