If I'm not mistaken, a "graphic designer" is an artist that takes information, filters it through a concept, and designs pieces to reflect that process. For example: let's say you've got a country restaurant that needs you to design their menu. They give you their menu offerings in a simple Word document as just a list with prices. In speaking with them, you agree a "rustic" look is the image the restaurant wants to convey to the customer. So, you take their information, arrange it in an organized manner (appetizers grouped over here, main dishes and entrees over there, dessert on the back...) set up a typographic hierarchy with appropriate fonts (maybe some old letterpress fonts or Western fonts catch your eye), you use some old copperplate engravings of kitchen utensils and livestock for some visual interest and you print it all in a dark brown ink on a buff-colored laid paper stock (one that looks like a linen tablecloth). THAT is graphic design.
Used to be that the "commercial arts" referred more to the production/technical end of things: mainly the different printing methods, screening photos, setting type and other technical aspects of getting the job produced as per the designer's specifications. Very few design decisions were left to the technicians.
Nowadays, the difference between the two fields has blurred quite a lot. Certain technologies have become antiquated (such as using a copy camera to screen continuous-tone photos) with the advent of the computer. If you are doing layout, making color and typographic choices, sourcing and choosing photos and contributing to the overall look of a piece, then you are a graphic designer. If you are simply handling a job when it comes through, ordering and checking separations, burning plates, running the press, you're not really an artist so much as you are a technician.
I would say that the terms graphic designer, graphic artist and commercial artist are pretty much the same thing. Your skill with and knowledge of color, photography, illustration, typography and layout all contribute to designing and imparting a message to the general public or a specialized audience.
Generally speaking, a designer will be paid more than one who works in the commercial arts (again, it's the difference between CREATING something and PRODUCING something.) There are many specialized fields within graphic design: illustrator, technical illustrator, typographer, layout design, corporate identity, editorial illustration. You could end up doing all sorts of things as a graphic designer: flyers, brochures, catalogs, logos, illustrations, product packaging graphics, display graphics, poster design, Hollywood standees, movie production prop design (as in movies that need period-looking graphics for newspapers, signage, posters, etc.), amusement park signage and graphics, theatre scenic design. Anything that has words and pictures on it, you can be involved in as a graphic designer. Granted, you may be working in tandem with other designers (like structural designers for grocery store displays which is what I do or maybe a theatre set designer.)
If you have a signature look in whatever you do you could freelance and let the jobs come to YOU! Michael Doret, McRay Magleby, and Gerard Huerta (those are just a few off the top of my head) all have definitive signature looks to their work and they've managed to hone their skill and craft to the point where people recognize their style and WANT THAT style for their up-and-coming project.
Answered By: HMFan - 1/31/2010