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Graphic Design vs Illustration - What Are The Key Differences?

Graphic Design vs Illustration – What Are The Key Differences?

We consume visual media every day through books, magazines, websites, posters, and even our mobile apps. Visual accompaniments for our physical and online content are important for catching the attention of an audience.

Illustrations and graphic design are two important concepts in visual media, but they often get mixed up. Are there any differences between the two, or are they actually just the same thing?

While it’s easy to confuse the two disciplines, they each have distinct elements that make graphic design and illustrations different from each other. In this article, we’ll be exploring those differences by outlining each of their roles and why we use them.

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What is Illustration?

What is Illustration?

Illustrations are used to help tell a story or to portray and interpret a certain text. It can also be used to visually represent a concept. Illustrations often depend on text and other materials. Scenery and characters are used in illustrations to create a sense of connection.

What is Graphic Design?

What is Graphic Design?

Graphic design is a broad type of visual design that focuses more on composition and layout as it relates to texts and images.

American designer Charles Eames said that graphic design “is an expression of the purpose,” meaning that it often demands the attention of a viewer and directs to something specific. Graphic design might serve to evoke a certain emotion like urgency to encourage them to buy a product or service.

What Is Illustration in Graphic Design? 

In the field of graphic design, illustration is the incorporation of visual artistic representations to convey specific ideas, concepts, or messages. These visual elements, which are typically created by an artist, can significantly enhance the impact of a design by adding an extra layer of aesthetic appeal and interpretation.

They can bring complex ideas to life, allowing audiences to understand the intended message more easily.  Illustrations can vary significantly in style and technique. They may be executed in traditional hand-drawn formats or designed using digital tools. The choice of style often depends on the specific requirements of the project and the intended message.

Digital illustrations, for instance, can offer greater flexibility for manipulation and use in various digital media forms, including websites, social media, and more. 

What are the Differences Between Graphic Design and Illustration?

To put it simply, graphic design focuses on communicating messages and encouraging specific actions, whereas illustrations focus more on visually representing existing text and ideas.


Illustrations are meant to accompany another piece of text, helping convey its source material’s themes and ideas through a visual medium.

Unlike illustrations, graphic design is used to guide viewers to a specific purpose or action. Whereas illustrations rely almost entirely on drawings, graphic design incorporates other visual elements to evoke emotions or to encourage them to do something, like buy a product or service.


Illustrations can be done by hand, but many recent software allows you to do it digitally. There are a lot of illustration styles that've been developed for hundreds of years, including pencil, ink, and charcoal drawings as well as paintings.

Graphic design utilizes software and other digital tools to create products. Graphic design uses text, formatting, colors, and other elements as tools to gather the audience’s attention.


You most often see illustrations in publications like magazines, newspapers, books, blog posts, and online articles. They’re also used a lot in children’s books or for book covers.

Graphic design is often used for marketing and branding. Uses for graphic design include logos, posters, billboards, and advertisements. Companies also turn to graphic designers to improve their website’s UI or the look of their mobile app.

What are the Differences Between Graphic Designers And Illustrators?

What are the differences between illustrators and graphic designers?

Illustrators are generally better trained in skills such as drawing or painting and know how to leverage people, places, and objects to elevate another piece of work. Graphic designers traditionally use digital tools to communicate ideas that inspire, inform, and captivate viewers.


Illustrators have backgrounds in drawing or other artistic disciplines. One way or another, an illustrator needs drawing skills.

Graphic designers don’t necessarily need artistic backgrounds, though it certainly helps. Because their work is more focused on branding and marketing, many have some training or familiarity with business or marketing principles.


Illustrators work either with traditional pencil-and-paper setups or with digital equipment such as a Wacom tablet or an iPad.

Graphic designers work almost exclusively on their computers. Many use programs such as Adobe Photoshop to put designs together.


Illustrators create objects, people, and scenery to visually represent text and ideas. They need to know how to leverage these skills to carry out the intended effect. They might have skills in specific disciplines such as painting, sketching, or creating cartoons.

Meanwhile, graphic designers need to know how elements like color, font, symbols, and other imagery work together to form a specific message.

Does red work in this case to evoke urgency? Does purple create more of a royalty-vibe for this product? Text font is another unsung hero of good graphic design that takes time to understand. You never want to incorporate a font that’s contrary to the intended result or a company’s brand.

When to Use Illustrations vs. Graphics

When to Use Illustrations vs Graphics

Now that you know the differences between graphic design and illustration, it’s important to know when to use one and not the other.

When to Use Illustrations

As we mentioned earlier, illustrations are good for elevating another text. They can improve a book’s narrative, or even elevate the quality of your latest blog post. Illustrations are also valuable for conveying abstract ideas and concepts.

If you want to visually represent text and ideas you should hire an illustrator.

Say you’re a coffee shop owner trying to create an advertisement for your business. You want to elicit positive emotions from a cup of coffee. It’s harder to do this using text, colors, and other graphic design tools. You can instead draw a coffee cup with a happy face to get the same effect.

When to Use Graphic Design

If you want to be clear and concise about your company or brand, you should use graphic design.

If you need a brand logo or slogan to sell your product, you should hire a graphic designer. Color is great at evoking emotion, while text clarifies the intent of a brand (think the Nike logo with the “Just Do It” underneath).

Incorporating Both

Design and illustration are different in many ways, but that’s not to say they can’t be used simultaneously.

Bonus Tip: Work with a freelancer or graphic design team that can do both. To get the best of both worlds, we typically recommend working with an unlimited graphic design company that can provide graphic design and custom illustration work for one low monthly cost.

Look at the New Yorker. They always feature a prominent illustration that visualizes their top story and conveys a specific mood. However, the cover’s layout, the font it uses, and how all those elements interact with each other are works of the graphic designer.

Graphic Design or Illustration – The Right Use for You

So which one is the right role for you? Are you more interested in helping companies and brands convey their message visually? Is drawing and painting more your avenue?

Leverage this article to understand the difference between the two disciplines and know the most appropriate application of each one.