Which Design Specialization Is Right for You?

Infographic. Merging and splitting of several branches and specializations of design.

Graphic designer, production artist, web developer, oh my! The creative industry leaves a wide field for designers and the design specializations they adopt. There are several different design specializations to a “simple” design job, and skills overlap is common. Indeed, many designers work one or more design specializations. However, the frequent overlap of design specializations may confuse clients about what skill sets that designer has acquired and how designers can solve their business problems. Fortunately, job titles gives clues to what solutions each design specialization offers. Knowing the differences between design specializations can help you find the right person and the perfect creative solution for your business need.

Design Has Several Branches & Even More Specializations:

  • Production
    • Desktop Publisher
    • Email Marketer
    • Production Artist
  • Design
    • Graphic Designer
    • Web Designer
    • Brand Specialist
    • Visual Designer
    • Digital Designer
  • Web Development
    • Front-End Web Developer
    • Back-End Web Developer
    • Full-Stack Web Developer
  • User-Centric Design
    • UI Designer
    • IxD Designer
    • UX Designer
Infographic. Merging and splitting of several branches and specializations of design.
Infographic. Merging and splitting of several branches and specializations of design.

Production Design Specializations

The design specialization of production involves preparing artworks for mass distribution, whether in print or on the web. Early production referred specifically to print.

Print production specialists work closely with a variety of commercial and industrial press machines. Experience working those machines and their computers to perfect colors, sizing, cropping, and alignment on a massive level is becoming a rarer skill set and design specialization. Overall, authority sources like the Bureau of Labor Statistics and IBIS World consider the print production industry mature. As a result, this design specialization tends to absorb into others.

Today, production artists can also work digitally, like formatting print and e-published documents on desktop computers, or executing email marketing campaigns.

Photo. A production artist grabs page spreads out of a professional printer.

Production Artist

production artist prepares designs for print or digital publication. The term “production artist” originates in print production, because many of the duties of a production artist involve “preflight formatting.” Preflight formatting is the process collecting all the necessary pieces, ensuring proper image resolution, setting bleeds and margins for the printer, archiving design files, and other graphic processing. Today, the production artist also prepares files for online or digital production as well.

As part of the primary duties, a production artist must:

  • Collaborate with designers to complete creative projects
  • Edit existing artwork or create new artwork from templates for designs
  • Monitor and respond to project inquiries
  • Coordinate production schedules and deadlines
  • Prioritize and process incoming projects
  • Archive artwork for future production

Production artists are different from graphic designers in that production artists support designers. While designers conceptualize and strategize, production artists execute. They focus on the mechanical implementation of creative projects. In this support role, production artists work off of what the designer has started. Indeed, production artists don’t work with blank canvasses, but rather a final file or a template in which they replace placeholders with actual content.

Photo. A desktop publisher reviews a printing proof of a catalog.

Desktop Publisher

desktop publisher creates page layouts for newspapers, programs, books, brochures, and other designs that are printed or published online.

As part of the primary duties, a desktop publisher must:

  • Collaborate with designers to complete text-heavy printed projects
  • Format text files into editorial layouts, including tables of contents, columns, pagination, and other schemes
  • Apply character styles, paragraph styles, and image treatments in accordance with brand guidelines
  • Edit text copy for spelling and consistency

On one hand, a desktop publisher is in many ways a deeper specialization of the production artist role. Yet on the other hand, the desktop publisher specializes in page and booklet layouts rather than a broad design support role.

Photo. An email marketer's desktop computer shows an email editor WYSIWYG.

Email Marketer

An email marketer updates email layouts and tracks sends for marketing campaigns.

