Graphic design is still a massive industry, perhaps larger now than it’s ever been before, thanks in no small part to the necessity for brands to have a robust online presence, across their own websites as well as a number of social media sites.
But graphic design is also important in just about every industry, not just in the realm of advertising.
Any person or business entity that wants people’s attention needs to present itself in an appealing way, and that means solid visuals that attract potential customers or followers.
But for anyone who doesn’t work directly in graphic design, one question tends to pop up: what does a graphic designer do?
We collected questions just like this one from readers like you and posed them to a high-end professional graphic designer: Serra Semi.
Semi has put in many years in the graphic design and branding industries, even founding her own creative studio, Lumens, which has worked alongside major brands like Weatherproof Vintage and Tomorrow Networks.
Semi has had a front-row seat to the rise of graphic design as it relates to the digital presence of brands, and she continues to act as an advocate for the importance of design across many industries and professions.
What do you feel is the primary goal of graphic design?
Semi: There are so many schools of thought about this. Throughout my career, I have gone through different views on this myself. There is a problem-solving aspect. There is a beauty aspect. There is a messaging and communication aspect. There is a storytelling aspect. Graphic design addresses all of these details in a visual form to evoke emotions.
How did you first get involved in branding?
Semi: When I was in college, I thought the only creative design career would be in advertising. It was during my internship at Graj+Gustavsen in 2001 that I learned about branding. I fell in love with it. I started working at G+G right after graduation the following year. We imagined whole new stories to define the brand. We reinvented brands and created new ones, built immersive spaces that one can walk into to experience the brand in physical space. We created products to support the story and handcrafted books that held every detail page by page. It’s storytelling. It’s creating a whole world behind one name. I get very excited about creating an entire universe.
Do you value your art school education? What impact did it have on your career?
Semi: I completed a liberal arts program at Tulane for my undergrad. My art school experience was at Art Center College of Design where I earned my MFA in Media Design. It was one of the hardest things I have done in my life and the most impactful. I came out of Art Center not only as a better designer but also as a better person with a stronger sense of professionalism and discipline. The lessons I learned are not just about methodologies and practice but also about compassion and responsibility. I found my voice at Art Center.
Is it possible for a graphic designer to use too much of their personal style in their work?
Semi: Everyone has a personal style and I believe in investing in it. Personal style will of course influence everything a designer creates, but it should never take the spotlight away from the client’s message. I believe the designer’s role is to articulate what the client wants to communicate to the world. A designer’s personal style might sometimes get in the way.
That doesn’t mean there is no place for a personal style, that’s what passion projects are for.
Within my commercial work, I have a less-is-more approach where I pare down all the frills to really let the brand shine through. In my passion projects, I have a more textured, layered, and free-spirited approach.
What is your process for dealing with critiques and suggested edits from clients?
Semi: Part of the creative business is communicating the value of the work to the client and guiding them through the process so when we are at the last step they feel confident and happy with the outcome. Every client is different, each with a unique personality and approach. No matter what, I listen and take note of what they’re concerned about. I always try to engage the client in a conversation to get to the root of what they want.
The most challenging type of feedback is “I don’t like it” because it gives no direction so I engage the client to talk more about their preferences and expectations. Following a well-crafted creative process helps guide the client step by step and minimizes vague feedback. But the key is always communication. The more we talk, the better I can assess what the client is looking for.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your work?
Semi: Contributing to the world with thoughtful and beautiful works. Seeing my clients excited to take the work I have done out into the world with pride.
Has there been one project that stands out from the rest of your career? Why do you remember it fondly?
Semi: Creating the iPad editions of iconic magazines like VIBE and SPIN. I was in the right place at the right time, working with brands I felt passionate about. The iPad had just come out and we collaborated with a platform that allowed design to drive the project instead of heavy development work.
I worked with taking the amazing editorial content these titles are known for, enhancing it with interactive features, exclusive content, extra photos that wouldn’t fit the print version because of the limited number of pages, and even interactive sponsorships that presented a way to engage the readers with relevant brands.
It was giving the magazines a new lifeline. SPIN was no longer in print at the time I designed the iPad edition. VIBE’s print edition was on its way out. It was a great honor to be in charge of transitioning these titles from print to digital at a time when magazines were disappearing off the shelves.
Do you enjoy interacting with the graphic design community? Have you gotten to spend time with other talented artists? What is that experience like?
Semi: Over the past two decades, I have built close relationships with talented creative people around me that I am lucky to call friends. The time spent together is always a combination of talking about current projects and interests and general life experiences and challenges. The diversity of our specialties is also a big source of inspiration as we chat about things. It brings new perspectives.
I try to participate in design talks and events. It is very important to stay connected to other creatives for so many reasons. Inspiration is the top one. We all glean from each other and make better work when we are connected. It is also very important to have conversations around challenges we face to learn from and to support each other. These types of events open up my world to new connections.
I also bring one or two students every year to my design practice as interns. I benefited from my summer internship at that age and I wanted to give back. It ended up being incredibly rewarding to work with young talent. There is so much we learn from each other.
It all comes down to the idea of connectedness. We can’t create in a vacuum and interacting with other creatives is crucial.