Graphic Design in Tabletop Games

The responsibility of the graphic designer is highlighted in this card from Shadow Throne.

The responsibility of the graphic designer is highlighted in this card from Shadow Throne.

Today I’m going to discuss an often misunderstood topic, graphic design. I’ll get into more details below, but very quickly:

Graphic design is the conveying of information visually.

Given that tabletop games are almost completely visual, it shouldn’t be surprising that graphic design is essential to a successful game. But graphic design is a subtle art, and there’s a lot to discuss about it.

What’s the Difference between Graphic Design and Illustration?

Perhaps the easiest way to understand graphic design is to look at how it differs from illustration. The two are closely related, as they both concern themselves with the visual aspects of a game. There is a lot of overlap between the two, and there are individuals who can handle both graphic design and illustration. Still, there are important differences, especially in priorities.

Graphic design focuses on usability. At the end of the day, a graphic designer cares most about how something will be used, even at the expense of how it looks. While both illustrators and graphic designers should try to push the overall aesthetic of the game, the graphic designer’s primary concern is with making sure the game can be played without hitches.

Graphic design conveys specific information. Illustration tends to be about communicating a feeling. The world is full of dark magic. This character is silly. This card is powerful.

While graphic designers always strive to re-enforce a game’s overall aesthetic, they’re also responsible for communicating precise information. They don’t just need to tell you that a card is powerful, they need to tell you exactly how the card is powerful (in other words, how it works). And it’s not as simple as writing the rules. The graphic designer needs to make sure the information is conveyed in whichever context the card is expected to be used, whether that’s in your hand covered by other cards, or from several feet away, upside-down in front of an opponent.

The many iterations of graphic design for a card from Shadow Throne.

The many iterations of graphic design for a card from Shadow Throne.

Graphic design is more objective. Everyone knows art can be a bit subjective. What’s awesome to one person is tacky to another. And at the end of the day, neither person is right or wrong.

But for graphic design, that’s often not the case. Your game is either usable, or it’s not. Players can either find the information they need, or they can’t. For this reason, part of graphic design involves testing and iterating, just like game design. In other words, the graphic design isn’t complete until playtests show that it works.

Graphic design is hidden. Good illustrations stand out. They call attention to themselves and get people excited.

Good graphic design hides behind the scenes. It’s there, making sure everything is working properly, but it’s not calling attention to itself, and only those with a trained eye will even realize what’s happening. On the other hand, bad graphic design will stand out. It will cause confusion, slow people down, and make people realize that things aren’t quite right.

Because good graphic design often goes unnoticed, it’s a less glamorous a job than illustration, but it’s at least as important.

Graphic design never ends. That’s a little bit of an exaggeration, but it can certainly feel like it. When you’re working on a game, there will be a set list of illustrations you need. You might need a cover, some player mats, and illustrations for a bunch of different cards.

But graphic design is responsible for everything else visual, and it’s not just limited to the game itself. The rules will need to be properly formatted with understandable diagrams. The back and sides of the box will need to be clean and catchy. The board needs to contain about a million pieces of information. And don’t forget the Kickstarter page, ads in all sorts of formats, graphics for your BGG page, and countless other little tasks. Don’t get tricked into thinking that the graphic design for even a simple game will be fast or easy.

The Tools of Graphic Design

Graphic designers have a huge job, but thankfully they have many tools to help them out.

Bare hands. First and foremost, graphic designers have their own hands. It’s important to remember that at the end of the day the graphic designer must be able to create something tangible, and it takes a lot of skill to do so. If a graphic designer can’t execute, there won’t be any game for anyone to play.

Computers. Computers have revolutionized much of our society, and graphic design is no exception. Powerful software like Adobe’s creative suite offer incredible tools for image creation and manipulation. Not only do they allow graphic designers to precisely lay out designs, they also allow experimentation and fast iteration, two key aspects of ensuring that a design is as good as it can be.

Typefaces. Typefaces (or fonts to us laypeople) are one of the graphic designer’s greatest friends. Thousands of typefaces exist, and knowing which one to use for a specific project is difficult. There are many subtle differences that most of us don’t notice, and legibility and aesthetics are both important to consider when making a choice. Since written words and numbers are almost exclusively used to convey specific information, typefaces are soundly in the realm of graphic design.

Many games, like Magic, use color to show components that work together. Image from Board Game Geek.

