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, fueled by the Beaux Arts movement, 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.


What make design different from art?

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.

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.
  • 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 principal of Alvalyn Creative, an independent consultancy providing brand strategy design and bespoke illustration for more than 30 years. She is the creator of Freelance Road Trip — a business school and podcast for creative freelancers. She teaches design and design practice on the college level with design schools and programs.

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