September 16th 2020
One of the most confusing things about getting started with design is understanding what all the roles and titles really mean. What's the difference between a UX and a UI designer? What about graphic design vs digital design? Here, we break it all down.
If you were to google “how do I become a designer”, the results on page one are mostly about graphic design. That makes sense to me: graphic design has been the most relevant search term because we live in a world where visual communication matters a lot. If you don’t know anyone who works in the technology industry, where most jobs were only recently invented, you probably still know what a graphic designer is.
In September 1996, then CEO of Netscape Jim Barksdale, said that “the Internet is the printing press of the technology era.” The rise of the printing press and the internet were both major events in human history. We’ve built a place for ourselves, where so much of how we move through our lives is something to be sold to us; before just on TV and billboards, now everywhere. But through the noise, there is also the wonder and magic of connection, collaboration and democratization. Anyone can say, make, build anything.
I was a kid of dial-up internet.
Growing up, if you were to ask me what a product designer does, I’d probably say they might be someone who designs, well, products—things like pens, chairs, toys. Somewhere along the line, product designers have become digitally intertwined, often dropping the “digital” adjective altogether. That just shows how far deep we are in our digital world, half in, never really out. I’ve spent half my life living through a screen—why shouldn’t it be the default?
A few years ago, I started hearing about something called UX design. All of a sudden, it seemed like everyone wanted to be one. That’s in stark contrast to when I was growing up: when the web was bright and shiny and full of tables and Flash, everyone who designed anything on the internet was a “web designer”.
What even is a web designer? Some people might say it’s actually what we now think of more commonly as a front-end developer, so not really a “designer” at all.
Then, there are some who believe that web design is dead. A few trends have played into this prediction: the rise of social media as the new “homepage”, the growth of templated design and more recently, the new no-code web. But I think that as long as the web exists, design on the web will live. These predictions ignore the fact that there are so many more people on the internet than ever before. The market and the audience, like the universe, seems only to be expanding.
But that does change things.
Instead of web design as a primarily visual discipline with the delivery method being the “website”, designers who work with the internet as their medium have adapted to encompass all parts of the experience of interacting with a website: visual, physical, technical and psychological.
Welcome, UI, UX and Product Design (and more).
That’s not to say that UX design didn’t exist; it just wasn’t what it is today. No one was designing “optimal user experiences”. Most of the programming languages developers use to build websites weren’t even invented then. The 90s web is basically vintage now; it conveys newness and novelty, some of us reaching back to revive that early internet vibe. Then, the bones of our new world were still being built. Everyone was just figuring the wild, wild, web out.
How we define designers’ roles changes according to context. A 10, 20 year timespan changes that context.
Think about all the changes—the jobs, the opportunities, the speed and the convenience—that were made possible thanks to the printing press. Now 10x (100?) that for the internet. And that’s exactly what happened.
If you’re interested in getting into design on the web, you should understand what the design landscape looks like right now.
Some roles are more closely connected than others, and some are even interchangeable depending on the company you work for, who may have varying definitions. When you’ve achieved a level of proficiency as a designer, you may even find that you can cross the bridge from one design role to another. Making the move from UX to product design is common, as an example.
So let’s get into it.
This is the sorta, kinda, probably definitive guide to the different kinds of design roles that exist for digital products. Some of them may mean almost the same thing. We did our research, listened to what people who actually work in these roles do, and considered context and how roles evolve.
Here’s our list:
“User Experience” design focuses on how people interact with products and less so on visual design. It’s a discipline that combines psychology, research (branching off sometimes in larger companies into a separate user research role), design and strategy. UX designers act as the advocate of the customer. On a day-to-day level, that means they can be found working on things like information architecture, designing user flows and wireframes, and user testing. UX is about designing the entirety of the experience, thinking through how the user moves through and uses a product.
This role is sometimes blended with UI Design, especially for smaller companies that don’t have dedicated teams and roles. And, most people associate the role with tech and software products, though it’s not exclusive to that.
“User Interface” design, in contrast to UX Design, focuses on how a product looks and functions. UI Design as a term specifically refers to digital products, so the focus will be on things like icons, buttons, typography, color, spacing, images, and responsiveness. The UX designer may come up with the wireframe and user flow, but the UI designer will be the one to translate the conceptual wireframe into tangible visual elements.
As mentioned above, UX/UI Design is commonly a blended role, especially at smaller companies without dedicated user experience roles, where one person will focus on both thinking through the experience as well as designing the visual elements.
Sometimes interchangeable with visual design or communication design, graphic design is a more common and broadly acknowledged role than some of the others on the list. Case in point: my mom knows what a graphic designer is. That’s because it’s existed for a lot longer, first claiming that name in the 1922 essay, “New Kind of Printing Calls for New Design” by William Addison Dwiggins.
Graphic design is also a bit of a catch-all, especially at non-tech companies where they fill the role of designing marketing and brand collateral, from social media graphics to promotional flyers, and often, though not always, is a junior role with defined goals and creative direction set by someone else: a creative director, for example. Graphic designers also commonly work on non-web print projects, but can work on the web too.
