Art vs. Graphic Design: The Debate Rages On

Art vs. Graphic Design: The Debate Rages On

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.

What’s your take on the graphic design and art debate?

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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(11) responses


July 5, 2013

I think you explained this really well, and I totally agree. I wrote an article on this topic recently, too:


Karen Walters

August 7, 2013

I always thought that art doesn’t have to have a purpose and design does….but in my opinion in a real world situation as long as the intended message is put across then really it is what it is.



August 15, 2013

I think what it boils down to is that Art is expression and Design is communication.


    Wes McDowell

    August 15, 2013

    Well said!



May 10, 2014

Though you give many amazing points to how it makes you feel.

You still need to be creative and intuitive to be a graphic designer. Which in the end, point blank, is what art should be.

People believe graffiti is art, music, etc. So saying that design is communication so is any other style of art. You paint a tree to show the feelings you capture by this tree. You draw a beautiful lady with a pencil to capture the beauty and the realism of her. Music has lyrics much the way some designs have words. So if this is your main focus all of your comparisons fall short.

Can we also maybe go to any search engine and look at some of the Graphic Design art. Not all is so cut dry. It is very creative and artistic. Also in the end there is no one person who can say which is right and wrong.

Just because most people think of a graphic design image as an ad in a magazine next to an abstract painting does not meaning that is the only single creativity style.


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Sally Maltby

March 15, 2015

I’ve just had my paintings described as graphic and nicely coloured – I read it as a compliment and now realise it was an insult!



April 21, 2015

Great points, thanks so much for this article!


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May 8, 2016

What Laura said… “art is expression and design is communication” is about the best difference between art and graphic design from what I read above. I think part of the issue is that many graphic designers are actually artists who simply need a practical application for the artistic & creative talent they have. They want to create art, but need to pay bills too. Art is not always as easy to sell as a hand drawn logo or advertisement for a local business. If an artist can learn design tools, they make excellent graphic designers. Often times, graphic design is visually the same as art. It was just applied to serve a specific purpose. So in reality sometimes art is graphic design and sometimes graphic design becomes art. The talent behind design and art often comes from the same source of creative talent. I don’t believe graphic design is a skill that can be learned. Only the tools can be learned. The talent still comes from a special God given creative gift whether it is applied in fine art or graphic design.

One way to put it is this…. some graphic designers are artists and some graphic designers are designers only. The best graphic designers were artists first.


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