Welcome to ø; this is the navigation


...and this is the crux. Enjoy.

Towards Designer-Artistry: Misconceptions on the art-design relationship

It’s on a post-it stuck somewhere above my desk, but the Webdesigner Depot beat me to it:  starting a discussion on the relationship between art and design.  To be more accurate, the article addresses the differences between the two.  While I greatly appreciate the topic being tackled, I have some concerns about the points raised.

There is a general tendency in the way we speak about art to rely on rather traditional and outdated conceptions of what art is, what the artistic/creative process looks like and what the artist’s intentions must be.   These notions obscure art’s contemporary being and deny its multiplicity as well as its present social function(ing)s.  Long gone are the days of exclusive “l’art pour l’art” (admittedly, they were rather short), “art with no purpose”, the “creative genius” and the aversion of commercial motivations.  These misconceptions need to be redressed before we can tackle the art vs. design debate.

Correcting misconceptions

The most important realization that needs to be made is that the artist is not a lonesome genius. Artists do not work in a hermetically sealed bubble, but are part of a larger system that greatly influences their output (see Art Worlds by Becker for the ultimate source).  This means that artists do not necessarily start with a blank canvas, and they do not escape the tenacious grip of rules, conventions and expectations.

But they can break free, which might be the difference with the designer as a professional.   Designers are more readily seen as part of an industry, in which the typical assignment includes a rough blueprint of the product-to-be.  Designers work along specifications imposed by other parts of the industry, the clients, the programmers, the engineers, the distributors, etc.

An artist is as much subject to various influences and restrictions from the industry, but might still be able to break out of box.  This all, it is not to be forgotten, at risk of scorn and poverty.  The power of cultural institutions and their input in what we nowadays label as art should never be underestimated.

This brings me to the second point: education.  The artist is not born an artist.  She is born with the potential of becoming one.  The same I believe is true for the designer, as well as any other creative profession.  Both need to be trained in some way for them to reach artistic and intellectual maturity, to tap into that inborn potential.  And I doubt that anyone without that inherent aesthetic/designer eye will ever become a great designer, no matter how much training they have undergone.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see that the greatest (even minimalist) designers have an intuitive understanding and a synthetic approach to their designs.

In other words, becoming a successful designer or a well-acclaimed artist requires not only a predisposition, but also work.  And lots of it.

Finally, let me quote a passage that I found particularly striking:

“But a visual composition intended to accomplish a specific task or communicate a particular message, no matter how beautiful, is not art. It is a form of communication, simply a window to the message it contains.” (Webdesigner Depot)

Art is not just beautiful, or just personal, or just subjective.  Art is a medium of communication, a prime vehicle of ideas.  In fact, the “affliction” of modern and contemporary art is precisely that it has ceased to aim for aesthetic pleasure and has become a research tool. Many contemporary artists work in order to convey a message, to explore technology, to push the boundaries of our understandings of the human being and its environment. In other words, artworks do not need to be emotional, personal products of the artist any further than conveying a common humanity.

On intention and meaning

Given these premises, I clearly have doubts about a lot of points raised in the Webdesigner Depot article.  I could go on and pin down every one of them, but such work (unless requested) is futile.  Especially because I do think that the article addresses some issues accurately ­– that of meaning and intent.

Yes, art must be interpreted and yes design fails when it is not understood intuitively by the user.  This is, I believe the fundamental difference: user-experience.  An artwork about the dangers of deforestation will be completely different from a design meant to inform its audience about ecological calamities.  The artwork might end up as a complex and innovative creation that requires perhaps more than one viewing to fully understand the message it is trying to convey.

Good design, on the other hand, is at the service of information: it caters to the necessity of the audience and the information to understand and be understood.  It is effective, clean and attractive.  The design of design is to find the shortest route between your information and your audience.

Towards designer-artistry

My question is, why are we comparing art and design at all?  Probably because some designers decided to call themselves artists, and critics had no clue what to do about it except second-guess the status of art.

Well, maybe we should second-guess the definition of design.  Design has largely been equaled to aesthetic perfection, as art had been in the past.  Considering the goal of good design, should aesthetic pleasure truly be its foremost quality?  I would rather consider that design concerns the correct channeling of the user through a solid structure of information.  The fact that this relies partly on aesthetic considerations should not be made more prevalent that the reason for these considerations.

On the other side of the looking glass, Ramachandran claims, in the excellent “The neurological basis of artistic universals”, that even art does not escape to rather calculative decisions based on advantages on a neurological level.  He does a much better job defending his theory than I ever could, and I suggest you refer to his article.  The point I want us to remember is that there seems to be at least a little bit of design principles implemented in art, making them more facets of each other instead of opposing categories.

