From Fine Arts to Design: A Chat Over The Safe Space Project

Art vs. Design — an old, but also a timeless topic

“Hi, I’m Emily. I’m an artist turned designer.” — I often introduced myself this way. Here are some of the most common questions I’ve heard in regards to that statement:

  1. How did that happen? What was the turning point?
  2. How did you know when you are creating work as an artist or not?
  3. When will you position yourself as a designer instead of an artist?

Art vs. Design is one of those endless, timeless, and multifaceted topics. Everything presented here is my personal thought. I’m not trying to give a definition to either of these terms nor to draw a separating line between art and design. Everyone’s experience is different and thus can result in a different point of view. I hope this post will inspire meaningful conversations rather than debates.

Design is not Art?

This question alone could generate endless answers. Personally, the starting point, or the intention, of a project is a crucial factor. If I am trying to communicate a feeling, a story, a question, or an observation in a visual way, that’s when I know I am creating work as an artist. Art intends to express something. But if I am trying to use visual and creative elements to solve a problem or to reach a measurable goal, then I would position myself as a designer. For design solves problems.

I am going to use one of my personal projects I did a couple of years ago to give you an idea of what I’m talking about. This project is called “Safe Space,” and it involves both the fine art aspect and the graphic design aspect.

The Safe Space Art Project

What’s the Story?

It begins with a nightmare.

It begins with a terrifying dream where I kept falling and falling into endless space with repeated patterns. I had no control over anything. I just kept falling.

Inspired by Yayoi Kusama’s work, where she heals and confronts her fear by filling the entire space with polka dots until everything melted together, I took the same concept with the intention to turned this nightmare into an immersive experience.

“My art originates from hallucinations only I can see. I translate the hallucinations and obsessional images that plague me into sculptures and paintings. ” — Yayoi Kusama

So a dream with vivid imageries falls from memory unto a piece of paper, spreads to the entire workspace, and finally installed and displayed at the art building lounge.

Are You Asking Me ‘What’s the Point’?

“The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” — Pablo Picasso

How did I feel after completing this installation? Satisfied.

It was not perfect. There were things I could have done differently. But, to be honest, those imperfections did not affect me that much. What was important was knowing that I had created a visual experience out of that space.

I also love to see how people react to my artwork. Some smiled as they sat on one of those “bean bags,” some looked surprised, some smiled, some seemed confused…does not matter. Just the fact that they looked at my work and had some reaction was more than enough. Some part of me had become this artwork, thus my goal is accomplished.

“Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.” — Andy Warhol

Allow me to put it in this way: Art creates an experience, expresses a message, and/or provokes a conversation. How about design? For a good design, it may not be enough to merely be an expression. Good design meets a certain demand and solves a specific problem.

Designing for Safe Space Project

Now with my artwork done and installed, I have some “advertisements” to make. You probably can tell just by that sentence, my intention for the following works was drastically different. This, my friend, is where “design” begins.

“Recognizing the need is the primary condition for design.” — Charles Eames

With art, the starting point is more internal. What do I want to express? What am I feeling? How can I experiment? What do I want to say? What experience can I create? Why do I want to create this?

With design, the starting point it more external. Who are the audiences? What is the problem that I am solving? How can I bridge the gap between the viewers and the artwork? How do I grab their attention? What is the goal? How can I measure success? How can I use design to enhance the artwork?

I thought this quote is quite true in most cases:

“Art is for artists, design is for people”

A Design Process

When there is a specific challenge that you would like to solve, there will be a process, or steps, to ensure that you can reach your goals. The design process can be another discussion topic of its own. Here I am just going to briefly list out some of the steps I took for this project:

Final Thoughts

Of course, this is just a very brief, and somewhat on-the-surface, talk about my experience with art and design in the context of a personal project. I’m still on this journey of learning and exploring.

To briefly answer the questions from the very beginning:

  1. The turning point from being an artist to a designer is when I turned my focus from expressing myself to solving other people’s problems.
  2. When I’m creating to express my own imaginations, thoughts, and emotions, I would say I am the artist of this work.
  3. When I’m using visual elements, methods, and research to define and solve a challenge, I would be crafting a visual solution as a designer.

Can I paint like a designer and design like an artist? I believe so! Did I apply the design process in my artwork and my fine art skills in my design? Yes! But I’m going to stop here, otherwise, this post will never end.

Hope you enjoyed reading, and I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts and stories!




A UX Designer, a Visual Storyteller, and a Dark Roast Coffee with Almond Milk Drinker

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