Graphic design and illustrations - What’s the difference?

A lot of people in the board gaming industry seem to be confused about the difference between graphic design and illustrations. Because of this, I want to clarify the terms, and explain why both are necessary for a great game. In short, illustrations are there to make the game pretty and the graphic design is there to make the game understandable.


Let's start with illustrations, because that’s probably what is easiest to explain as well as understand. The main purpose of an illustration in a game is to make the game look good. It is also often used to convey the theme of the game, and help the players become immersed in said theme. Illustrations are often seen on the box cover, cards and components. Illustrations can have an array of different styles, from photorealistic to comic book style or lineart.

Usually, illustrations are not used to convey any specific information to the player. In most games you could remove the illustrations and still be able to play the game without any issues. However, it would be less enjoyable to look at.

Graphic design

Graphic design is not there to make the game look pretty, though it’s still preferable for the graphic design to look good. Instead, the purpose of graphic design is to help players take in information and understand the game and its gameplay. Graphic design in board games include icons, text (fonts) as well as the overall layout, and should generally be present in all parts of a game.

When used correctly, the graphic design of a board game will make it clear for players what a given component does and how to use it, sometimes even before they learn the rules.

Graphic design on the player boards in Quacks of Quedlinburg

Here, you can probably understand that you are supposed to place the shown tokens, of the specified amounts, in a bag.

When they work together

In the best of worlds the illustrations are tightly knitted to the graphic design, so everything helps the players understand, while it’s pretty and conveys the theme. This is one reason for why it might be good to have the same person making the illustrations and graphic design, but if you are going to do this, you must be sure that the illustrator is actually able to make good graphic design. Or you could bring in a graphic designer that lays out a base for the illustrator to use when making their illustrations.