Design is not art, although it can be appropriated by artists for personal expression. But design is not about personal expression. While both art and design can loosely be considered creative endeavours, the moment creativity crosses the line from objectivity to subjectivity, it no longer functions as design, and therefore cannot be considered design.
Of course, one is not more relevant than the other and in today’s modern context they play very different roles and serve different purposes within their cultural environments.
Setting the Scene with a Brief History.
It was not always this way, for in the early years of human development, it was art that was used to tell folk-law, record cultural history, and visually communicate. From the very first paintings in a Pettakere cave in Sulawesi, Indonesia, at approximately 40,000 years ago, symbols were being used to record human existence and experiences. Through human development and the expansion of language, rudimentary artistic symbols started to be developed of which the hieroglyphics from 5,000 years ago in Egypt are a great example. Later still the Norman Bayeux Tapestry depicts in rich detail the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and the slaying of Harold, Earl of Wessex, in England. And of course, over many centuries the church commissioned huge swaths of art to awe the general public with their grand and culturally appropriating mythology.
A big advance towards design in any context that we know about today, came in the early 1400’s with Gutenberg’s movable type, as his letterpress was a revolution in standardizing communication. It was here art can be said to have been ditched for the first time as a form of mass communication.
It was only in the 1620’s with the beginning of the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, that the separation of church and state became an idea, that would allow objective thinking to prevail as an accepted cultural construct, THE KEY to the eventual emergence of design.
This gave way to the Industrial Revolution in 1760, during which in 1810, Koenig built his ‘high-speed printing machine’, a development that changed the world of visual communication forever.
With the standardization of manufacturing, transport, and business practices, that came about with the industrial revolution, objective based creative thinking, now known as design, started to assert itself and take a foothold.
So where are we now?
Since then design has played an ever stronger role in society, to the point that now, it is taken for granted in every facet of our life. Whether industrial, architectural, technological, or in the form of visual communication, we have come to rely on it in modern society. And so it is now graphic design, and not art, that actively and consistency facilitate the communication of ideas and objectives that directly affect and reflect our culture.
“While art plays a very important role still, as a form of human expression, you don’t need art to assure a basic standard of living. And here in lays the first difference, you just can’t live without design.”
While publicly there may seem to be some perceived overlap between art and design, there is actually very little. They function too differently. I can’t count the number of times that friends or family members have seen design work that I’ve been involved with, and said, “Oh, you’re so artistic”. At which point, as a designer and not an artist, I can’t help explain that, I’m no more artistic than I am a neurosurgeon. Creative maybe. The terms artistic and creative seem to get convoluted in the minds of many, so here are some clear and present differences between art and design.
1. Art is a Luxury, Design is a Need.
Art is a communication of feeling from the artist to others, and it exists for its own sake. It primarily manifests itself through the indulgent expression from the artist, without necessarily having a specific purpose. Of course, art can bring enjoyment, and usually invokes some kind of emotional reaction, and people react differently to art depending on their own experiences and perspective. Because it is open to interpretation it is a subjective form that provokes fluid thought and discussion and is usually a reflection of or reaction to culture. Art is the mirror that society uses to look, appreciate, admire and sometimes question itself.
While art plays a very important role still, as a form of human expression, you don’t need art to assure a basic standard of living. And here in lays the first difference, you just can’t live without design. Think of your house, it very likely has walls filled with art that have a personal connection, and would probably seem cold, impersonal, unlived in and soulless possibly, without it. But that house has been designed, including all of its contents. It would cease to function as needed without a heating system or areas to sit, for example, but could still function perfectly well without art on the walls, no matter how not like home it may feel.
Art helps us understand our world, Design enables us to function in it.
It permeates every facet of your life, whether you appreciate it or not. Everything around us has been designed, from the lowly coffee mug to the computer, phone, book, digital applications. You name it, they provide you with the necessities you need just to get through your day, never mind the conveniences of life. These things exist for specific purposes, and design understands this at its core. Have you ever thought about why things look and function as they do? Why are cups cylinders? It may seem like an obvious answer, but every other thing that has been designed has been directed by its basic function. It’s about useability, design gets its beauty not through aesthetic perspective, but primarily through the effectiveness of its functionality. This very much applies to visual communication, as graphic designers have to objectively and efficiently convey messages, in a way that everyone immediately understands their meaning, often regardless of actual language.
