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On Their Own Terms: The Graphic Designer Job Description

By: Jeshurun Webb | September 17, 2013

I have been fascinated with how designers self-identify and describe what they do both to clients and to the design community. There is something brave about stating “I am…” and brazenly filling in the rest, planting a flag, carving out a specific niche in our visual field with a new noun or adjective. So what is the graphic designer job description? The terms creatives are introducing into our lexicon to describe what they do are sometimes made-up hybrids or strings of descriptors punctuated by commas or slashes. For instance, James Victore is a self-proclaimed author, designer, activist, artist and firestarter, while Jessica Hische is a procrastiworker. Jon Contino is an alphastructaesthetitologist and Mikey Burton prefers his Midwesterny version of designy illustration. How can we contextualize these descriptions and ways of working?

Designy Illustrator as defined and illustrated by Mikey Burton: A graphic designer who has found themselves doing the work of an illustrator. It’s most important that one can visualize a concept, drawing skills are encouraged but not required.

This type of designer is also mentioned in Jessica Hische’s faq on style: “In the past few years, a new kind of designer has emerged—the designistrator: a designer that is also an image maker. Designistrators tend to have a style because they are illustrating or lettering for their design projects.”

Remember the term graphic artist? It has the same dated ring to it that communications designer did. I attended a great lecture by Marian Bantjes at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston where Bantjes proclaimed that’s what she calls herself proudly because that really IS what she does. She interprets the space she works often in an ornamental complex manner, not devoid of context and wit, but sometimes devoid of a problem to solve. That retired term felt renewed in how she spoke about it.

Alphastructaesthetitologist as defined and illustrated by Jon Contino: one who studies the design and construction of letterforms for practical or decorative purposes.

A reductive approach would be to simply say “designer” which drops modifiers like “graphic” or “industrial” or “product” and allows a description which can shift depending on project or medium used at the time. But then would we use an upper or lowercase d? The nomenclature never seems to reach a neat resolution. Sometimes we are so much more than the term designer as a container can hold, and it doesn’t always serve us well because it doesn’t showcase a specific expertise or highlight a deep knowledge base or aesthetic bent.

Keetra Dean Dixon states, “I identify strongly with the Designer title because of my schooling. I was ‘raised’ as a designer, and it’s the realm I work in professionally. I try to adopt the title I am given at any moment: most often I am referred to as designer or artist. Here are a few additional titles I have worn: graphic designer, letterer, motionographer, environmental designer, theatre and event designer, interaction designer, user experience designer, experiential choreographer and multidiciplinary designer.”

Multi-Techer as defined and illustrated by Keetra Dean Dixon: A practitioner who integrates multiple techniques and processes in a unified approach.

Who is the audience of these new terms? Do they help clarify any further what we do to other designers or to clients? Maybe a chameleon method of changing descriptors makes sense depending on the task at hand. I have learned to love the pause that comes after someone asks what you do and your response is simply “designer.” This pause is the opportunity of our profession to fill in the blank and make our answer as specific as we want it to be, verbose or brief, imbuing meaning into new terms or refreshing old ones. Maybe we’re all just makers.

Do you consider yourself a graphic artist, graphic designer, maker or something else? Whatever your title, your work should be celebrated. Consider entering your favorite project in the HOW’s International Design Awards. The deadline has been moved to September 30, so there is still time to enter.

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