As part of the primary duties, an email marketer must:

  • Collaborate with designers to complete email layouts
  • Format copy and graphics into email layouts
  • Modify (X)HTML/CSS email templates to fit current trends and objectives
  • Debug cross-email client display and performance issues
  • Review, test, and schedule email marketing campaigns with email service providers (ESPs), often working with several, like MailChimp, Constant Contact, Campaign Monitor, and more
  • Track and report email success rates, including opens, clicks, shares, and unsubscribes
  • Update, maintain, and segment email mailing lists
  • Apply character styles, paragraph styles, and image treatments in accordance with brand guidelines
  • Edit text copy for spelling and consistency

An email marketer is in many ways a deeper design specialization of the production artist role. Yet unlike a broad design support role, the email marketer specializes in emails. Furthermore, unlike the desktop publisher, the email marketer works with digital projects and performs basic digital analysis on how users respond to the emails.

Creative Design Specializations

Overall, the profession of “design” has inherited many broad meanings, but most simply put, the field of design refers to the skill of combining text and graphics to communicate a business message visually. As a result, the broadness of this field lends itself to expanding into several off-shoots of career paths. For instance, both lateral and vertical moves across design specializations can build a creative career.

Photo. A graphic designer or web designer sketches a light bulb.

Graphic Designer / Web Designer

A graphic designer or web designer plans and communicates ideas through creates visual concepts and creative strategies that inspire viewers. A designer basically provides creative solutions that fulfill visual needs.

Basically, the title “graphic designer” has become a catch-all phrase for design of all kinds simply because it flexible and easily combined with so many other specializations. Consequently, people tend to easily understand the title “graphic designer” and find it accessible. However, this title is not always technically accurate.

As part of the primary duties, a graphic designer and/or web designer must:

  • Create new artworks, layouts, graphics, and designs
  • Develop visual identities and branding guidelines
  • Apply character styles, paragraph styles, and image treatments to format documents
  • Edit text copy for spelling and consistency
  • Coordinate production schedules and deadlines
  • Prioritize and process incoming projects

Additionally, a graphic designer must:

  • Design and produce artworks for print or e-publication

Similarly, a web designer must also:

  • Design and produce artworks for digital publication on the World Wide Web

Important duties of the designer that distinguish the designer from other roles, like production artist, include conceptualization and strategic decision making. For instance, the designer thrives when starting with a blank canvas, easily generates new ideas, and produces original artworks that present complex information as graphical representations. He/she possesses a high level of understanding of basic design principles, such as typography, composition, and color theory.

Furthermore, while graphic and web designers share several responsibilities, there is one core difference. Whereas a graphic designer focuses on printed pieces, a web designer focuses on digital pieces. For example, graphic designers create logos, business cards, posters, signage, programs, and newsletters; web designers create web page and email layouts, social media graphics, presentations, banner ads, infographics, and icons. Additionally, one other important distinction between graphic and web designers is graphic designers create visual identities whereas web designers do not.

Photo. A branding specialist reviews Brand Guidelines.

Brand Specialist

brand specialist uses graphic design, market research, and comparative analysis to create visual identities for organizations that engage the target demographic and ultimately form a brand.

visual identity is a design vocabulary term that compiles the unique marks to show distinction and/or ownership. The most prominent piece of an organization’s visual identity is the logo. Other pieces of visual identity include business cards, letterhead, printed goods, photography styles, core visual subjects and themes, and any other self-promotional, identifying artworks.

brand is a marketing vocabulary term that represents the consumers’ perception of an organization, including what the organization does, the manner in which it works, and the values it upholds. A brand is considered successful when the way a company perceives itself and the way its consumers perceive it match. Therefore, a brand is not tangible. Not all brands even have logos or visual identities. (Common examples of brands without visual identities are that of celebrities.)

Designers don’t create brands; marketers don’t create brands; the users create brands. However, an experienced designer and/or marketer that is familiar with the industry, target demographic, and user needs and wants can help leverage visual identities and designs to influence the brand in positive ways.

As part of the primary duties, a brand specialist must:

  • Collaborate with marketers, designers, and advertisers
  • Analyze market research data
  • Identify ways to engage target demographic groups
  • Develop visual identities and branding guidelines
  • Manage graphics, text copy, and other content for consistency

A brand specialist expands into additional creative roles outside design. Most importantly, brand specialists also conduct marketing and market research. A solid design foundation helps the brand specialist make strategic visual decisions. Yet, those decisions must also be informed by evidence gathered by research and analysis. For example, check out “How To Research A Client During The Branding Process” and “Branding with Peer Analysis & Competitor Analysis” for more insights into the research taking place in a branding design specialization.

