Design is not Art
Goran Peuc

Photo by Mike Wilson

Design is not art. But the two have a lot in common

(In response to and thanks to Goran Peuc)

Design isn’t art. Design follows function while art follows form. Design strives to be unanimous while art leaves a lot to interpretation. Design and art pursue different goals, and there really is a wide, colossal, gap between the two.

However, design and art also have a lot in common, and they often coexist within a particular piece, be it a product or a piece of art. Web design is one of the niches where the line between the two becomes blurred. Compare this website template, this website, and this web project:

Design | Design + Art | Art?

The first one is clearly design. Projects of this type are functional, unanimous in terms of user experience, and they have a specific target audience in mind. On the other side of the spectrum, there are creative art-like projects like the Time Color by Hitmo. Time Color doesn’t seem to serve any purpose, it is interpretative, and anything but functional.

Now, how about the second example? It’s expressive yet audience-centric, and functional yet far from unanimous. I guess the reason why it is difficult to characterize this project as art or design is because it takes a bit from both worlds. Besides, design and art actually have more common features, even if you consider the points of differentiation between the two.

Art creates problems. Problems create art.

Sure thing, art can create problems. Officials are upset about Banksy’s “vandalistic” graffitis, and modernist art annoyed traditional-minded folks. Every now and then, artists are in trouble because someone’s offended.

Yet, art isn’t about creating problems. Instead, it communicates problems, and sometimes it exists to do just that.

Banksy’s graffiti. Most of us can relate to this one.

Think about Banksy. Some people call his graffitis acts of vandalism, but it’s not vandalism that matters. What matters is the fact that Banksy’s art forces us to look at the problems we’d rather not think about. And that’s what irks some of us.

In other words, it’s not “oh crap, another graffiti is ruining this otherwise beautiful piece of concrete”. It’s “do I need another reminder of how cynical and hypocritical humans are?”.

Banksy’s art results from problems. In essence, it emerged to tell us there are problems with our society. Similarly, the modernist art emerged to tell the world about the stagnation of the traditionalist mindset. Art brings problems to our attention so that we could start doing something about them.

Art stems from problems, it builds on problems, and it strives to make us resolve problems. But can’t you say the same thing about design?

Problems create design.

Just like good art, good design begins with a problem.

In 1919, Walter Gropius decided the world needed to break away from excessive ornamentation, and he founded Bauhaus. In 1931, Stanley Morison noticed that The Times was using an inefficient century-old typeface and created Times New Roman as a replacement. In 2013, Jonathan Ive saw the redundancy of iOS’s skeuomorphic elements and ditched most of them in favor of flat design.

Times New Roman compared to its predecessor

Unlike art, design deals with problems by offering practical and, often, reusable solutions. Still, the mental processes behind the creation of a piece of art and a design often start from the same point.

Art is exploration. So is design.

Exploration in art results in masterpieces, new genres, and new artistic paradigms. As a process, art depends on the exploration of new mediums, techniques, and themes; it needs exploration to exist and evolve.

When it comes to milestone solutions in design, exploration also plays a crucial role.

Table-based website

Before CSS, web designers explored the presentation capabilities offered by HTML as a medium. They started with using <table> tags differently from their intended purpose. Eventually, further exploration of the problem led to the rise of CSS as a new medium.

Design is observation and iteration. So is art

Designers progress by observing a problem and iterating solutions.

For instance, an observation finds out that websites grow useless if not optimized for mobile. An obvious solution is to use flexible layouts with percentage-based widths. Layouts of this kind look more or less okay on smartphone screens when viewed in the horizontal orientation.

Only 6% of users prefer to hold their phones horizontally.

Further observation demonstrates that people would rather hold their phones vertically when browsing. Designers exploit this insight, iterate, and come up with websites that rearrange their layouts to optimize it for vertical screen orientation. As a result, responsive web design dominates the mobile web.

Art evolves in a similar manner. Artists observe their own lives, the world, society, and the works of other artists to uncover the expressive potential of existing themes, techniques, and mediums. They exploit these findings to alter their own art via iteration.

The artists of the Renaissance observed and exploited the findings of mathematics, anatomy, and other fields in continuous efforts to capture reality. Expressionists, dadaists, cubists, surrealists, and futurists iterated their techniques and approaches to capture and express something internal. Older works of a particular artist often influence their later creations. In a nutshell, a large part of art as a process comes down to observation and iteration.

While there really are a lot of differences between design and art, this doesn’t mean that the two can’t go hand in hand. Just like design, art can be iterative and problem-driven. Just like art, design can be rebellious and disruptive.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that designers should strive to be artists or vice versa. Still, as a consumer of both design and art, I really wish more designers and artists shared this point of view.