Thoughts About Design And Art

Design is not art. While they share some similarities the two are not the same. Designers solve problems and artists express themselves. Yet art and design are often linked, especially when it comes to the aesthetic layer of design.


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Every so often I see someone mention that design isn’t art, but there’s something more in the mention. There’s a suggestion that art has no place whatsoever in design and anyone who disagrees is looked upon with disdain. If you express yourself in any way or add something of yourself, something of your unique style to a design, then you must be doing it wrong.

I don’t agree with this attitude and think it equally wrong and quite honestly a bad message to be sending. Design is not art, but it doesn’t mean you can’t infuse your design with some.

Today I want to talk about design and art. I want to consider how the two are different and also how they’re similar. I want to think about where you find art and who creates it. Let’s start, though, with the differences.

Design is not Art

Design and art have a different purpose. They have different goals in mind. Design is utilitarian. The thing being designed has to work. It has functionality or should. It has a message to communicate that helps achieve its goals. Every part of a design should subordinate itself to the utility of the thing being designed.

Designers can increase their value the more they know and understand art

Art on the other hand is its own end. It might have some goals at the beginning, but those goals can change by the end. There is nothing that a piece of artwork has to specifically do going in. Everything about the piece of art is subordinate to its own purpose, whatever that may happen to be.

Design and art have a different process to creation. Design comes with constraints. The second you start setting goals and a budget and thinking about the client and the client’s customers, you’re constraining the project.

Art has no constraints initially and ultimately only those constraints imposed by the artist or the work itself. In design constraints are set. In art constraints can change or disappear entirely at any moment.

Both art and design are observed and judged differently. Art is judged on its beauty, any truth it reveals, or some kind of morality it expresses. Art is judged on its vision and integrity. Sometimes art imitates life. Sometimes art presents a vision that life can imitate. The art can be judged on either or both.

Design is judged on utility and function. Does it work? If it’s a phone can it make calls? If it’s a television can it deliver video content. Design has to successfully serve the thing being designed and the goals of that thing. Does it sell? Inform? Persuade? Direct? Entertain?

Art and design have different audiences. Art is meant to be seen or heard or read, depending on the medium. It’s meant to be experienced. It wants to attract attention to itself.

Design is meant to fade into the background in the sense that it isn’t more important than the thing being designed. People shouldn’t visit a website again and again because of how it looks. The site should help them accomplish tasks or gather information. The best designs are often unnoticed.

Art is experience driven. Design is solution driven. Art leads to discussions based on how it looks or sounds. Design leads to discussions based on how it works. Designers solve problems and artists seek new problems to solve.

Design is Similar to Art

As different as they are, design and art share similarities. They often use similar tools and turn to similar techniques to create. You can paint a commercial road sign and you can paint a masterpiece. You can use graphics software to wireframe a design and you can use it to create digital art.

Above I mentioned art and design have different constraints. That means they both have constraints. Design’s constraints are external and defined by different people and different goals. Art’s constraints are self imposed and malleable.

Beauty which is an aim of art, should be an aim of design as well. The more beautiful, the more aesthetically pleasing, the interface the better it has been shown to perform. People are attracted to the beauty and use the interface more. They explore it more and learn it more.

Beauty improves the experience and builds loyalty to the object designed as well as the company that designed it. It may not actually make the thing easier to use, but it does create a stronger connection between it and the person using it.

Designers can increase their value the more they know about and understand art. It allows them to add this extra layer.

Both artists and designers have good aesthetic eyes. Both are creative. Aesthetics don’t equal art, but they’re often the part of the design that sells the design.

Art is Found Everywhere Including Design

Walk into any museum and there are probably some things you’ll see common to most or all museums. At least as far as I can remember, each of the following has been in every museum I’ve ever been in.

  • dishes
  • bowls
  • cups
  • vases
  • tools

Ordinary objects. Objects any of us might use daily. There in museums because they’ve been infused with art. There are drawings on the objects and scenes painted on them.

We think of them as art now, but they were simply good products in their day. They were designed. They weren’t created to be pieces of art. They were designed products that were given a layer of beauty.

Most designed objects have their parts or characteristics that may not serve the function of the object directly. While it’s important to get the functional and usable right, design doesn’t end with either.

For example think about your phone. What color is it? What function does that color perform? Does a blue phone work better than a red one? Can it do more? You can argue the color serves as a background against the screen, but for the most part it serves no utilitarian function.

Your phone is going to have color so is there any reason it can’t be artistically influenced? Think about the aesthetic characteristics of anything. Is there any reasons those characteristics can’t be artistically presented.

You can argue that everything that’s part of a site’s design can help communicate or enhance some other part in the site and that every decision contributes to a greater whole. I’ve argued that myself before. Is it entirely true?

There are many ways to communicate a message. Is there any harm in choosing the more artistic way to deliver that message. We add illustration, little flourishes, animation, and all sorts of things to delight visitors. None of these things are specifically functional.

I hesitate to say the above. Something like animation on a button can be very functional as it gives feedback about the button being pressed or released. Many aesthetic details aren’t meant to be so directly functional, though. Why can’t they be artistic in that case?

I’m not suggesting you have to add art to your designs. I’m suggesting you can if you want. You have responsibilities to your client, your client’s visitors, the goals of the design. You can’t detract from the message or make a site less usable to add a bit of art. However, as long as you aren’t taking away from the message, the function, the usability, you should be able to add some artistic bits.

Who Creates Art?

Years ago, my dream in life was to be a writer of literature. I wanted to write the Great American novel. I thought about the writers I was reading most at the time, the Beats. Writers like Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg. Writers who didn’t do much other than write. They didn’t have jobs. They were full-time artists.

Their life was their art. Like Vincent van Gogh, they lived and breathed for their art. I assumed to create art you needed to be a full time artist.

Then I learned about the poet William Carlos Williams. He was a poet, but he was also a Doctor by profession. He wasn’t a full time artist. He probably spent more of his time being a doctor than being a poet.

It showed me that anyone could create art. Art can be created by anyone, anywhere, and at any time. The objects in the museum weren’t created by artists to become art. They were designed to be ordinary objects, but the person who designed them wanted them to be more than functional so they were given something more. They were given some artistic value.

Any of us can comment on life as it is. Any of us can comment on what we think life could or should be. We can share these things with others through any means we like, including design.

As long as the thing we’re designing still functions like it should and still works towards achieving goals. As long as anything you add doesn’t detract from the design it’s ok to add a little something more in the form of art.

Closing Thoughts

Design is not art. The two aren’t the same thing. They have a lot of differences, but they also have plenty of similarities. They aren’t the same, but they share similarities and they tend to attract similar types of people to them.

Design solves problems and builds functional products. Art stokes the imagination and influences the way people think about the world as it is or as it could be. It’s created by people who might do things other than art. It can be injected into anything by anyone at anytime.

You and I may not have a responsibility to inject art into our work, but the human race absolutely needs art and artists if it’s to continue moving forward.

There’s nothing wrong with infusing your designs with some art so long as they first and foremost meet the requirements of the design. As long as any artistic flourish you’d like to add doesn’t detract from the design go ahead and add the artistic flourish.

Creating art may not be a responsibility, but it should be a goal we all share. We should all do our best to remake the world in a way we think best. That’s what artistic expression is and does. By nature of being a human being, we should all want to share our view and vision of the world. We should think about adding artistic value to most everything we do. Design is as likely a home for that artistic value as anything else.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

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