Drawing The Line Between Art and Design

There is a lot in common between art and design, but they’re not the same. At times, the lines between the two disciplines become blurred, but the distinctions remain and are important to understand. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, art and design were blended in beauty, purpose and craftsmanship. During that era, the two disciplines separated. Design remained practical and commercial while art for art’s sake allowed for the pursuit of creative expression as a singular goal and took off in another direction.

Despite their differences, we need to acknowledge what these two disciplines have in common:

  • They’re both visual and belong to the broader category of visual art.
  • They both incorporate the aesthetic principles.
  • Practitioners in both fields need knowledge of history, past movements and current trends.
  • Both are highly creative activities involving processes that require time, observation and thinking.

The dividing line between art and design is drawn by the purpose of each:

  • Art allows for self-expression. The artist decides what he or she wants to evoke and works toward that end. It is self-satisfying.
    Design is communication and function in visual form, created for the general population or a segment of it. Design addresses stated needs and solves problems.
  • Art can rely entirely on aesthetics alone, and artists embark on journeys of exploration and experimentation. Design marries aesthetics with function to achieve a purpose.
  • Art is open to interpretation by the viewer.
    Design cannot be interpretive but must communicate specifically and clearly to its intended audience.
  • Art is elitist, meaning that it is viewed in galleries and museums, exhibited away from the mainstream of everyday experience. One looks at art and may or may not have a significant experience.
    Design is seen and experienced by just about everyone in the course of a day. One uses design. Web sites, packaging, billboards, print advertising, newspaper layouts, fashion, signage, interior spaces, smart phone apps, products and appliances all have been designed for both visual appeal and practical use.
  • Art exists for itself. It’s innovative, expressive and sometimes shocking.
    Design is practical and carefully crafted. It supports business, commerce, marketing, entertainment, journalism, communications and causes.
  • Artists stand in front of their work and get to put their signatures on it in plain view. Designers stand behind their work and remain unknown for the most part.

Most people can name half a dozen artists off the top of their heads. Most cannot name half a dozen designers – with the possible exception of fashion designers. (Quickly, and without Googling or Binging – who created the CBS logo? Who designed the type face used in the London Underground signs?) Yet design carries far more weight and influence in our time and throughout history than fine art. Most people don’t make the connection that the bag of chips they’re consuming was designed by someone, or that it’s by design that cola and root beer products have different color schemes.

Design’s value is in how it serves

Design involves specific criteria, research and study, along with extreme creativity. Where an artist can begin with a blank canvas and creatively pursue a serendipitous route to an end result, a designer begins with a set of criterion and creates within specific boundaries all the way from concept through completion. Design is not decoration, and designers do not seek to express their own points of view but to accurately represent who or what they’re designing for. Design influences and persuades in the domain of popular culture. It is created for the masses and will always have a commercial purpose.

Why is it important to understand these differences? Simply because they’re not the same. We experience and value them differently. We treat artists and designers differently.

Art is something we go to see at the Getty Center or the Guggenheim, form opinions about and compartmentalize the experience as being uplifting or at least interesting. And then we go home. Art requires people to come to it, and its value lies in that people leave their everyday lives and go look and be inspired or shocked. Art is a getaway – a time for contemplation and being away from the ordinary.

Design’s value is in how it serves the community, the marketplace and the enterprises it represents in our commonplace, ordinary living. It comes to us daily at the grocery store, along roads, in books, at work, at play, when dining out, when doing our taxes. Everyday we use a plethora of things that were designed.

There are artists who design and designers who create art. If we attempt to say that one discipline is better than the other, keep in mind that they’re both necessary and worthy. There is a clear line between the two. The point is that we don’t confuse them, but value each one in its own right. Clients should not treat their designers as if they were artists, nor should artists be required to adhere to particular constraints.

When was the last time you went to an art exhibition? How have you experienced design today?

Alvalyn Lundgren

Alvalyn Lundgren is the founder and design director at Alvalyn Creative, an independent practice near Thousand Oaks, California. She creates visual branding, publications and books for business, entrepreneurs and authors. She is the creator of Freelance Road Trip — a business roadmap program for creative freelancers. Contact her for your visual branding, graphic and digital design needs. Join her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and subscribe to her free monthly newsletter.

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Well written, without being overly subjective. I have read other articles that are unclear regarding this topic. I work as an industrial designer, and I also paint and sale portraits as an artist. To me there is a clear difference between both disciplines, but it’s just my humble opinion.

    Thank you for your article.

  2. Well written, without being overly subjective. I have read other articles that are unclear regarding this topic. I work as an industrial designer, and I also paint and sale portraits as an artist. To me there is a clear difference between both disciplines, but it’s just my humble opinion.

    Thank you for your article.

    1. Thank you for reading and giving feedback. I’m glad you found value my article.

  3. I enjoyed reading this, however I don’t think it can not truly be black and white.
    I exist in the inbetween. Trained as a designer, but raised as an artist. There are artists who exist as both designer and artist and vice versa.

    Take Ollafur Elliason, he is an Artist, however his practice merges between architecture and art. Or Raumlabor- are they artists or designers? What about experiential design?
    Design is inquisitive and can seek to look at the world in the way that artists do. Art also serves the community and is not only for white gallery walls. Some social experiments have entered the world simply as an idea and developed from experiment – artwork – social service (Postsecret).

    If someone needs to differentiate these two fields for their professional career especially if they have clients who need clear boundaries then that is their own prerogative.
    But let the lines blur! There are careers that don’t yet exist yet. Lets not keep people in their boxes.

  4. Thank you for your comments, Maddy. You make a good point. Designers often create art, and vice versa. Lines may be blurred.

    But when we look at the entirety of design, from visual communication to industrial design, there is a distinction between purposes of self-service and service to others. Design separates from fine art in its purpose. It’s not that we are drawing specific lines between disciplines. It is that purpose itself makes the distinction, and we simply acknowledge it.

    Duchamp’s Fountain is a clear example of taking a designed, functional object and elevating it to fine art. Of course, he was a Dadaist and his purpose what to poke fun and question art. But how did that serve people? The urinal was removed from its intended purpose.

    My point is to help people understand that one’s approach to creating design involves more than simply being creative. I find that student often rail against the rigors of design education because they go into it expecting that it’s creative and fun, and not work. Clients do the same thing, and often devalue the worth of a designer because they consider design to be art.

    If a designer approaches a project from the point of view of an artist, the client may not be served well.

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