A Graphic Designer Who Can’t Draw? Is that Legal?

The short answer here is yes; you can absolutely be a graphic designer if you can’t draw. However, knowing how to draw will definitely help your design career; it’s just not mandatory. My minimal drawing skills are proof of this.

I’ve known many designers who went into graphic design specifically because they were skilled illustrators and didn’t want to pursue a career in visual arts. For this reason there are many talented designers who can draw at a very high level. However, due to the nature of the job, having great illustration skills is not necessary. You can get by at the stick-figure drawing level, which is where I’m at.

Why Illustration Skills Are Not Mandatory for Graphic Designers

Graphic designers spend most of their time creating compositions of imagery, graphic elements, and typography. Outside of unpolished ideation sketching, there typically is no need for professional illustration skills in a design career.

Graphic designers need to be well versed in design software, the basic principles of design, how to use type effectively, how to keep brand visuals consistent, and much more. Fortunately, knowing how to illustrate is not on the list in most cases.

Illustration, like motion graphics, animation, hand-lettering, brand strategy, and others, is more of an add-on skill for designers rather than a fundamental skill. In other words, if you can’t draw, don’t let that stop you from going into graphic design. If you can draw, however, congrats, because that’s another creative skill you can add to your resume and portfolio.

Need some proof that you can be a graphic designer if you can’t draw? Here are some examples of design work I’ve done that required absolutely no illustration: A magazine cover made of a photo, text, and some graphic elements, a book cover made of typography and a 3D manipulated image, and a poster made from an image manipulation.

Work I've done that uses no illustration

Some work I’ve done that didn’t require any illustration whatsoever

When Illustration Skills Can Be Useful for Graphic Designers

On the other hand, as with any design-adjacent creative skill, it can be useful to know how to draw. Having strong illustrative skills, in any style, are useful for creating truly unique looking graphics for brands. Illustrative skills are especially useful if you’re working on motion graphics or animation projects, for creating illustrations and elements for use in a video, or for creating concept sketches for each frame of a video.

Here are a few examples of places where having strong illustration skills would be very useful and could dramatically help you in your career.

Illustration Skills in A Design Team

I’ve been in hiring positions before where we were specifically looking for a design candidate who could not only design, but could also draw at a high level. It was simply a skill we needed to have on our team than not enough of the other team members had.

At the time, we had a lot of clients who wanted custom illustrative work for their social channels and motion graphics projects. We already had one super talented designer on the team who was doing all the illustration work but the workload was getting to be too much for him. Hiring another designer who was also a skilled illustrator, who had a completely different style, really helped the design team to create a variety of amazing illustrative work for our clients.

Advanced Illustrative Skills For Specialty Design Agencies

Some design studios are known for their illustrative talent because they they offer specialized design services. This means that if you want to work with them, your drawing skills will need to be up to par. These specialized illustrative services could be for packaging, book illustrations, animations, and more.

One of my favorite studios that creates stunning illustrative works of design is Hired Guns Creative, a design company that specializes in highly illustrative beverage packaging. They create some of the most unique and eye-catching illustrative graphics I’ve ever seen which results in their designs being unique works of art.

Hired Guns Creative Illustrative Design work

Some of the illustrated package design work created by Hired Guns Creative.

A Necessary Skill – Super Basic Concept Sketching

So you can be a graphic designer if you can’t draw, and it’s useful if you can, but you will need to know how to use a pencil and paper to draw the most basic of illustrations. I mean like lines, circles, and the stuff you already know how to do.

Designers are often required to have very basic illustration skills for portraying a specific idea or concept via sketches. This requires very minimal illustrative talent and it is a skill you will build up over time. Here are some examples of the types of work designers regularly do that requires very basic illustrative skill (The kind of stuff you can do without actually learning to ‘draw’).

Basic Drawing Skills For Concept Sketching

One of the primary tasks of designers is to come up with effective layouts for various marketing material. It’s not only helpful to sketch out compositional ideas first, but sometimes it’s mandatory. New designers are often asked to show their ideas on paper before creating a digital, polished version. This requires a designer to be able to effectively communicate an idea using pencil and paper. More senior designers also need to know how to sketch design ideas to send to junior designers to create on the computer.

In other words, you can still be a graphic designer if you can’t draw, but you will need to know how to sketch concept ideas at the most basic level. These rough concept sketches are also great to include in your design portfolio to show a potential employer your process.

Graphic design - layout sketches

Concept sketches made to represent the variety of design projects a graphic designer will need to be able to do via sketching

Basic Drawing Skills For Logo Ideation

In addition to the every day sketching of ideas, designers often get logo design projects that require more creative illustration skills.

These logo sketches were created for a fake brand, but they detail my typical starting process for a logo design project. Creating a logo is one task that should most often be started with pencil and paper (or with digital sketching like an iPad and iPencil). Using pencil really lets designers just dump out everything in their head at once without being limited to digital constraints. It’s the best first step in logo design.

Once a sufficient amount of logo ideas are sketched out, the designer moves to the computer to either polish a design or continue to develop an idea. As you can see, there isn’t a ton of illustrative skill required for sketching out ideas, though it likely helps the process if you do have some drawing skills. In truth, what really helps the sketching process is using grid paper (I prefer dot grids), a ruler, and a good pencil.

Graphic design - logo sketches

Some sketches I did for a fake company to illustrate how sketching skills are required for designers to create logo design ideas on paper.

Can You Be A Graphic Designer if You Can’t Draw? – In Summary

Hopefully by now you’ve realized that you can be a graphic designer if you can’t draw or you can draw; and, unless you’re applying for a job that specifically asks for illustrative skills, you should be able to get a job with a professional portfolio that’s void of any illustrative work.

Focus on building your typography skills, experimenting with digital image making and photo manipulation, learning layout fundamentals, and getting familiar with design software. Getting a job in design requires a good portfolio, so focus on that first. At some point down the road, if you want to learn to draw, go for it. It might open some new doors for you in your career.

Discussion

Do you agree with me that you can be a graphic designer if you can’t draw? Are you a designer with good illustration skills? How much has it helped you in your career? If you’re a designer without illustrative skills, do you think learning to draw would help you in your career? Would it make any difference? Let me know in the comments below!

Photo Credits

Photo by Kaizen Nguyễn on Unsplash