Road signs are a great example of how design shapes our culture and has affected advancement in real terms, even though we take them for granted now. The design parameters followed allow them to be uniformly understood, facilitating a safe transport system, without which would lead to chaos and a very different society. It is in this way that design is now very much a need and fundamental to human existence as we know it in a modern context. Of course, there are some hardcore trains of thought that rail against this notion, and presumably these people would be happy being relegated to a time before enlightenment. Don’t forget to drop off your smartphones on your way back.
2. Art is About the Artist, Design is Not About Designer.
How many artists can you name? Probably, at least ten right off the top of your head. Now, ask yourself how many designers, specifically graphic designers can you name? You know, famous ones. You’d be pressed to name just two. And the simple reason is that Art is about the artist, and design by necessity is the product of a creative chameleon.
Art is the self-expression of the artist, and even if the artist is commissioned, it’s created by the artist, who translates the world to others based on THEIR perspective. Art is a medium by which an artist can explore, their self-awareness, and often it’s about standing out from the crowd, broadly making a statement or being provocative.
There is no room for ego in the objective life of the designer, once a designer puts their ego into their work, critical thinking is tainted.
But design is not about the person who created it or their opinion. Designers are loyal to the objective, and they are not defined by style, as projects will have different objectives and require specific visual characteristics. Think about how a smartphone works nowadays. You use the platform designers built for you, and everything makes sense on a very basic level. You get the information easily, and the visual communication of the navigation is so intuitive that it seems that it’s always been like that. But of course, it hasn’t. Every aspect are solutions that a designer had provided you, so that you can reach your information without frustration, without even thinking about it. The more the user takes it for granted, the better design is.
A Designer treats their work in an objective manner that always focuses on who they are doing the project for, what the objective is based on, and the information they need to communicate. And so, very importantly, going back to the beginning of this point, there is NO ROOM for ego in the objective life of the designer, once a designer puts their ego into their work, critical thinking is tainted, objectivity is lost, and they are no more a designer than the artist.
3. Designers and Artists May Have Tools in Common, But the Purposes are Very Different.
With Graphic Design and to a more loose extent Art being visual communication, they are bound to have some perceived cross over. Both can utilize the same forms of presentation. For design, this is dictated by necessity. Either it will be print, digital, video, motion graphics, depending on the parameters of the project. But for Art, the mediums can be as varied as the artists fancy,
The digital industry is developing rapidly and is filtering down to every facet of our daily life. Art is in many areas embracing this change, and as a reflection and commentary on culture, has transformed from traditional formats into many different mediums. These can include 3D art, printed art (ex. Andy Warhol), motion graphics, even a website.
And it is in this way that Design itself has enabled the new mediums of artistic expression that reflect the current technologically savvy society that was built by and enabled through visual communication by designers. The very existence of the digital age is due to the developments in design. And now brilliantly some artist use that to serve their personal expression.
Designers may also employ artists or illustrators as tools in a design process, just as they do a photographer or a programmer. And the designer will choose the artist primarily based on the fit of their previous work to the objective of the project and provide direction accordingly. Just as a bricklayer is an integral and important part of building a house, they are but one of many options for execution when the architect comes to decide what materials he will use to full fill his design, based on the many parameters of the project. And although in this context it may sound obvious, the bricklayer is no more an architect, than anyone else who isn’t an architect. And the same is true of the artist, although they may be involved in executing a particular aspect of the design project, they are not a designer.
So as you can see, while both design and art are important, they play very different roles in our society. Their personalities are almost polar opposites. Art being about feeling and expression, an opinion. And design being about calculated problem solving, through objective thinking.
Design fosters the advancement of society and has a direct measurable impact on how we live our life, absorb information, and communicate with each other. It, more than anything else, influences and forms our culture. And art has a soft impact, playing the important role of helping us see ourselves, our society and our culture.
This has been The Long and Short on ‘Why design is not art’. We hope you have found it to be at least a little informative. For more chat on graphic design topics in the future, be sure to check back in with us here, follow us on Facebook or Twitter and sign up for our newsletter.