You can’t just say design is not art

“Design is the process of going from an existing condition to a preferred one, observe that there’s no relationship to art.” — Milton Glaser
“Where there are no bees, there are no flowers. Where there are no flowers, there are no bees. Essentially, they’re one organism.” — Alan Watts

The existing condition

People often call design “art”. There is a common confusion between the two. This is the existing condition.

We (designers) often hear remarks like “aw, you artist, you” and how we draw and make things look pretty. Condescending as it may sound, I think it should be taken with a grain of salt. When it comes to other peoples crafts, we’re all guilty of being a little shortsighted.

And of course, sensitive as we designers are, we took it too seriously. Dang!(Try and tell a designer he’s an artist at your own risk.)

This … sensitivity … ripened in the last years as UI/UX became a staple job in the industry. UI/UX-etiers, more than anyone, are experts in defending designs rationale with words and theory.

“Design is a rational process, full of micro decisions…” and so forth will be your standard design bro reply. They will argue that “you can measure whether a (website’s) design is successful, but you can’t measure art, due to its subjectivity.”

You know what? To all their credit, they are right in a way.

Design in theory is not art. The preferred condition would be to have people understand the distinction. But you can’t just detach art from design. There’s a relationship there that needs to be explained. A relationship, that even Milton Glaser denied, who’s work not only crossed the art border, it moved there and got a green card.

In most articles tackling this issue, i see that all of this comes mainly from misunderstanding art and then consequently … design.

Misconceptions about design and art

Lets look at some of the main “Design is not art” arguments:

1. You can measure designs success, but not the success of art

Of course you can. Not as precisely, but you still can. Art has been an essential part of society since forever and while it’s role may be pivoting, we can’t argue, that it does not have one. Much like design, art is made with a specific contextual purpose. For example, art can make us empathize with humans who don’t have it as good as we do, it can show us political mischiefs with a un-filtered perspective or remind us of the beauty in the “little things”, the list goes on.

Does art not take us from a existing condition to a preferred one, as well?

From not caring to caring. From cheerfully optimistic to gazing into the abyss of your existence. From random web visitor to customer. Oh wait, the last one’s design.

Anyway, let’s say an artwork wants to make you empathise, but fails to do so, because nobody gets it, is that not a ‘unsuccessful artwork’? 0 to 1 is a simple measurement, but a measurement nonetheless.

You may argue with me that not all art is made with a purpose and that it is often a form of self expression and sure, thats true. But thats not all art. Just like not all design is posters and logos.

2. Design is objective, art is subjective

That is just plain not true. Nothing is objective, except the universe in it’s totality (and my love for grandiose statements). Simply including “informed decision making” does not make a design process objective. Every decision is somehow informed. Every decision is also subject to emotions. Subjectiveness seeps through the pores of all events.

Design is subjective both for the creator and spectator.

3. The process is significantly different.

To say that way more rational decisions happened for a design to be made is just plain ignorant. Good artists very well know the purpose of each element they use. They use the same skills of simplifying complex matters into simple ones. They too learned certain techniques in order to achieve what they want.

“Art thinking” is just as acquired a skill as “design thinking”.

Both designer and artist must be aware and empathic to do their thing. If we break down the process of art, we can clearly see that both leverage similar or even same approaches.

Besides, hierarchy, white space, color, depth and rules of composition were not created by designers, but by — dare I say it — artists.

The pain goes deeper

And then designers do to artists the very thing they hate … observe the following quote from an article about Milton Glaser:

“When art and design are confused, the designers’ domain becomes limited to style and appearance.”

It unintentionally mistakes art for mere “style and appearance”.

Art is not style and appearance in exactly the same way as design is not style and appearance.

And this gem…

”Aesthetics must be derived from the function of the design, else the design may run the risk of being attractive but not functional…”
Art is not there to make designs attractive, but to make them whole.

… from the article (though not a bad one) even states, based on three examples (really bad ones) that function is the only essential thing for a design to succeed. Auch.

Obviously, we’re a little confused about art. It has so many manifestations, that it’s easy to see it from just one end of the spectrum.

But we consistently seem agree on arts so called “mysterious powers”. As Glaser himself puts it “Art’s power is mysterious and cannot be quantified…”.

This perception of art as something magical and mysterious is cute, but false. While indeed a great piece of art can invoke deep emotions, transcend us from one feeling to another and so forth, there is nothing magical in this … it just makes sense, literally. It’s sensory. Art is designed to make us feel a certain way.

In fact, it even uses the same elements as design…

Take Jean Michel Basquiat’s paintings for example. You will see type, shapes, textures, colors… Exactly what you’ll see in any website, but arranged and presented differently. We could almost say, designed in a different way, maybe? Too far?

Getting to the preferred condition

Both design and art are forms of communication so designers, being visual communicators and whatnot, should be the first to recognise this fact and find ways to integrate art into projects. We should leverage arts “mystical” powers to do what “rational design” simply can’t. Even the most inconspicuous little UI element does not exist alone. It will always be perceived together with it’s surrounding elements.

I know the word art and artist comes with it’s stigmas, but “defending” design as a purely rational sport is highly irrational.

To get to the preferred condition, we should explain not only the distinction, but also the inseparable relationship of design and art.

We must observe what the Japanese call ji-ji-mu-ge, the mutual interdependence of all things and events. It means that between every thing/event (ji) and every other thing/event (ji) there is no (mu) barrier (ge).

Design and art are one, so is everything else, including you and me, ha!

Reading inspiration:

1. Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth by Buckminister Fuller
2. The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts

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