A visual designer drafts wireframes for a website and begins creating a prototype.

Visual Designer

visual designer plans and visually communicates ideas, concepts, and strategies across digital platforms to inspire viewers.

As part of the primary duties, a visual designer must:

  • Collaborate with UX/UI designers to complete multimedia projects
  • Take work from concept to completion, from creative vision to final execution
  • Create new artworks, layouts, graphics, infographics, and designs
  • Develop visual identities and branding guidelines
  • Format documents for both print and online
  • Plan for mobile-first and responsive web design techniques
  • Complete basic hand coding projects for emails, web pages, and apps
  • Draft user-centered wireframes and screen mockups
  • Design and process marketing emails, presentations, and other interactive components
  • Coordinate production schedules and deadlines
  • Prioritize and process incoming projects

Basically, visual designers are the combination of graphic and web designers. They can create either static or interactive designs. Generally, visual design  projects can include work like logos, brochures, e-newsletters, and websites. Overall, anything a graphic or web designer can create, a visual designer can too. However, visual designers tend to work with digital projects most often. Moreover, some visual designers rarely even touch print projects. Conversely, the focus on the digital field also means that visual designers create a lot more wireframes than regular designers. Nonetheless, what makes visual design different from some other fields of design is that the visual designer still works on the “front-end”—the aesthetic, the part that the users see. This is different from design specializations like back-end web development or user experience (UX) design.

Photo. A digital designer draws storyboards for a video project.

Digital Designer

digital designer plans and visually communicates ideas, concepts, and strategies across digital platforms and rich multimedia to inspire viewers.

Most importantly, the projects digital designers work on are nearly exclusively digital. To clarify, there is no emphasis on graphic design (print layouts) and less emphasis on web design (web page and app layouts). Instead, the greatest emphasis is multimedia creation.

Multimedia designs include animations, 3D modeling, motion graphics, and visual effects. An animation is the visual progression of images which change slightly from each other to create a sense of motion. Animations can be 2D or 3D. Three-dimensional models portray an object in virtual 3D and are used in virtual-reality (VR), TV graphics, video games, and more. Motion graphics are interactive displays of data, like an infographic one can manipulate. Visual effects are animated visual flourishes to design elements to help highlight information and guide users through a layout. Further, some digital designers also incorporate audio elements in their designs.

As part of the primary duties, a digital designer must:

  • Take work from concept to completion, from creative vision to final execution
  • Draft website and app wireframes, motion storyboards, and prototypes
  • Create new multimedia artworks like animations, models, motion graphics, and visual effects
  • Produce and/or edit films and videos
  • Format flexible artworks that can fit a variety of platforms and media
  • Plan for mobile-first and responsive web design techniques
  • Complete basic hand coding projects for emails, web pages, and apps
  • Coordinate production schedules and deadlines
  • Prioritize and process incoming projects

Digital designers are visual designers who additionally specialize in expanded forms of digital media: 3D modeling, animation, or audio-video production. Rather than static graphics or interactive websites, this design specialization focuses on rich multimedia. For instance, digital designers produce storyboards, motion graphics, film edits, video games, special effects, and animated sequences as well. Additionally, digital designers may work with a variety of skill sets, including graphics software, film editing software, and some web development languages. Therefore, the digital design specialization often overlaps with other design specializations.

Web Development Design Specializations

Vertical and lateral moves can cross multiple design specializations when building a design career.

On one hand, a vertical move increases a designer’s technical proficiency and assumes greater management responsibilities.

On the other hand, a lateral move increases a designer’s knowledge of an additional subject and offers a greater role in the overall business. For example, a designer might consider the transition from a role in Production to Design a vertical move. Conversely, the transition from Production or Design into Development is a lateral move. Obviously, several people launch into Development right away, like those from Computer Science studies.

