The Blank Slate: Designer or Illustrator?

The Blank Slate: Designer or Illustrator?

I once heard someone describe the difference between a “Designer” and an “Illustrator” as follows… A designer assembles pre-exisiting elements such as photos, vectors, and textures to create a final piece. Whereas an Illustrator creates a piece by hand, creating element from scratch using his/her imagination.

While, I believe that there is some truth to this statement, I don’t think it’s that cut and dry.  I believe that designers and illustrators are like engineers, and often times the line between the two is blurred. The more resourceful an artist is, whether it be collecting resources or pre-existing elements and effectively applying them, or putting a pencil to paper and assembling lines and shading to create imagery from scratch, it’s still a matter of effectively conveying the image or scene that the artist sees in his head. In my opinion, that’s what makes a designer or an illustrator an artist.

This brings up the question…

Do You Consider Yourself a Designer or an Illustrator, and Why?

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Nathan Brown

Nathan Brown is a graphic designer who loves working with various media. He combines traditional art styles with a little experimentation and digital flare. Nathan's works have contained everything from ink and paint to leaves and a box of dirt. Everything is fare game when it comes to his approach to art. Nathan lives in Austin, Texas where he has been working as a designer for 10 years.


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  1. Peter Lance Chua

    I consider myself both. I agree with you Nathan. Now if you are creating pieces by hand, I’d rather call you a sketch artist, a painter or cartoonist. No confusion in that.

  2. Daniel McCall

    People have asked me that question a number of times. I think you described the difference pretty well. I have to be both in my career. I’m not sure how I’d feed the kids if I didn’t.

  3. I think the true definition and diference between and Illustrator and a designer is quite different from the one you described.In my opinion a Designer (Graphic in this case)is the one that does visual graphics with practical purposes and an Illustrator is the one that does more artistical work.

  4. andy

    i want to become DRAWSIGNER, just like mr vonglitschka said.

  5. Good comments guys… I’d love to hear more thoughts on this topic… keep’em coming!

  6. For any clients out there i just want to let you know that every graphic design project is unique. While many projects out there will go through a similar process to reach the final result the truth is that every project will develop uniquely and may take varying amounts of time and work to complete. This is a walk through of the graphic design process that i used when creating a design for one of my clients.

  7. laura dorniak

    i got my first bfa in illustration and my second bfa in graphic design… it was hard not to want to create all my images and things my self rather than find existing use them. So i do alittle of both. i just call myself a graphic illustrator… im with Edmar on this though. Illustrators make the drawings that go in a book. Designer makes the layout for the book and places the drawing that the illustrator made… : )

  8. Ah! a truthful answer demands a certain recklessness– good thing I’m in one of my what-the-heck moods… : P

    I’m an illustrator. I used to tell people I was both (illustrator and designer), but that was wishful thinking and a rather pathetic attempt to land more work (blush).

    Funny, tho, it’s hard to explain the difference in a technical, neat-little-boxes sense. I tend to think of designers as people who do logos and book covers– and yet I’ve seen illustration incorporated into both.

    I specialize in editorial and humor. An article or an idea is usually my stepping off point. I think up images to take the place of a lot of words. Still, must admit that nowadays, I incorporate photo elements and textures into my images– so I’m using some “pre-existing elements.”

    Not sure it’s a meaningful distinction, really. When I see great work, I wanna shake that person’s hand no matter what label they put on themselves… : )

  9. This seems to be an argument driving a bit of a rift between faculty at my school. Some seem to think the terms have to do with the process by which something is created. illustration, they say, strictly related to drawing and that to be an “illustrator” you have to be able to draw well and that illustrators can both design and illustrate, whereas designers arrange content in space and cannot illustrate. They’re always telling us that we need to draw more and that drawing will help our design. This is a woefully facile argument though. Pushpin studios neatly did away with the whole distinction back in the 70′s. Furthermore, I know of a number of famous and well known Illustrators who can draw beautifully but couldn’t design a page or place a font if their lives depended on it. Still others do both really well. For me I think lately artists all have to have a bit of skill in all the communication arts to stay competitive. There’s not a whole lot of point in creating a distinction. I see less difference between illustration and graphic design, for instance, than I do between illustration and Sequential Art ,yet people are always saying sequential and illustration are the same thing.

  10. doofus

    I would say the key word here is “designer”. A designer has to know the technical process of creating the final product and hence, design around it.

    For example, webpage design (which many graphic designers do) would require knowledge of how to create html code and it’s limitations and how to work around them. Nothing to do with illustration.

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