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Graphic Design Fundamentals: Getting Started

Lesson 2 of 18

Graphic Design: Areas of Specialization

Timothy Samara

Graphic Design Fundamentals: Getting Started

Timothy Samara

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Lesson Info

2. Graphic Design: Areas of Specialization
With the advent of technology, not only have tools like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator transformed the graphic designer’s process of creation, but the possibilities of design have expanded into far reaching areas. Timothy gives a quick overview of areas of specialization as a graphic designer; from editorial design to wayfinding, and advertising to motion graphics and branding, learn about the possibilities the field offers.

Lesson Info

Graphic Design: Areas of Specialization

Many designers tend to focus their practice in a multidisciplinary way. I'm one of those. That is, I like to do everything, and I've been lucky enough to have addressed or worked on almost every kind of project in every medium under the sun that one can imagine. But there are a lot of designers that also kind of focus in particular areas. And whether they're multidisciplinary or they're specializing, there are a number of different places that designers can go to to find work of different kinds and these are those. So the first is editorial work. And that really refers to publications. Anything that you are reading during the day in print form, for example newspapers or magazines, or newsletters, books, pamphlets, are designed by people, and by people who specialize for the most part in how to deal with that amount of text who are looking at how text and images work together. How language gets presented in a way that's easy to understand and that's engaging and comfortable for a reader...

to deal with. And these are a couple of editorial projects. On the left is a table of contents for an in house magazine for a pharmaceutical company. On the right is a page spread for a promotional kind of better living guide for senior citizens. Another area of focus which is also print based is referred to as collateral design, and that really refers to sort of small and more ephemeral kinds of elements. Things that are not likely to sort of stick around, that have a very focused and targeted distribution and that are really sort of on the shelf only for maybe a couple of weeks. They have kind of a time-based function. Usually they're used to announce something or to package other communications inside them and so they're more or less sort of throw aways. And those kinds of things are brochures or invitations. Direct mail, advertising cards, annual reports, pamphlets and so on. What we're looking at here on the left is a page spread open from a brochure announcing a bank's online services, and on the right is a media kit folder for an online distance language learning company. Another area is packaging, and packaging tends to be one of the most specialized areas that designers go into. For the most part, even multidisciplinary firms, studios, tend to shy away from packaging because the needs of that particular discipline are very, very specific and involve a lot of sort of three dimensional fabrication and materials and processes understanding. And so very often you'll find that a studio or an agency is either kind of multidisciplinary or they only do packaging and nothing else. And so here are a few packaging items which can involve point of sale materials like kiosks or display cases that you might find in a department store. These are point of sale bags and stickers, and some packaging boxes for an artist supply. Advertising. Which of course you're all familiar with, and probably not always interested in being familiar with. A kind of captive audience, anytime you're looking through a newspaper, or you're flipping through a magazine trying to get to the content, or you're browsing your favorite websites and banner ads pop up and so on. Advertising is everywhere, and its goal is primarily to distill a very complicated brand message about some kind of product offering, or some kind of service offering, and to be able to grab your attention as quickly as possible to distract you from the act of flipping past it by focusing sort of the finesse and the elegance and the power of visual imagery, of typography, of color to really stop you in your tracks and get you to pay attention. These are many of the ten thousand messages that we kind of filter out. Over time, because advertising is so ubiquitous, we tend to sort of gloss over them. So it's really, really, a very ... It's a very sort of focused kind of specialization that demands a lot of skill in being able to sort of distill messages down to a kind of instantaneous level of understanding so in that split second that you're trying to move past it, you can actually get the message and have it kind of imprint, that you remember it. And this is an advertisement, it's a half-magazine page format done for a financial services provider. Next is wayfinding, and that's tools and objects that are designed and graphical applications that are designed to help you get around physical or three dimensional spaces. Whether it's on the exterior of architectural facades, or it's directional information in transit hubs or in a subway in a shopping mall. It's really about the signs. Like how do I get to a certain place, and how far is it? What else am I going to find when I get there? So it's a kind of mapping in sort of three dimensions. This is kind of a wayfinding and signing system done for a health center. It plays off of the exterior building's architecture. Using these kind of bold, geometric shapes. In the middle of this presentation slide, you can see see sort of directional signs that exist mounted to walls that show different departments that you'll be arriving at once you travel through some corridors or hallways to get there. The next area, which is also highly specialized is that of typeface design, and those kinds of designers are the kinds of people that only do that for the most part. Very often, designers who are multidisciplinary or who are working in other areas are called upon to manipulate or alter or sort of redesign or completely invent a new kind of set of letters just for a specific application like a magazine mass head or title, a book title on a cover. Or for a logo type for branding, and those are very, very sort of specific, and very kind of highly abstract, and usually somewhat more expressive kinds of typeface design work that really occur only in that instance. But on the other hand, there are designers who design the fonts that you use to read everything every day. Today there are I think over 150,000 fonts or typefaces that are currently in use. Some people like to say that's too many. That five or six are enough. And others would completely disagree, depending on the context. But it's a very intensive process. Most typefaces are designed over the course of two or three years before they're released. And there's a lot of very tiny, sort of detail oriented minutia, optical characteristics of letter forms that need to be addressed in order to generate a kind of comfortable sort of visual look to the typeface on a page when it's running in text. Then there's environmental work. Which can mean anything from trade show booths to exhibition design, to again, kind of architectural signage or graphical, or brand applications in the interiors of businesses, in office spaces, in shops and so on. Point of sale displays as well. This is an exhibition at an architecture department. There is motion work which you see probably every day on television and sometimes on the web. Type flying across the screen, video captures, video in combination with animation. This is the opening sequence for a CD-ROM product that I designed a number of years ago. So this is a kind of animation that the user would see when the CD-ROM program launches as an introduction to getting into the content. So this involves a combination of photo montage, of actual live action, and then the superimposition of typography in motion throughout the sequence. Then there's interactive design which you are familiar with by browsing the web or your smartphone everyday, and that's really about creating interfaces on screen that allow information to be accessed in a nonlinear manner. The model for most interactive design, especially website design, is a sort of a translation of the book or editorial experience. Sometimes the newspaper experience or paradigm, or the brochure kind of model, that is a number of pages of content that begin upon first entry in a very general, in sort of overview kind of a way, and then by navigating from page to page, allowing you to access information that is of much greater depth and complexity. And last, wrapping all those together is branding. And that's really, the idea of creating a visual identity, or a voice, a visual voice for a company or an organization, or even an individual. Graphic designers brand themselves, public relations people brand themselves, small businesses brand themselves. And that generally begins with and centers around the development of some kind of identifying mark, what's called a logo. There are many different kinds of logos, and these are a selection of some that I've done, that sort of show a variety of approaches from sort of letter based marks, letters that have been transformed into pictorial images, purely typographic forms, and then also very abstract kind of symbol based forms. Anybody have any questions so far? I can definitely throw you one from our online audience, because we have tons of those. Sure, excellent. Let's start off with this one. So, what would be the best or easiest way to go from digital design, social media web, to a more collateral based design work? And I don't know if you're going to cover this later on, and you want to hold off, or if you want to address that one now? Okay, so I could talk about that quickly. So if I understand the question correctly, is that the person asking is essentially involved in digital or interactive based media and is looking to move into print for the most part? Is that right? That's correct. Okay, just making sure the brain's working. Because sometimes it doesn't when I want it to. The paradigm shift is not all that complicated. There are limitations in print that don't exist in interactivity. That is, that you have to move through a printed object usually in a particular sequence in order to understand it. It's not as flexible or forgiving or nonlinear. It does not allow for things that are on the page statically to move. So, the visual relationships and how much information that you can kind of cram into that space becomes really kind of critical in terms of understanding. You really have to think about much more carefully the sizes of text in particular and the resolution of images and how those things are organized because printed resolution is far greater, achieves a much finer degree of detail, than does the screen, which is a much courser resolution. But essentially, the same kinds of principles, in terms of how you visualize something, how you organize something, at least in a static way, what makes type legible, how you're relating type to image, is really essentially the same. And we can even just sort of step back from that question, to answer a larger one that no one has asked, which is that, designing is essentially the same no matter what kind of project you're working on. You're always investigating the same ideas, every single time. You're always employing these fundamental tools, the understandings about how visual form works, and what a symbol means, and why this color or that color, and how a reader engages and navigates through text. And what makes something sort of accessible, no matter what the form is it takes. So there's a famous designer, recently passed, Massimo Vignelli, who said if you can design one thing, you can design anything.

