Art versus Design

thetophus's picture

I have always been artistic. When I was a kid I use to pain watercolors of dinosaurs and fighter jets. When I was in middle school it was comic book character and rock and metal band logos. In high school I took a class called Drawing and Commercial art, and it was around that time that I really seriously became involved in design, especially concert posters and album covers and the like. I recently started going to school for design after a few false starts. One thing I have noticed is that I clash with some of my instructors over design... because I am so art oriented they have a hard time with that because it's not rigid or organized or whatever.

I recently heard David Carson remark on the following question... where does art end and design begin? It's a question I have been thinking a lot about, especially since I'm at a crossroads in my education. So what is the difference? Where does one begin and the other end?

Paul Cutler's picture

I disagree about technique. Some of the best rock has been made by folks with very limited technique. That's the nice thing about rock - there's still room for rawness.

So it depends on the form.

And if you have paid attention to John Cage, all noise IS music, as is silence. Being a musician is a way of listening to the world more than anything, and then interpreting what you have experienced through the lens of your persona.

I have always felt that the air was full of music and when I was on, I was just more receptive to the eternal songs and sounds that surround me.


Paul Cutler's picture

The finest thing about improvisation is breaking out of the sense of linear time that enslaves us. Being able to shatter time and then return is what makes the great ones. We are all playing the same scales, notes, intervals and the difference comes from our sense of time.

Playing is the best way for me to leave this world behind for a few moments. I consider those moments real, and everything else is just our agreed upon reality.


dmajor's picture

Hiroshige might not be using the word "technique" qualitatively, but might be referring to the mode/medium (skilled or raw) in which the artist works. As in The Ramones' three-chord technique, a technique they mastered.

dmajor's picture

I think "In art you please yourself - in design you please the client" gives two frustrating definitions. The "self-expression" model of art is dangerous, and I think it's part of the reason the word art often connotes inaccessibility or incommunicable profundity in society. I think, I hope, art must be involved and implicated beyond the individual - socially, economically, and emotionally.

As for the definition of design, "the client" has to be irrelevant. To define design by how money changes hands is difficult to accept. I hope that design has some substance beyond who it is for. For me design is an idea in visual motion - art is more concerned with the tragedies and comedies and beauties of living.

circehouse's picture

Without reading any of the other replies, I would say this:

"Art" is the personal expression or perception of an emotional reality.

"Design" is the arrangement of symbols to persuade or encourage opinions.

thetophus's picture

"What does style have to do with being or not being sterile, with throwing yourself into a project or not, with a good brochure or an amazing brochure? Nothing!"

And this is where I disagree completely. In fact, I find this statement to be an enormous contradiction. If something has no style, and I speak of style in the broadest sense here, it has no appeal. Think about it... when you are shopping at your local supermarket, what is your eye immediately drawn to? The packaging with the most appealing style. That is no accident. And the person who designed that was able to create that style, that pizzaz that caught your eye. It may not be the product you end up buying, but it was the first product you saw on the shelf.

We don't need to necessarily stand out like a sore thumb, but we should definitely have something to offer.

ben_archer's picture

Christopher, this never used to be a problem because, as already mentioned here, there was always a relative consensus about the what the distinctions between client-commissioned work and self-expression, (or commercial art and fine art) meant in practice.

You could probably divide the people responding to this question, based on whether they cite the traditional distinctions or not, into two age groups.

I see this as being a particular problem for younger people today, and part of my argument is that graphic design has just become too damn popular for its own good. Because the field is so crowded, there is an explosion of recently graduated designers doing 'self-commissioned' and 'self-published' work because they can't find enough commercial clients to sponsor their (largely self-indulgent) projects.

Back in the day, the accepted phrase for 'self-publishing' was 'vanity publishing' – and would have implied that these people were pursuing some kind of fine art imperative by backing it with their own money, even if the project were not critically successful.

If you are really intrigued by this question, don't settle for DC's grandstanding platitudes about art & design; it was only said to inflate his already universally-acknowledged greatness. Look instead at the relationship between artist, curator and collector; the 'game' behind the 'game' of advertising is... fine art collection. Why? Charles Saatchi (a man whose agencies hire and fire the likes of Carson all the time) collects work by 'artists' like Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin; most of it is junk, and is occasionally mistaken for same, but Saatchi neither hires nor commissions them, and the monetary value of their work increases for his having chosen it – so where does the power in their relationship reside?

Linda Cunningham's picture

so where does the power in their relationship reside?

Wherever the creator of the "art" decides it does, actually.

If I create "art" for my pleasure and price it as such, then the purchaser needs to decide whether or not they want to buy it (and that's their choice). On the flip side, if a purchaser asks me to create something to their specifications, I need to look at whether it's "design" (they are paying me to execute something specific) or "art" (they are paying me to execute something creative but without details) -- there's a difference.

But if I create something to please me, and without a specific audience, then it is called what I want it to be. ;-)

Lately, I create what I want to, people buy it, and that's OK too....

