It seems I have found myself asking and answering this question more often lately than maybe I would have anticipated before starting my master’s degree at SCAD. As I’m coming from an architecture background, my experience in explaining what it is that I “do” professionally was usually fairly straightforward: “I design tall buildings.” Or, “I can make a house”, etc. The notion that there is a fairly large overlap (especially in terms of design education and design thinking) between architecture and graphic design is fairly foreign to most people, unless they’re in a creative field (which many of my friends and family are not). Additionally, I’ve found that with freelance work, the need to explain “services” that I can provide, and especially the methodological way in which I approach design (at the conceptual or process) has increased over the last year in a big way. I think this has really stretched me as a person and a designer because it’s meant I need to know how to talk about what I do – how to communicate about it – and that in itself is almost a design problem.
With all that said, I would say that graphic design, to me, is first a subset of “design” generally. When I think about design, I think about the notion that intention / purpose is what differentiates it from pure art (at least, that’s been a good functional definition for me). So, graphic design is a subset of design and therefore is concerned with intention. I think what further delineates graphic design apart from other design disciplines (architecture, industrial, etc.) is the notion of communication. So for me, graphic design is a way of thinking about visual, spatial, and formal problems that is fundamentally communication-oriented. I further believe that all design is also concerned aesthetically and functionally, and socially.
So I suppose a summary of that would be to say that graphic design is design that is concerned with communication and is expressed in a multiplicity of ways – some examples could be visually, spatially, programmatically, theoretically – and this design is working aesthetically, functionally, and socially. I do think the notion of “upstream and downstream” in design thinking is appropriate; so there are facets of design that occur purely in the conceptual / thinking / upstream phase of the process, and there are facets of design that occur in the executional / downstream phase of the process – I see both as “design”.