Image by Mitch Goldstein and Anne Jordan from walking.designcrit.com

Two Dirty Words

I want to think for a moment about two words — words that have been uttered an infinite number of times, yet we still do not know what they really mean. The “A” word and the “D” word. These words are used to label things so we might understand them better. They are meant to help us clarify what things are, and where they fit in our understanding of all the stuff we are exposed to every day. They are encouraged as an aid to help us navigate our profession and our activities as makers and thinkers.

However, they are also dangerous words. They can be dirty words. They are words that are often used as a method of insult or derision. These words can be as vindictive and as harmful as any racial slur or monosyllabic misogynistic term. They can belittle and separate, they can pull apart and make us turn our backs on each other. They tend to force people to choose a side and team that they play for.

These words are loaded with meanings and connotations that can both help and harm. The “A” word and the “D” word can be as full of respect as they are as full of venom.

The words are, of course, Art and Design.

There is an endless, seemingly constant, conversation about what is art, and what is design. On one hand, they are just words, a few letters, a syllable or two. Simple. Easy. Common. You have said them thousands of times. Yet they hold a talismanic power over us as artists and designers — even in this very sentence I feel like I must use both words to make sure I am including everyone I want to in what I am saying.

We think of these words as inclusive — this is art, that is design. Really, they are exclusive — this is not design, that is not art. I have heard designers dismiss work as “just art” more times than I care to remember. I have also heard artists look at work from designers and say “that’s just design — they did it for someone else.” These words become places to dismiss things, a way to feel better about ignoring something we choose not to think deeper about.

I am not going to try and define these words here. I will not try to define them elsewhere — in fact, I will never try and define them. I suggest that we can all stop trying. Where do these labels get us? Do they help us make better work? Do they further how we think about what we are creating? They do not. They help to cut off avenues of exploration, ways of thinking about what we make. They let us feel better about ignoring some things and caring about others.

The answer to the question of “what is the difference between art and design?” is simply this — it doesn’t matter. When we stop considering where our work fits within the categories of art and design, we can start considering how interesting it is as a thing we created. As an expression of ideas. As a conveyor of meaning, be it clear or obfuscated. As a process of discovering something we did not already know. These words are importantly unimportant — sometimes the words that can most help us move forward are no words at all.