Where does this lead us?  Probably not to a resolution of the art vs. design debate.  However, it does open doors for the acceptance of designer-artists and artist-designers.  Taking the best of the two worlds (effective communication and aesthetic complexity to convey intricate messages) might give rise to a whole new generation of “creative-workmen” who work across the boundaries of design and art.  Such an evolution might be advantageous and even necessary in a world that increasingly relies on the visual and the conceptual to convey meaning accurately and swiftly.

How about it?

This message was brought to you by...  Aske Bos. Passionate about all things visual, she posts mostly about film, photography, other visual arts and design. She believes interesting understandings of the visual can be achieved in combination with philosophical and psychoanalytical theories. She loves it so much that she is currently studying Film Aesthetics at Oxford. To learn more about Aske, have a look at her info page!


There are 5 responses to this article so far!

  1. Hi Aske,
    Thanks for the write up, it’s the author of the WDD article here :)

    “Art is not just beautiful, or just personal, or just subjective. Art is a medium of communication, a prime vehicle of ideas.”

    I think that maybe we got our wires crossed here, and in several other places by my own liberal use of the word “message”.

    “But a visual composition intended to accomplish a specific task or communicate a particular message, no matter how beautiful, is not art. It is a form of communication, simply a window to the message it contains.”

    I this instance I am referring to a sales or marketing message. Something that is promoting a product, service, person, place, or object in the interest of financial or personal gain.

    Of course Art contains its own messages, and many of them are political, religious, or ideological – but these messages are the feelings and statements that the artist is sharing with the world. There is no call to action, or “buy now” button with art.

    I certainly agree with you that there are some overlaps – but the point of the article was to convey the differences in principle, to offer a broader understanding of the very reasons why they have two different names, and are not both simple called “art” or “design”.

    Thanks again for taking the time to put together such a well written follow-up post!


    JohnONolanNo Gravatar at 19:11 on September 22nd, 2009.
  2. Hi John,

    First of all, thanks for taking the time to read this! It’s great to receive your feedback. Thanks also for the clarification, I seem to have taken your wording too literally. In fact, with your “buy now” example, I think I get your point on inspiration and motivation, as well as opinion and taste better.
    I still think the commercial drives behind art and design are often similar (after all, art is often produced for consumption), but the commercial message within the works themselves certainly differ. While the artwork is selling itself, design sells the product it presents.

    Another small point: we are seeing, however, that also art is moving towards social calls to action. While less to-the-point than informative design, it aims at touching the human being in an alternative way and hopefully stirring enough to induce action. Of course, this is a rather idealistic take on art and certainly not true for most of it. But maybe this kind is precisely the kind that will most lend aspects of the design to get the message across.

    Thanks again for your time and response!

    AskeNo Gravatar at 20:41 on September 22nd, 2009.
  3. ‘Taking the best of the two worlds [...] might give rise to a whole new generation of “creative-workmen” who work across the boundaries of design and art.’

    I think the reason we are discussing this at all is that the above has already happened.

    Artists always had ‘design principles’, such as composition among their skills. Often artists, and I suspect commercially successful ones in particular, are designers with an emotional agenda. On the other hand it’s well known that some old Masters, working on commission, did not particularly like or were emotionally involved in the work they produced, so possibly many artworks revered in our galleries should be demoted to the status of design work…

    Of course designers on occasion can be emotionally involved in what they do, and although following a more prosaic agenda, produce something that speaks to the viewers in more than one way, conveying the intended message but also touching their emotions.

    All in all it seems that art vs design is really, as you suggest, and it always has been, a continuum rather than a dichotomy.

    Gab ScaliNo Gravatar at 15:15 on July 3rd, 2010.
  4. Hi Aske,
    following up on the above, for a designer who is deeply emotionally involved in their work, check


    What’s best is that her very unorthodox way of designing ‘with an artist mind’ has been very successful. A sign of changing times.

    Hope you find it interesting,

    Gab ScaliNo Gravatar at 19:06 on July 8th, 2010.
  5. Hi Gab,
    Thanks for your thoughts and the TED video! It’s a great talk, and I’m happy TED decided to host it.
    It is indeed a sign of changing times, and the more you look around the more you find designers subverting notions and dogmas.

    Thanks again!

    AskeNo Gravatar at 10:34 on July 20th, 2010.

Comment on this article

Copyright 2009 Ø

Subscribe to us:

Proud fans of:
Wordpress We support Firefox