A graphic designer is also a catch-all in another way and can mean someone of any level of success, including these notable graphic designers, who work with visual communication. From Wikipedia: “graphic design is a “process of visual communication and problem-solving through the use of typography, photography, iconography and illustration.”
Visual design evolved as sort of a child between UI design and graphic design, focused on both the function and look of digital products as well as the intended communication behind it. Visual Design dives deeper into strictly visuals, but may expand the context beyond a digital product. You could be a visual designer working on a website and physical merchandise, as an example, whereas a UI Designer probably wouldn’t. This is especially common if you work at a company that produces different kinds of products, or has both online and IRL touchpoints for their customers.
One interesting tidbit is that salaries for visual designers tend to be higher on average than salaries for graphic designers. I’ve found that the term “visual designer” is more common in tech, whereas graphic design is more broad across many industries, many of whom may not value design necessarily, and that could be a primary reason why.
To throw another wrench into the “what kind of designer are you?” question, digital design is most commonly used as an umbrella term for any kind of design that involves the web. A digital designer could be a visual designer, UX designer, product designer or graphic designer, or it could be one person doing a combination of those things.
Digital designers who hold that role as a title could work on website design, mobile apps, and/or online content, for example. That means they need to have graphic design skills but also an understanding of the user experience.
If you ever see a job posting for a digital designer, it may mean that the company hasn’t defined what their exact needs are and what the focus of the role should be, just that they know it needs to exist because they need a design role and their digital presence is primary or at least very important. You may be the only designer on your team. It could also mean they hold space for flexibility to define that role if you’re joining a team of digital designers.
An interesting contrast to graphic designers, product designers have a different problem to solve. Whereas graphic designers create designs to appeal to customers, to communicate a message or sell a product, product designers create products and think about the experience of the user and customer to drive forward the goals of the business.
Product designers also sit closely to UX designers, but where UX designers focus primarily on mapping, solving and improving the journey for the customer, product designers focus on mapping, solving and improving the journey for the customer with a primary goal of considering the business and product needs.
Sometimes, product designers are senior UX designers, who’ve gotten good enough that they get closer to the strategy level of the business. Other times, the point of differentiation is company size: you’ll find UX designers more common at larger companies where the discipline can be broken up, with UX designers handling the research and testing of the design process, while the product designers will take the research and figure how to build the solution, whereas at startups, they’ll be a single hire who can work on the entire journey.
A marketing designer is a specific kind of blend between graphic designer and UX/UI designer, focused strictly on marketing collateral. On the internet, that means more than brochures, flyers and ads - it could also mean designing the marketing site or a landing page, which means user experience and UI components are a part of the work too, and social media graphics. But the big point of differentiation is the problem that marketing designers are primarily trying to solve: here, it’s business goals in the form of signups, conversions, sales, and leads. Having an understanding and skillset in marketing and psychology is important.
At many tech companies, the design function is split into product and marketing design, so this is sometimes an entire department with more granular roles within that.
Ah, the web designer. The oldest web-focused designer role we have on this list. This is a confusing one because what it means today is probably quite different from what it meant 20 years ago.
Today, you won’t find a lot of web design roles at tech or product companies, but you may still find them at creative agencies focused on branding and communication. They might hire a web designer to focus on the entirety of a client’s website, whereas at a tech company, that role is separated into multiple disciplines. A web designer may be less focused on UX/UI - they may be more similar to a graphic designer who happens to work with websites.
I’ve also read an interesting take: that you might describe yourself as a web designer so that people outside of tech understand roughly what it is you do, when your actual role might have a different title. So in that way, it’s similar to digital designers.
An interaction designer is sometimes confused with a UX designer. They’re not dissimilar in that both are focused on how the user interacts with the product. But generally, the point of differentiation is that interaction designers are focused on the moment when a user interacts with a product, with the goal to improve that specific experience. A UX designer considers that interaction as part of the entire user journey and flow.
So as an example, an interaction designer might work on animations and page transitions. They’re a complement to the UI designer who works out the functionality and look of typically more static elements. Interaction designers are not as common as some of the other designers on this list, and are often encompassed within a broader role, especially at smaller companies.
I’ve tried to break it down as realistically as possible but after reading all that, you may be left thinking that you understand it all a little better, but not necessarily where you fit in and what you’d like to do.
There are things that may impact this decision: something as simple as the company you want to work at and what they call designers, period.
Remember, it’s not about choosing something and sticking with it forever. Don’t get too stuck on deciding what kind of a designer you are. For example, when SuperHi hires for design roles, we’re not too strict on what you call yourself, as long as your portfolio shows you can do the work. We’ve had many UX designers apply for product design roles. We’ve also had visual designers apply for graphic design roles.
Design roles can evolve. It’s more about developing your point of view and skills as a designer, working on projects and companies you want to be part of building, and hopefully, as it’s clear now, being adaptable to how the context of the world around you changes.
Illustration by: André Cândido