Yet, the crux of the creative-technological field of development is programming. This design specialization focuses on web and app design and development. Developers create web pages, apps, emails, plugins, and a whole range of dynamic, interactive features that add value to designs.

Photo. A computer screen displays lines of HTML and CSS code for making an online form.

Web Developer

A web developer executes the web designs, including page layouts, website styling, online coding, and animations and graphics, through the use of several web coding languages.

Front-end web developers work with the client-facing side of web designs—whatever appears in a user’s web browser. They primarily utilize HTML, CSS, and JS, although some tools like CSS pre-processors, frameworks, and Content Management Systems (CMS) can help automate repetitive tasks. Front-end web developers establish the look and feel of a website or app.

Back-end web developers work with the server-facing side of web designs—whatever is exchanged and stored in a website’s (or app’s) database, such as user logins, media libraries, and master templates that can automatically populate a webpage template with user or webmaster content. They can make a website dynamic, giving the web pages the ability to “live update” with social media feeds, comments, data calculations, and more. Back-end web developers often know the front-end languages in addition to Java, Python, and PHP.

Full-stack developers refer to individuals who have exceptional skill in both front-end and back-end web development. So, these people are likely rather advanced in their field.

As part of the primary duties, a web developer must:

  • Collaborate with web designers, visual designers, and/or UI/UX designers to implement digital designs
  • Implement analytics to monitor website performance
  • Test, maintain, and update websites
  • Apply mobile-first and responsive web coding techniques
  • Debug cross-browser and cross-platform display and performance issues
  • Update and maintain websites to current web standards for validation and security
  • Maintain proper version control to track changes and archive completed projects
  • Coordinate production schedules and deadlines
  • Prioritize and process incoming projects

Additionally, a front-end web developer must:

  • Write code for web pages and apps using HTML, CSS, and JS
  • Customize Content Management System (CMS) themes

Similarly, a back-end web developer must also:

  • Write code for web pages and apps using languages like ASP.NET, C, Java, PHP, Python, and Ruby
  • Program functionality and interactive features, like e-commerce shopping carts
  • Develop custom Content Management System (CMS) themes, modules, and plugins
  • Communicate with online databases

Again, in addition to all of the above, a full-stack developer must also:

  • Write code for web pages and apps using database languages like MySQL, Oracle, and Apache
  • Applies expertise to all layers of website or app development
  • Plan digital projects and identify the best languages, tools, and models for projects

If the web designer provides the creative concepts, the web developer is responsible for the mechanical implementation of the project. Most importantly, a web developer is primarily a programmer and not a designer. They also do not work with print projects at all, like the production artist, desktop publisher, graphic designer would or a visual designer might in other design specializations. However, web development is similar to art production in that the web developer does not work with a “blank slate.” Basically, a designer creates the layout that the developer then matches on the screen via coding. Furthermore, developing for the web is not like using web templates, as a web designer might use. Overall, a web developer writes custom code, from scratch even, to solve creative problems and adapt web pages to evolving objectives.

User-Centric Design Specializations 

The field of UCD focuses on how people use design products by exploring their goals and objectives, tracking their journey through an interactive design, evaluating overall design effectiveness based on user feedback, and finally improving the design. Creative professionals in this design specialization identify ways to add greater value to users by making the design accessible, understandable, flexible, attractive, efficient, and many more usability factors. Given how broadly UCD can be applied, there are several off-shoots of this design specialization as well. UCD design specialization includes User Interface Design (UI), Interaction Design (IxD), User Experience Design (UX), Information Design, Data Visualization, Content Creation, and much more. However, this discussion will focus only on the first three.

Graphic. White icons, graphs, and buttons appear on a dark background to create a UI kit.

User Interface (UI) Designer

User Interface (UI) designers determine the aesthetic of an interactive design system and select the right elements that maximize user understanding and ease of use. They focus on micro interactions. (To clarify, micro interactions are the individual actions a user might take when interacting with the system.)

