Design is Not Art (And That’s a Good Thing)


When I first started in design I was a very insecure designer. I didn’t yet have much experience and was still very rough around the edges as far as my technique and skills were concerned. It was difficult to feel confident about anything that I was doing.

But even deeper I always seemed to struggle with trying to justify my then nascent profession. When people would ask what I did for a living, I had the tendency to feel embarrassed abut what I was doing, as if design was some kind of field that when people heard about they smiled and nodded and mentally patted you on the head, saying “oh, that’s nice!”

For whatever reason (probably mostly my own security) I desperately wanted to prove to everyone (read: myself) that what I was doing was a legitimate career, that I wasn’t just doodling and lounging around all day. I also wanted to feel like I had a good level of competency and expertise to go along with my self-professed creativity.

I eventually struck upon describing myself as an artist and describing what I was doing as being either artistic or creating works of art. I think in my earlier years I felt that to be an artist somehow had a greater sense of legitimacy to it, or at least for me it evoked a greater sense of creativity. I wanted to feel like I was continuously breathing in the rarified air of creativity, even though most of the time I felt like a hack struggling to slog through less grandiose projects.

After all, to be an artist does evoke a certain notion of a creative creature, someone who seems in tune with their muse and draws forth works of art from deep within themselves, affixing a piece of their soul to canvas or pixels. If you are in a creative field, of course you want that feeling, since it reaches down to the core of why you even bother to work in this field at all.

Over the years I’ve had the opportunities to grow greatly in my field, both in confidence and (hopefully!) in skill and technique. I’ve also been able to write a lot of articles and blog posts about art and design, and I’ve noticed that I tend to use those terms interchangeably. And to be sure, there is no doubt a fair amount of overlap between the two.

But over the past few years I have come to largely eschew that conflation of terms, opting to see art and design as related but separate things. Concomitant with that I have also come to see myself defined not as an artist, but rather defined by the things that I actually do. I create illustrations, and in this in that sense I am an illustrator; I create animations and I am an animator. But probably above all (and inclusive of those things) I am a designer, and I think I’ve finally come to see that this is not the same as being an artist.

And the best thing is that this is actually a good thing.

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Art (which I am limiting mostly to visual art here) and design are of course very closely related, as each is largely understood by means of its aesthetic approach to the communication of ideas. In this manner they are practically interchangeable. But for the purposes of this essay, I want to focus more on the major distinction, which I will define as follows.

Art in essence is a re-presentation of beauty. Modern man has largely eschewed art by deeming it to be “in the eye of the beholder” and thus beholden principally to one’s subjectivity. But prior generations understood that beauty is not primarily a subjective ideal but an objective one; art attempts to visually express the beautiful in one manner or another, and the fidelity with which it creates this expression is largely determinate of if it is “good” or “bad” as art.

Art is thus attempting to capture an aspect of the beautiful within the art itself, and thus its expression of an idea is largely self-contained. This does not mean that the meaning of a work of art is exhausted in what it can depict visually, but rather that a work of art references that meaning by means of itself and what it visually depicts.

In a more simplified sense, a work of art is primarily about itself and the idea is re-presents (which it attempts to synthesize visually), and that “about-ness” remains in the work of art.

As an example, a religious icon of Christ Pantocrator certainly has this particular notion of Christ as its “end.” But the medium through which this idea is conveyed is contained in the work of art and remains there. The “about-ness” that it has is both the notion it represents and the image that it employs to express that notion.

Design, on the other hand, principally has its “about-ness” as something external to itself. It often will represent an idea in a similar visual manner as a work of art, but the intent of its visual engagement is to move the viewer onto something beyond itself. Its meaning is contained in the thing about which it is about, and its end is to move the viewer beyond itself.

In a more simplified sense, a work of design is primarily about something else, and the idea it represents principally has meaning external to it as a design.

Continuing the example of the icon, imagine that there was a viewing of icons scheduled for a certain time or a time of prayer employing icons and that one was to design something to let others know about this event. One might very well use the very same works of art as part of the design, but in this case the design would not be mistaken for a work of art since its purpose is to actually convey an idea outside of itself.

In these examples it is perhaps easier to see the distinction I am tying to draw between art and design. And while there is still a fair amount of overlap, I think there may be some further important distinctions to draw and generalities to uncover.

Art as a re-presentation of beauty is thus meant to be enjoyed in and of itself. While the meaning of a work of art does not necessarily end with itself, it is necessarily contained within it to varying degrees. In this manner art is especially pertinent to the act of contemplation. It takes a concrete image (even if the imagery itself is abstract) and allows the mind to form abstractions from the concrete image. This is how we intuit emotion (as an example) from an image; we take a concrete form and abstract it from its visual presentation to create connections to experience and even perceive universals.

Design as having its “about-ness” external to itself is not primarily meant to be enjoyed in and of itself (although this is certainly a possibility). Instead, its end is to lead the mind to what the design is about. This will often take the form of propositional information; there is this thing happening, this event will take place at this time, etc. In this sense the visuals are not intended primarily as a form of contemplation but rather as a form of persuasion; the total effect of the design is to compel action of one sort or another, even if that action is completely intellectual in nature.

As an example, the Book of Kells is a wonderfully illustrated version of the four gospels. The artistry is truly breathtaking, and as something to aid in the contemplation of the meaning of the Gospels it would be difficult to imagine a more compelling means. The heart almost cannot help but be moved by the beauty contained within.

However, for all of its beauty it is a very difficult book to read as far as the actual practicality of legibility and layout design are concerned. If one wished to make a detailed study of the Gospels, the Book of Kells would perhaps not be the easiest or best choice for this exercise. However, a well-designed and laid-out version of the Gospels which presented the text in a clear, organized and eminently readable form would be a much better and more practical choice.

At this point it would of course be tempting to put one form of reading against the other, as if one is superior to the other. However, such a false choice would not only be unfortunate, but also potentially quasi-gnostic in respect to elevating one aspect of human nature over the other.

In our natures we are both body and mind, the two are conjoined to function as (and truly be) one whole being. To speak of a body without a mind is to speak of a zombie, and to speak of a mind without a body is a ghost, neither of which is a human being. We are as much drawn to beauty in our hearts as we are with our minds, and thus one might easily see that there need be no dichotomy, but rather that art and design can function almost as two lungs breathing together,

It was at this point that I used to trip up, for while I valued the intellectual aspect of design, I wanted to soar in what I thought to be the more rarefied air of art. I created a needless division when I should have been working towards a marriage.

Art and design both have important parts to play, and it ultimately does a disservice to both if we conflate them and do not value each for its particular strengths, for we need to be engaged in our hearts just as much as in our minds.

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Thus I have come to proudly see myself as a designer, rather than an artist. To be sure, there is a certain amount of “artistry” to what I do, and I am always attempting to create beautiful things as far as I am able. But realizing that the purpose of design is distinct from that of art has been an extremely freeing experience.

In the past I would evaluate what I was creating solely on the basis of its visual impact in and of itself. In fact, I often sacrificed the “design” part of the design for the sake of what I thought was the “artistic” part, and the truth more often than not is that it probably ended up being neither good art nor good design.

But once I realized that design was not art, it helped me to create better designs and- paradoxically- to be able to do so with far more artistry. Instead of seeing it though the lens of art and its end, I began to understand that design is about something outside of itself; if it cannot function in creating persuasion that induces action, it has essentially failed as a design, no matter how great the artwork.

Now I am able to approach design more holistically. I can ask questions of the work that cut to the core of what it is for, who it is meant to reach, what sort of message it is meant to convey.

That sort of thing is no less important than a work of art, because design is not art, and that’s a good thing.

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