Many games, like Magic, use color to show components that work together. Image from Board Game Geek.

Color. Humans see the world in vibrant color. We’re able to instantaneously match similar colors and differentiate unlike colors, and graphic designers make good use of this natural talent by encoding important information in color whenever possible. Making good use of color is one of the easiest ways to make a game easy to use, but always remember to accommodate color blind people by encoding information in a second way, like shape.

Space. Poker cards are about 2.5″ x 3.5″ (63mm x 88mm). That may seem like a lot of space, but it goes quickly, especially in complex games. Graphic designers have to decide how best to make use of that space. Special attention must be paid to key areas like corners that draw players’ eyes and will be visible while cards are held in hand.

But good graphic design also makes use of white space. White space doesn’t have to be white; it’s simply background to help frame the information you’re trying to convey. Making good use of white space will make things legible and feel less cluttered.

Symbols. Custom symbols are used extensively in tabletop games (sometimes excessively, perhaps). They convey important terms and components quickly, letting players immediately know what a rule deals with. Symbols can also help make games language independent, a huge boon in a global game marketplace.

Maintaining a consistent aesthetic can make simple art look good. Image from Board Game Geek.

Maintaining a consistent aesthetic can make simple art look good. Image from Board Game Geek.

Coherent Aesthetic. One of the most important things to do when producing a finished game is to define an overall aesthetic and keep it in mind with every decision you make. Keeping things consistent is one of the best and easiest ways to make a game attractive and professional looking. Even mediocre or simple art assets can look good when they fit in and support the overall appearance of the game.

Should You Hire a Graphic Designer?

I hope I’ve made it abundantly clear that if you’re making a game, you need a graphic designer. But does that mean you should hire someone to do it?

That depends. There are a lot of people in the board game industry that are very multi-talented, and you might be one of them. Or your illustrator might be one. Or your publisher might be one.

But if you don’t have someone on the core team with graphic design skills (or the time to use them), I absolutely recommend you hire someone to help out with your project. Remember, graphic design is about making your game both attractive and usable, and if either of those are lacking, you could be limiting your success.

Good graphic designers aren’t cheap, though, and if you’re on a budget, I highly recommend iterating on the graphic design as you’re designing the game itself. Whenever you make a new prototype, experiment with different card layouts. Pay attention to what information is most important for players to know and how quickly they’re able to find it. Then, when you’re ready to bring on a graphic designer, you can pass on a lot of knowledge to them and make their job that much easier.

A Beautiful Vision

Graphic design is one of the most important aspects of a successful game. When a player opens a new box, there’s no one there to tell them how the cardboard inside works. They’re going to have to figure out how to play just by reading the rules and looking at the game, and a graphic designer’s job is to make that as smooth an experience as possible. Don’t skimp on your graphic design.

What do you think? Did I miss anything important about graphic design? Let me know in the comments, especially if you’re a graphic designer yourself!

I would like to thank my Patrons for providing the support and encouragement that made this article possible.

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  1. I think you hit the major points of consideration when talking about graphic design. I think something to discuss is having a meeting in the begining that will help set the tone and direction of the project. I like to talk at length about the project and different problems that might come up. Also play the game with them or ensure they have a copy. It helps the designer see what information is important. Have an open mind about the design and let them do the job you hired them to do. Listen to us when we talk about fonts, readability and text.

  2. Teale, I think that’s a pretty good explanation. And Jason, I think you make some great suggestions. One of the most important things to remember about graphic designers is that they generally really enjoy what they do, everything from the problem solving to the art. And if they’re given the chance to really explore how to accomplish your goals, many times you can end up with a fantastic product.

    It is also important to remember that just like everything else, iteration is key. Rarely will a graphic designer nail it on their first try. Pushing them when you don’t think they’ve accomplished the goals can be incredibly helpful to the process and can lead to great solutions.

  3. Thank you for this. I often run into people who don’t think they need to hire a graphic artist. And it often shows in the final work.

    Some of what you say here is much like things I have said when I have given a few presentations on graphic design in board games.

    One thing you don’t cover here – your designer can only do their job if you communicate with them. I have had clients who gave me no feedback through the whole process, and waited until the last minute to let me know they didn’t like the direction the project is going. My best work has always come out of working with clients. Getting feedback – whatever it is, is crucial to the process.


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