Why We Need to Divorce Art from Design

Once upon a time, our society revered and celebrated artists. They were held in the highest regards and entrusted with the most honorable of tasks- from depicting Gods and decorating cathedrals, to capturing the portraits of rulers and holy men.

But somewhere between the Renaissance and today, things changed. While Da Vinci and Michelangelo are household names associated with immense creativity, the Art department is first to be defunded when a school’s budget tightens.

Art is no longer sexy.

Idioms like “the starving artist” and degrading memes have demoralized artists so much, that they’ve stopped calling themselves artists and instead have adopted the identity of designers.

  • Graphic Designers
  • Fashion Designers
  • Stage Designers
  • Sound Designers
  • Visual Designer
  • Motion Designer

What do they all have in common?

None are actually designers.

The Designer Litmus Test:

If the outcome of your work cannot be right or wrong, but only liked or disliked- you’re not a designer, you’re an artist.

That is not an insult; artists should proudly proclaim their title as they play a vital role in products by adding an emotional dimension.

Art is that memorable sound when you first turned on your first Playstation…

It’s the packaging you touch before getting your hands on the new iPhone…

… or that silly dancing ghost when you refresh your Snapchat feed.

Simply put, art is the way you feel when using a product.

Then there’s design.

Where art decorates, design solves.

Design is not just the way something looks, it’s how it works. Due to the interchangeable use of terminology, many misconceptions have emerged throughout the years. Perhaps it’s easier to dispel them by stating what design is not:

Design is not a synonym for decorative creative decisions.

Art is expressive, design is pragmatic. Designers don’t “make” creative decisions, they arrive at them through reasoning.

Design is not an Art, but an artform.

A chair can only be liked or disliked only once it fulfills its function. Design is more closely related to Engineering than to Art. Assumptions are tested, efforts are quantified and results are measured.

Good design doesn’t always mean good looking.

Although desired, aesthetics are secondary to function, thus the canonical principle “form follows function.”

Good design is functional, great design is also beautiful.


While Art and Design share some overlap, if the professions listed above were placed on a spectrum between Art and Science, they would all cluster drastically closer to Art:

That’s because an artist’s primary job is to please our senses, not problem-solve.

Conversely, designers are the distant relatives of scientists:

Designers apply the scientific method to products in hopes of achieving business goals and satisfying users. They test hypotheses, run experiments, observe results and repeat. That’s not to say there’s no artistry involved, it’s just not the dominate mode of work.

A movie poster is worth a thousand frames.

With that being said, doesn’t it make all the sense in the world, to refer to the person who turns this:

into this…

as a Graphic Artist instead of a Graphic Designer?

If you’re still not convinced, let’s compare the following poster versions:

Both posters display the exact same copy. But it’s an artist’s job to augment the plain text to convey the mood of the film and elicits an emotion from the viewers. To decide which scene to depict, where to place the shark, from which angle, or if there should be a shark in the first place. The blue gradient of the water, the sharp, contrasting teeth, the bold red typography- these are all artistic, not design decisions.

Some minimalist purists would argue that Poster 1 is clearly better as it’s less visually polluted and more concise, and they wouldn’t be incorrect- which is precisely why this exercise fails the Designer Litmus Test. Neither poster is “wrong,” one just might be more liked that the other.


“But does it really matter? It’s just semantics…”

Case Study: The Early 2000’s UX Bubble

In the last decade, UX careers skyrocketed along side startups. Much like the 90’s Dot-Com bubble, where by attaching “.com” to your company’s name instantly increased its valuation, a similar phenomenon took place in the job market. Labeling yourself a “UX designer” instantly granted you a high paying job with little to no relevant skills. Companies knew they needed UX designers, they just didn’t know what exactly to expect from them. So they started with the most tangible and visible part of the product- the interface. “UX/UI Designer” become a real position, which is the equivalent of an “Architect/Interior Decorator.” Fast forward to today and a quick Indeed search reveals that the hybrid title is still alive and well. Design’s value is still not well understood by most companies.

Erroneously meshing Art with Design creates misconceptions and false expectations of Design’s role in an organization. So let’s stop taking credit away from art by labeling it “design.” Let’s acknowledge artists as such and empower them to humanify our products, while we focus on their experience. Because when executives expect pretty products from designers, it not only devalues both professions, but the organization as a whole.