Class Description


  • Identify and apply fundamental graphic design elements
  • Add essential design skills to your toolkit
  • Approach and manage the creative process through varied projects


You don’t need to have a background in fine arts or be an Adobe InDesign whiz to create compelling designs. In this class, Timothy Samara takes you back to the fundamentals of graphic design - the same principles he has consistently returned to in his 25-year career.

Through real-world projects, you’ll learn the basics of:

  • Form and image
  • Color theory
  • Typography
  • Layout and composition

Most unique about Timothy’s class is his demonstration of how design theory manifests in actual projects; he cracks open his professional portfolio and takes you into the world of how real designers work. With an extensive career behind him, Timothy’s design services have spanned from web design to print media, to interface design, and to building brand identity. By walking through Timothy’s creative process, you not only see how design elements interact and impact an overall product, but you get a rare view of the problem-solving graphic designers do and the decisions they make. What rules exist and when are they broken? How do you juggle meticulous research vs. spontaneity?

Whether you want to design a poster, flyer, or logo - this class will give you the insights you need to design with confidence. Welcome to the art and science of graphic design.


This class is designed for beginner and intermediate graphic designers as well as more experienced designers looking for a brush-up on design principles, career-changers, marketing team members, and anyone interested in graphic design fundamentals.


Timothy Samara is a New York-based graphic designer and educator whose twenty-five career has so far focused on visual identity and branding, communication design, and typography. Since 2000, he has split his time between professional practice and academia, defining a highly respected reputation as an instructor at the School of Visual Arts, Parsons/The New School for Design, Purchase College SUNY, New York University, The University of the Arts, and Fashion Institute of Technology. Mr. Samara is a frequent university lecturer and contributor to design publications both in the U.S. and abroad. He has written eight books on design to date (all from Rockport Publishers), which have been translated into ten languages and are used by students and practitioners around the world.

Connect with Timothy online: LinkedIn

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a Creativelive Student

Wonderful class! I loved getting the info as to the creative process. Great!

sixtina maculan

Thank you for sharing your experiences in this class. It's been a pleasure to listen, learn and understand, as well as a wonderful motivation.

Øyvind Hermans

I love this class, clear and precise information with very interesting examples. I have worked as a graphic designer for 6 years but have no design eduction, so at times I feel like there is these gaps of design-knowlegde in my decisions, this was the perfect filler of these gaps.