Art vs. Graphic Design: The Debate Rages On
- Elise Leveque
- July 3, 2013
The debate as to whether design (or graphic design) can truly be classified as art in the literal sense has raged on for years. It’s a complex and rather convoluted argument to have, as both designers and artists create their own visual interpretations and compositions with the skills and knowledge set they have. Their reasons and motivations for engaging in those artistic acts, however, are total polar opposites.
It’s also an interesting paradox that, whilst many designers consider themselves artists, few artists would classify themselves as designers. It’s a cross-over that applies more readily and enthusiastically to one group but not the other.
So, we have to ask the inevitable question: what is the difference between art and design? The only way to do that is to understand the primary principles and underlying techniques of each craft.
Inspirational Art Versus Motivational Design
It’s reasonably fair to say that the fundamental difference the majority of people agree on between art and design is their purpose. True, every artist is confronted with that tabula rasa moment, when the blank canvas presents them with the inescapable inevitability that a burst of creativity will follow.
An artist’s primary motivation is to create an intellectual and/or emotional bond between their work and the viewer. The designer’s modus operandi is ostensibly very different – to convey an idea or message. A designer’s talents go not so much into creating something that conveys an artistically emotional or visceral resonance, but to communicate ideas that already exist and are tailored to a particular purpose.
In this case, the designer’s purpose is to entice the audience to buy a product, use a service, or visit a location – based on the spec of a specific client. It’s this interaction between visual communication and how it relates to the consumer that differentiates the graphic designer from the conventional artist.
Art Is Interpreted, Design Is Understood
A key difference between the pragmatic functions of art and design is how the messages of each are interpreted by their specific audiences and demographic.
An artist will generally create a work with the intention of conveying a viewpoint, emotion, state of mind, or visceral feeling – but their work generally can’t be restricted to conveying one particular thought or one particular meaning. In other words, an artist’s creations are open to interpretation and may evoke a myriad of meaning to a variety of people. It connects to people differently because it’s interpreted differently.
Perhaps one of the best examples of this can be related to the enigmatic and ambiguous smile of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Why is she smiling? Or, for that matter, is she actually smiling at all? Some scientists have posited the notion that the supposed smile is an illusion manufactured by the sight’s peripheral vision. The romantic ideal is that she’s smiling because she’s in love. The sceptic’s view is that there’s no reason for her smile. Two different interpretations, neither of them wrong.
On the exact opposite side of the spectrum, it’s often been said that if any kind of graphic design can be ‘interpreted’ in any way, it’s failed in its purpose. An effective piece of design should communicate a specific message and motivate the spectator to do something. Graphic design should have a very specific intent – there should be no room for multiple meanings or mixed messages; it should be understood immediately by the viewer.
Art Is A Taste, Design Is An Opinion
Perhaps a good example to encapsulate the ‘art is judged by opinion, which is governed by taste’ debate is Tracey Emin’s piece “My Bed”. Shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1999, for some people it’s a creation at the height of artistic freedom and expression. A more traditional and conservative-minded art enthusiast, however, might consider it an insult to the word ‘art’ and an unsightly blot on the art world.
Again, it’s all about interpretation – yet taste relates more to people likes and dislikes than any particular message they might take away from a piece. There is an element of taste intrinsic to design, yet an effective piece of design can work even if it’s not to your taste. If it accomplishes its artistic objectives – being understood, conveying an impetus for motivation – that’s success; whether it’s good or not is purely a matter of opinion.
Good Art Is A Talent, Good Design Is A Skill
If someone has any discernible talent in art, it’s generally down to an innate and natural ability. Art can be taught, but those who flourish in it do so more often than not from a natural gift and propensity for instinctive artistic talent. In that sense, an artistic temperament is down to the artistic skills and abilities they’re born with. And skill without talent probably won’t get you very far.
Design, on the other hand, is a skill that is not taught but learned. Arguably, you don’t need to be a great artist to be a great designer: you simply need to achieve the objectives of a particular client and design spec. Many of the world’s most well renowned designers are recognised for their minimalist styles. There’s a limited amount of texture and colour, but they focus very intently on spacing, position, and size – and all those things can be learned without any innate talent.
Art Sends A Different Message, Design Sends The Same Message
This is a point that connects the concepts of interpretation and understanding. As I touched on earlier, lots of designers consider themselves artists because they create things which are visually attractive.
However, I’d argue that a visual construct which has been created with the main purpose of communicating a very specific message or intrinsic visual construct – leading the spectator down a very precise and explicit path – is not art. No matter how beautiful it is, graphic design in this sense serves only the sole precept of disseminating one idea, providing a window or cypher to a very rigid message.
Very few – if any – artists call themselves designers because they distinguish the fundamental and aesthetic differences. On the whole, artists don’t create a piece of work in order to promote a service or sell a product. Their output is more intuitive, emotional, intellectual and organic than that.
For an artist, creating a work is a means of personal validation and inherent self-expression – to be viewed, analysed, discussed, appreciated and interpreted in an infinite number of ways.
Despite all this, however, in my mind graphic art is art – just a different kind of art, with a different set of aesthetic values, artistic interpretations and ways of appreciating it. It performs a different function and purpose without doubt, but it possesses a certain artistic merit that, whilst not in the same league as the Renaissance masters, Expressionism or Minimalism, still requires an artistic eye and skill to do it.
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Image by University Salford
Elise Leveque is a freelance translator with a passion for design, social media and art. She blogs for Art Gallery. She can be reached at @Elise_GKBCinc
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