As part of the primary duties, a UI designer must:

  • Collaborate with web designers, visual designers, and/or UX designers to implement digital interfaces
  • Plan input controls, navigation, and informational components
  • Arrange those elements in such a way that increases usability
  • Determine a layout that creates a clear workflow
  • Develop website and app prototypes—matching the wireframes determined by a UX designer—and document component style guides
  • Apply design principles and adhere to brand guidelines to maintain a consistent look and feel

User interface designers are a kind of web designer that specialize in creating graphical environments for a website or app user. This includes not only defining key points of interaction, such as navigational menus, calls-to-action (CTAs), and input controls on web forms, but also a workflow that is clear and intuitive to users. UI designers dont focus on planning the whole website aesthetic. Rather, UI designers focus on the points users can modify. However, many UI designers and web designers overlap and combine these two specializations. Compared to other design specializations in this field, its important to note that UI design analyzes user experience before the use of a system.

Photo. A mobile user taps social media buttons on a native app.

Interaction (IxD) Designer

An interaction designer (IxD) determines how to display data within an interactive design system that makes it easy for users to use and understand. Basically, interaction designers focus on the functionality needed to accomplish a task.

The job responsibilities of an IxD designer can widely vary. Like the various specializations of design, there is often overlap between UCD fields. However, as part of the primary duties, an IxD designer might:

  • Collaborate with UI/UX designers and product managers to plan digital interfaces
  • Analyze user patterns via A/B split testing
  • Plot user flows
  • Lay out website or app mockups and prototypes
  • Develop interactive reporting dashboards to monitor performance
  • Plan data visualizations, guiding animations, instructional videos, infographics, and more

IxD designers provide the strategy behind interactive components and moving parts of a website or app and focus on how an interface responds to a user’s input and vice versa. Unlike UI and UX design, IxD design analyzes user experience during the use of a system. Finally, IxD end-products go beyond styling controls. For example, guiding animations, instructional videos, infographics, and more are common deliverables in this design specialization.

To learn more about the differences between an IxD designer, graphic designer, and motion graphics (visual) designer, visit “What Type of Designer Do You Need?” by Krista Bruun at Upwork.

Photo. A UX designer grabs a sticky note that says "Run a usability test."

User Experience (UX) Designer

User experience (UX) designers determine the best aesthetic and structure of an interactive design system that help users feel satisfied and accomplish their goals. They focus on macro interactions, the actions users at large might take when attempting to complete a task using a design. UX designers focus on how an interactive design system feels to users, analyzing user experience before, during, and after use of a system.

  • Manage UI and visual designers to plan and execute digital interfaces
  • Specify user requirements by interviewing users or focus groups face-to-face, sorting cards, developing user tests, gathering and organizing statistics, and identifying terminology that makes sense to users
  • Define user personas and create customer journey maps
  • Identify important UI elements and establish initial guidelines
  • Develop website and app wireframes, prototypes, and component style guides
  • Conduct content audits, comparative assessments, and heuristic markups
  • Identify, prioritize, and resolve usability errors
  • Monitor site analytics and run usability tests

UX designers are a kind of web designer that specialize in creating overall digital experiences for a website or app user. Basically, UX design specialization combines skills from UI design and IxD design specializations with a primary focusing on improving communication between a user and the interface, whether that interface is a website or an app. Nonetheless, UX designers understand even a great web design cannot save a bad experience! Additionally, UX designers do not create any part of the aesthetic, unlike visual designers or UI designers. However, UX designers do help ensure users successfully accomplish their goals when using a website or app.

Design Specializations Merge & Split into Several Directions

As you can see, the creative industry branches and merges in several directions.

Many a designer has more than one skill set related to multiple design specializations in a lateral career path.

On the other hand, many designers have become subject matter experts (SMEs) and become high-level design specialists in one particular skill set. That’s primarily a vertical career path.

Still, there are more designers who combine lateral and vertical career moves, traveling and overlapping multiple design specializations I’ve described.

Furthermore, there are still creative professions and design specializations I haven’t discussed!

However, this design specialization series discusses the unique creative solutions each design specialization offers to clients and businesses. Use this series as a guide to find the best match for you.