Design v. Art

People oftentimes contrast design with art, as, for example, seen in this post currently making the rounds on Medium. I don’t agree with the author’s commentary on art, but the points on design are good. Still, there is one very important idea missing from the discussion, and it is this: design, in the sense of the products around us, or design in the sense of our work, is never just design – it is an application of the principles of design in conjunction with art.

To put it another way: there is no such thing as design by itself, but rather, there is architecture, typography, industrial design, interior design, tailoring, software design, web design, and so on, and in almost every field of applied design, the purely functional component we call design is coupled together with the expressive component we call art.

Architecture is the clearest example of this principle. A building made purely for shelter is created by engineers and builders, not by architects. Architecture elevates basic shelter by injecting it with beauty and symbolism, it transforms an edifice from a set of walls to a construction that communicates its function, that displays relics of its culture and delights the passers by.

The component of art in any field of design may be extremely limited, simple and primitive, expressing itself only in a few lines or the selection of color, done subconsciously as the designer’s creativity and character manifests itself in their work, or it may be rich, powerful and intentional, featuring decorative components that are complete works of art in their own right.

Yes, in places the art may be eliminated altogether, the work becoming a form of engineering, but in the majority of fields where the end product is to be seen and used by human hands, the art is the necessary element that embodies it with the spirit of its makers, giving the designer an outlet for creative release and the user a work that is elevated beyond its primary function by means of cultural symbolism and beauty.

Historically, the modern divide between artists and designers did not exist. There was no such thing as a designer. Think of it as a creative scale: the builders on the left, craftsmen in the center and artists on the right.

the creative scale

The more skilled and creative you are, the less manual work you get to do, focusing on the design and art of a thing rather than its implementation. But there was no dichotomy between art and design because such dichotomy does not truly exist. Sculptors and painters created work to decorate buildings, not to showcase it piece by piece in art galleries. The builder, the craftsman and the artist were all be working on the same thing: a building, a piece of furniture, a carpet, a vase, etc. – all products that today fall under the umbrella of “design”.

You can create works that are extremely functional and simultaneously express as much of your own feeling and cultural symbolism as you can, treating them with as much beautiful decorations as your abilities allow you to. If one suffers because of the other it is not because they are diametrically opposed, but because you have failed to reconcile them, sacrificing function for form, or form for function. Designers of all kinds know well the struggles of having to synthesize various features and requirements – the art is yet one more thing in the mix, perhaps of the greatest importance, though rarely consciously thought through.

September 2013