Graphic artists and graphic designers are not employed in the same endeavor. While often confused, there exists a rather firm distinction in the industry between what is described above (graphic design) and what is meant by those of us who call ourselves graphic artists.
"The art of creative layout and design" can be refined to "the art of creating effective visual solutions to specific communications problems." This is the essence of Graphic Design. Clients have a need to communicate with an audience, and graphic designers develop novel ways to fill each particular communication need. Some are better than others.
The graphic artist is, in fact, not part of this creative problem solving, but has an intermediary role between graphic design and a finished communication product. The graphic artist is the general contractor to the graphic designer's architect. Designers create plans and graphic artists carry out those plans in the print shop. While the successful designer is likely to consult with a graphic artist early in the design process, ultimately the design solution has little credit due to the technical expertise of the graphic artist.
Historically, a typesetter functioned as both designer and production artist. Only the content of the message was left to outside parties. (In the case of Ben Franklin, like many press owners in the 18th century, even the content of his press work was also his own.) It wasn't until the 1920s that graphic designers began separating the art of typography from the art of typesetting. Graphic designers (typographers) finally began to specify how to create printed matter using instructions for the graphic artists (typesetters) to carry out instead of placing the type in the galleys with their own hands.
A whole era of designers who worked by creating mock-up solutions was born. During this period in design history, the graphic designer created a series of solutions which were refined with input from the client until a final "high comp" was approved for production. The "high comp" was a sort of estimate of how a finished print piece should look and feel, and from this blueprint the graphic artist would then know where to set type, how to prepare halftones, and what colors to use for various elements. From these designs, the graphic artist would create a "mechanical" which was the actual typesetting and image placement that was exposed photographically onto lithographic printing plates. The only final reproduction art the graphic designer might actually create was an illustration, but even those were often modified for print by the graphic artists.
Today the roles of the graphic artist and graphic designer have been blurred by 18 years of Macintosh-enabled desktop publishing. Now the designer has the tools to digitally create reproducible art and type, which goes directly to press from the original digital files. This new era in design and publishing has narrowed the gap between conceptual and production artist.
In some ways, the desktop publishing era has democratized the means of producing high-quality printed matter. Anyone with a US$2000 computer system can create high-resolution type and photographs and print any number of copies with inexpensive digital printers. However, the access to the tools of designers and the ability to use those tools in a professional capacity are quite separate. Many people who know how to use design software are horrible graphic designers as are many people excellent designers who have a limited understanding of the graphic artists needs in reproducing those designs.
While the tools of design and reproduction are reuniting in the digital realm, the distinction remains between the creator and the technician. Some day, when all that is necessary to carry out production of large quantities of print is to press a big green button, the reintegration of the typographer and the typesetter will be complete. Until then, graphic artists have their hands full making the ideas of graphic designers into masterful reproductions of inspired design solutions.