Paul Cutler's picture

I play guitar because I need to.

I design because I need to.

They are just serving different needs.


AzizMostafa's picture

Art vs Design, flip floppy
= Typography vs Calligraphy
= Job vs hobby
= 2 not 1 copy

ChuckGroth's picture


dezcom's picture

I cast my bread upon the waters
and let it bob among the otters
Sometimes a nibble, or even a bite
I'll still do it anyway, without a fright.



klevergirl's picture

I think we should al start by first defining "Art", which would be impossible as almost everything in life is a piece of art. From nature, to the art of cooking, the art of writing, the art of music...etc. etc. So yes, I'm a graphic designer, and yes, what I do is a type of art.

Let your painting/drawing/illustrating capabilities shine through your new and upcoming design work and you will be successful no matter what. :)

To be irreplaceable, one must always be different...

Paul Cutler's picture

No one is irreplaceable - history has clearly shown us that…


pattyfab's picture

Yes, the term "art" can be applied to almost anything (as can the term "war" c.f. war on drugs, war on terror)

I don't have much to add to what's been said. I'm both an artist and a designer. I love them both. The design pays the bills.

WurdBendur's picture

There seems to be a general misconception that Artists work only to please themselves. This is absolutely untrue. Artists also have to get paid, which is hard enough when you're not just doing whatever you feel like and ignoring potential clients. Lots of artists do commissioned work to the specifications of their client. The real difference, I think, is the degree of personal expression vs. the presentation. Art focuses more on expression and interpretation, while design is about presentation. Naturally these different focuses lend themselves to different markets.

However, the two are not always clearly divided. As an art major, I encounter this issue all the time: there's quite a bit of tension between the departments and disagreement over what counts as which. Artists here treat design like a lower form of art (which is silly), and people who work in the middle (say Andy Warhol) are curiosities but not favorites.

One reason I'm still a student here is because I can't decide which way I want to go, and I don't understand why they won't just let me have both.

pattyfab's picture

The "art" world is full of phony baloneys. A lot of what gets called art has questionable aesthetic and cultural value. I've encountered the same attitude you talk about - one of my artist friends told me I should never tell anybody I'm a designer as well. Somehow teaching is sanctioned as a source of income for an artist, and of course it's OK to starve, but god forbid you have a day job and actually like it.

That said, there is a difference between design, illustration - no matter how talented the illustrator - and fine art.

If you want to pursue a design career you do have to be able to leave your ego & control at the door to some degree. The person who controls the purse strings (ok, we call them the client) will change things you love and make you do things you'd rather not do. If you can't stomach that you should probably not become a designer.

Bert Vanderveen's picture

I went to Art School & I KNOW for a fact that 99,85% of 'Art' is B/S. And to make sure I wasn't going to add to that I went into illustration and graphic design.

Only problem with this insight I gained is that some of my best friends are artists and I always have to evade questions they pose to me.

As for the value of art vs the value of design: There is consolation in great art, but more people profit from a well designed water pump.

blank's picture

I went to Art School & I KNOW for a fact that 99,85% of ‘Art’ is B/S.

Just the expensive stuff. It’s funny, but when it comes to living artists, I find that the less expensive and more obvious the work is, the better it is.

fredo's picture

Can design be art? If you flip the question: Can I open a can of sardines with Tracy Emins unmade bed? Well, maybe, but that’s not what it’s supposed to do.

As I see it, in a modernist context, nicely arranged type and interesting juxtapositions of shape and colour could well equal art. Not very interesting art, but still. In a contemporary art context however, that means Bo diddley squat. The modern concept of art is that anything can be art. All it needs, crassly, is someone to proclaim it as such. To be part of an international scene of contemporary art it also needs to be accepted by curators at galleries and biennials etc. And to do that it’s not enough to intrigue a potential customer trying to sell chewing gum or to neatly arrange a masthead. It must be loaded with contemporary art discourse you see. Now of course, if You choose to print that fine piece of design and call it The tears of Gilles Deleuze it might just get slightly closer to art. On the other hand that might not win You the chewing gum account.

One fine example on the relation between art and design is how Erik Spiekermann defines what he does: Contrary to popular belief, designers are not artists. They employ artistic methods to visualize thinking and process, but, unlike artists, they work to solve a client’s problem, not present their own view of the world. If a design project, however, is to be considered successful – and that would be the true measure of quality – it will not only solve the problem at hand, but also add an aesthetic dimension beyond the pragmatic issues.

Another example is the Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson who has said Art asks questions, while design only gives answers. Although his views on design in general are bleak to say the least I find this rather comforting. It is within these constraints, as a graphic designer, I work.

But can contemporary artists work intimately as designers do, with big corporations and still ask relevant questions? Rarely I think, but artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingmar Dragsets Prada boutique in the desert could still be a fascinating example of collaboration.

So if art can be anything, why is it then necessary to be associated with it? Be proud of what You do and do your damn best, and surely that old beauty will take care of itself.


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