Ask most people what graphic designers do, and their response will likely be “they design logos and business cards and t-shirts” or something involving 2D visuals. Very few will mention a graphic designer’s role in game design even though we interact with their work every time we play games like candy crush and Call of Duty.
Modern games are now predominantly 3D and it’s hard to see where a graphic designer may fit in in a game design studio. So, how is graphic design used in video games?
1. Designing the User Interface
A graphic designer designs the user interface (UI) of a game. The user interface is the arrangement of visual components that allows the player to interact with the game and access its tools and settings. A single game often has multiple user interfaces.
When you launch a game, the first UI is often the launch screen that directs you to the Menu, another UI. Each menu item opens up to its own UI that helps navigate each setting with the use of elements like slide bars for volume or mouse sensitivity.
When you start playing the actual game, you’re on a user interface as well. For instance, if you’re playing a game like Grand Theft Auto, there’s a health bar, armor bar, wanted level, map, the active weapon, etc. This UI was likely designed by a UI/UX designer, a branch of graphic design.
A graphic designer does the important work of deciding the placement of all these visual elements and type so it doesn’t block the player’s main view. In many game design studios, where budgets are tight, a game designer or developer may be tasked with doing the UI as well. But their work will likely fall short of that of a graphic designer in terms of usability.
One important skill a graphic designer possesses is a good understanding of visual hierarchy. Where a developer may rely on font choice and size to implement visual hierarchy, a trained/experienced graphic designer knows how to manipulate font, size, color, texture, placement among an arsenal of techniques to achieve better visual hierarchy and user experience.
Graphic designers also design icons and bars used in the UI like the scores and subs in EA’s FIFA. These icons have to express their intended purpose and which tool they present at a glance.
Most games, especially on mobile don’t take you through tutorials the first time you play them like they used to. The UI icons and symbols have to inform the player of their purpose in less than a second.
The design also adds to the visual style of the game, differentiating it from other games and subconsciously affecting the mood of the player and ties them down emotionally. Gaming can be frustrating, and a bad UI can throw an already mad gamer to the edge. In those few seconds where the player is trying to find the Start Over button, they might decide to delete the game and never play again. Bad for the studio.
Graphic design in video games simplifies and organizes all the complicated functions made by the developers into a usable interface that’s easy and fun for the player to navigate. Many good games have flopped because of bad UI design and inaccessibility.
2. Branding and designing marketing and promotional materials
Every game has a logo, a launch screen and a social media account profile. Graphic designers are responsible for the branding of the gaming studio and the individual games. The brand is the visual identity of the game that defines its purpose, values, and emotion. Graphic design implements visual cues that target the specific demographic the game is designed for.
Take a look at the Minecraft logo and you instantly get the blocky pixel style of the game and exudes that 90’s nostalgia millennials and gen Z gamers crave. You can also tell it’s a builder’s game and not a first-person shooter (although you can have a gun with mods).
Immediately a new game is launched, the goal is to get as many people buying and playing it as soon as possible. Graphic designers create the marketing materials like posters, youtube thumbnails, instagram stories, website spreads, billboards etc that go into promoting the game and capturing users. You can’t just use screenshots from your game. Original art has to be created, often quite different from the gameplay’s visuals.
One of the most iconic and identifiable promotional works is the GTA Vice City poster that came to define the series’ other installments and their promo posters. The design consisting of 2D inked illustrations formatted as window cutouts and bold typography manages to express the action and emotion the game provide.
Each window displays a character, vehicle, or environment that tells you exactly what to expect in the game. Yet GTA vice city is completely 3D. The graphic designers and illustrator’s choice to use 2D visual art rather than the screenshots of the game as was the norm with other franchises set the game apart and I believe contributed significantly to its marketing success.
It’s these decisions in branding and marketing made by the graphic designer that elevates and promotes the hard work of game designers and developers so it doesn’t all go down the drain.
Graphic designers design merchandise like posters, t-shirts and stickers that generate revenue outside the sales of the game itself. This income stream keeps the cash flowing in for the studio long after the game sales flattened out. The collection and trade in merch also builds a community of loyal enthusiasts and hobbyists who keep the brand strong and secure confidence in the success of future game installments. There’s no understating the role of graphic design in the marketing of video games.
Game designers and developers often consult graphic designers on issues concerning visual elements like icons, dialogue boxes, alerts and their arrangement and allignment. Game designers focus on making the game work, adding features and keeping the player engaged, and while doing all these things may get cluttered.
Graphic design largely involves making things visually simpler, cleaner and easy to navigate. Game developers may need help presenting all their features of the game to the user without overwhelming them. Is the health bar more important than the ammo left? Should the shooting arm be on the left side and stats on the right or vice versa? Visual hierarchy again comes into play, and the graphic designer may provide a solution that the developers may not have thought about.
