Design Isn’t Art. Critique Accordingly.

Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain”, 1917.

Octogenarian design legend Milton Glaser recently spoke at the Guggenheim museum, articulating the distinction between the almost universally misunderstood fields of art and design. He said:

“Design is the process of going from an existing condition to a preferred one. Observe that there’s no relationship to art.”

Just as a mathematician works out equations on a blackboard, designers frequently sketch and draw their ideas onto paper. Perhaps because artists and designers use these similar tools and methods — pens, paper, color swatches — we often confuse their two very separate roles.

In using a pen, an artist’s job is to create something that connects her and the viewer. With her pen, she can build a bridge between two different human experiences. For the designer, the pen is a way way to plan and visualize creative solutions: for a logo, a poster, a chair, a website. For a designer, the pen is a problem-solving tool, not a tool of self expression. In describing the role of art, Seth Godin writes:

“Art is the work of a human, an individual seeking to make a statement, to cause a reaction, to connect. Art is something new, every time, and art might not work, precisely because it’s new, because it’s human and because it seeks to connect.”
Art directs attention inward, towards examining the artist, the intentions, the references, the context. Design should direct attention outward at the problem it’s addressing and the solutions.

Art directs it’s attention inward. It says, “Look at me! Think About Me! What do I mean you? Have you seen me before? Have you seen anything like me? Do you feel less alone now that I am here?”

Design directs it’s attention outward, saying “Look at me! But not for too long! I’m just here to help get you where you need to go.” Art needs to be noticed, to be thought through, to bother and to agitate. Design needs to be quiet, unobservable, and to delight.

Ron Brenner, “Anthro-Apologies”, 1970–1980

In critiquing art, the viewer’s primary concern should be “Has the artist worked effectively to express something?” In critiquing design, the users primary concern should be “Has the designer worked effectively to solve a problem?” Of course, in product design, success often requires visual appeal. The most energy efficient, quiet, space-conscious refrigerator would be a bust if it looked like a metal coffin. Therefore, design critique requires evaluating the visual components inasmuch as they relate to the practical and financial success of the solution. To win hearts and minds, good products need be both functional and beautiful. But the overall question, especially when critiquing the aesthetic components of a product, should remain “Does this solve a problem? Does this make it better?”

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