running words around
design education and visual communication
authored by chris m hughes

Design versus Art

Saturday, 1 November 2008

It's the oldest question you can ask as a designer, and that makes it a decent starting point. So what is the difference between art and design?

A few years back, whilst I was working in London, I was lucky enough to get shortlisted for a lecturing job at Glasgow University. It was a tough interview. I had to do a presentation (on interactive design), and then I faced a five-person panel, who each grilled me about my ideas, my motives and my qualifications. During the panel interview, the very first question that they asked me was to describe the difference between art and design.

And so now, a decade later and working as a lecturer in Graphic Design, one of the first things I like to introduce to new classes is a discussion about what design is and what art is and what each of them is not.

We are all viewers. And when we look at a piece of 'art' we are in control of its meaning. The artist may or may not 'know' what their work is about, but art need not visually communicate any definite message. It is what it is, and its subjectivity provides its power.  I may not know what a shark in formaldehyde 'means', but I'm free to decide if I like it or not.

On the other hand, the designer is the one who controls the meaning of a piece of design. It is functional, it is created for a specific target audience and has a definite message. Furthermore, the principles and elements of design are used in the composition to give the message as great an impact as possible.  It doesn't matter if I like the McDonald's logo or not, but I'm in no doubt as to what it represents.

So design is means applying ideas through artistic (and technical) skills in order to create something which is usable, whether its a film poster, a corporate logo, a milk carton box, a pair of jeans, or an office plaza. The central meaning a design has is the one which the creator meant it to have. And of course, occasionally great design does transcend its stated message and becomes great art - the Eiffel Tower, record sleeves, the electric guitar, movie posters.

But that's not what I said 10 years ago at that interview in front of a panel of academics. I thought about Bauhaus and the Surrealists and Constructivism and Pop Art, and I tried to explain what made these ideas and visual creations totally different yet the same, and I gave a poor reply.  And a poor interview, even though I did have the right answer all along.