They may also work as a mediator or tie-breaker when the developers get into heated arguments. Which is pretty common in studios. Consulting a graphic designer could help iron out UI issues before the game is rolled out into the public and save a lot of time and money in updates because a warning pop-up is blocking the crosshairs right when you have a clear headshot.
4. Designing in-game graphic assets
Most games especially open-world releases have shop signs, billboards, road-signs, secret letters from the emperor, etc. 3D modelers and painters can make all these, but in big studios, some of these 2D assets could be offloaded onto a graphic designer.
Studios may also license assets from stock vector sites like adobe stock. These are made by graphic designers and uploaded to the sites where they earn commissions when customers like game studios subscribe or download graphic assets.
How a graphic designer implements typography in a game’s interface is crucial in the end usability of the game. If a user can’t read the font used then they are simply locked out of most of the functions of the game. It becomes unplayable because they can’t read the menu, instructions, or walk-throughs and will simply leave the game.
Good typography is simple, easy to read, and helps the user navigate the interface in combination with symbols and icons. Users don’t read each and every letter and word. They skim through the type, identifying the word by its shape rather than the actual letters. Hence the use of lowercase type in most in-game text rather than capitalized words.
Text in games also has to contrast with the rest of the video game environment. This can be challenging especially in colorful worlds or environments that constantly change in brightness and lighting. Graphic designers know the tools to employ to make text visible and improve contrast in these situations, from the color of the text, to background transparencies, shadows, overlays and gradients.
Different typefaces also give different meanings and moods, affecting the overall emotion of the player when playing a game. The typeface used in World of Warcraft will be different from that used in Animal Crossing and matches the mood of each game and the user’s as well.
Importance of graphic design in the gaming industry
Building trust with the user
Graphic design serves as the bridge between the game software and the player. Therefore, graphic design has to be honest about what is on offer and all information provided has to be truthful. Snake oil tactics like marketing the game with a poster that makes it appear 3D open-world when it’s actually a 2D side-scroller like Super Mario won’t go down well with users.
In a very crowded gaming industry, users will always go for the honest brand. Graphic designers build that trust right from the game store before the user installs the game and starts playing.
Improving playability and navigation
Graphic designers design the different user interfaces the player interacts with. The menus, icons, navigation bars, data, and in-game displays have to be organized and simple to understand and use. They have to accommodate users from different backgrounds and cultures by using universal design principles to communicate in the most efficient way possible.
A good UI doesn’t need long tutorials or walkthroughs to understand where all the tools and settings are. It speaks for itself. Graphic designers employ visual hierarchy to ensure the most important features of the game are within reach, readable and identifiable.
Driving sales through marketing and promotion
Marketing and promotional graphic designs are crucial in capturing the interest of the public to discover and play a new game. A single billboard or Instagram story, can bring thousands of users to download a game or play it online. In a world where content is king and attention-spans are fleeting, a design has only a second or less to grab the eyes of a potential customer. Good graphic design coupled with effective marketing campaigns still drive sales for video games.
What is the difference between graphic design and game design?
A graphic designer arranges visual elements and typography with the aim of communicating a specific message. A game designer develops interactive mechanisms, creates characters, environments, levels and storylines which are combined into a playable game.
A graphic designer is only involved in designing the user interface, a few 2D in-game assets and promotional materials while a game designer is more involved in the technical workings of the game and visual appearance.
Game design is an umbrella term for a number of professions in gaming that include character designers, environment artists, 2D and 3D painters, modelers, level designers, and concept artists. Read more on the differences between the two here.
What are the requirements to be a graphic designer in a game design studio?
To become a graphic designer in a game design studio, one requires skills in UI/UX design and experience in designing marketing and promotional materials. An understanding and interest in gaming is also helpful. Generally, requirements will be the same as any other field in graphic design.
Can a graphic designer make video games?
No, graphic designers are not trained in coding and software development which are required in the making of video games. However,a graphic designer can learn how to develop games just as a game developer can learn how to graphic design.
Often, a game designer will work on the interface of the game they are making especially in small studios whee they may not have the budget for a dedicated graphic designer. So you can say that graphic design skills are important for a game designer. Put simply, the average graphic designer does not make video games.
How much do graphic designers working in game design studios earn?
Graphic designers in game design studios earn generally the same as other graphic designers, averaging $45,000 annually in the USA. Game designers on the other hand bring home an average of $66,000 annually. Game design studios can be a bit hectic and a graphic designer here may have more responsibilities and tasks to complete compared to working at a branding agency.
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