Commercial Art

from The New Book of Knowledge®


The term "commercial art" is usually used to mean art created for a business purpose. Unlike fine art, such as painting or sculpture, commercial art is made for reproduction. The general public calls this kind of art commercial art. But the artists and designers who produce it usually call it graphic design or communication design.The latter term is used because this art is intended to communicate ideas and information.


Perhaps the most obvious kind of commercial art is advertising. More commercial artists work in the advertising industry than in any other.

Advertising can take the form of billboards, posters, pages or parts of pages printed in magazines and newspapers, and television commercials. Advertisements, or ads, tell people about new products or remind them to buy old ones. They publicize everything from automobiles, washing machines, and perfume to plays, movies, television programs, and books. At election time even political candidates try to "sell themselves," and ads give voters information about candidates' positions on various political issues.

Some advertising is called public service advertising. Instead of trying to sell a product, it delivers a message that is beneficial to the community in which it appears. It may remind people not to litter, caution them to fasten their seatbelts, or warn them not to drink and drive or take drugs.


Also considered commercial art is the design of packages. This includes jackets for books, compact discs, digital video discs, and labels for cans and bottles. While protecting their contents, packages use advertising techniques to attract the buyer's attention. In supermarkets and variety stores, products are in fierce competition with one another. The design of each package acts as a "point of sale" advertisement to make the shopper want to pick that particular product off the shelf and buy it.


Books, magazines, and newspapers are also forms of commercial art. The designer's work usually consists of creating a layout and choosing a typeface for the text. If illustrations are to be used, the art director and designer choose an illustrator or photographer whose work expresses the ideas and feelings in the story. The designer who handles the layout decides where the illustrations will go and strives to make the pages attractive, well organized, and easy to read.

Corporate Design and Environmental Graphics

Two other kinds of commercial art are intended to convey information of a different kind. Corporate design involves work done for the business community. It consists of business forms, stationery, booklets, and catalogs that companies use to carry on their daily operations. One of the most important elements in any company's corporate design program is the company's logo, symbol, or trademark. A good symbol can give an idea of what the company's business is. It usually appears on all the printed material the company uses. The symbol may even be used on the company's cars and trucks.

Signs and symbols that give people directions are called environmental graphics. They are used in public places such as hospitals, office buildings, and airports. They are called environmental graphics because they are such an important part of the environment in which we live and work. A designer who is asked to plan an environmental graphics project often works with the building's architect. Together they decide where all the signs will go and what kind of lettering or typeface would look best. The designer has to think of details that most people take for granted, such as whether the signs can be clearly read from a distance.

Art Directors and Designers

The people who practice all these different kinds of commercial art have titles that suggest the kinds of jobs they do.

Art directors direct projects from beginning to end. First they meet with clients to discuss the assignments. If, for example, the project is the design of a book jacket for a novel, the art director discusses the story with the book's editor. Then the art director and editor discuss ways the jacket might best express the content of the book. Later the art director decides whether to ask an illustrator to paint a picture or a photographer to take a picture for the cover. An artist may be chosen who does both illustration and lettering. Or, if the cover does not need an illustration, the art director might call upon a designer to prepare a cover that simply features the title in an appropriate typeface or hand lettering.

Designers are the people who actually plan the piece of commercial art. They carry out the art director's ideas. Many art directors were initially trained as designers.

Mechanical Artist, or Paste-up Artist


Designers may prepare artwork for printing themselves. But most of the time they give it to a mechanical artist, or paste-up artist. This person pastes the type and artwork on a board, which the printer uses to reproduce the design. The finished board is called a mechanical. In the past even the pages of books and magazines had to be pasted up in this laborious fashion. However, now they are most often laid out on computers. Computers can put together text, photographs, and drawings and output the page in a form that is ready to be printed.


Many art directors, designers, and mechanical artists work as part of the staff of a business firm or publishing company. They form the art or design department, and they are responsible for designing the printed material the company needs to run its business. Some art directors and designers set up independent design studios that work for a number of different clients. Such a studio might be asked to design a poster for a movie studio, a book jacket for a publishing house, or an annual report for a computer company.

Some designers prefer to work entirely independently. They are called freelancers. Many of them specialize in one particular kind of commercial art. Designers who specialize in book jackets may have several major publishing houses as clients.

Freelancers have the opportunity to accept or reject assignments as they wish. But they do not always have work to keep them busy every week of the year.

Carol Stevens Kner
Managing Editor, Print magazine

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