Design vs. Art: What’s the Difference?

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Design vs. Art

The differences between art and design may initially seem relatively minor, but they each play significant roles in society and culture. At their roots, both design and art pull heavily from aesthetics. They also feature some key differences.

Depending on the subject matter, art form, or design project, different elements will apply that may not be in other situations. We experience art and design daily, but art and design occupy different needs. 

What is Art?

The definition of art is, at a fundamental level, the way creativity and expression are shown. When you think of art, you may commonly consider a painting or sculpture. However, art can also be applied more broadly to a creative medium that creates reaction and engagement, such as music, literature, and dance. It can also be understood even more abstractly as a skill from experience and study.

For our purposes, though, in graphic design, art is most commonly an image that conveys creative meaning and interpretation, designed to provoke thoughts or feelings. When dealing with art in graphic design, the focus is on visual compositions for the art’s sake. 

Art has a role in design, but art is most frequently something to be expressed of itself and not an element of something else, such as in the case of design. Art is a creative expression for the sake of creative expression.

Artist with easel

What is Design?

If art is something done for art’s sake, the fundamental difference between art and design is that art can be used in design. The concept of design comes in many forms, and art’s role in design serves a secondary function. For example, consider design fields such as graphic design and industrial design. Art is applied to those fields, but they include a more significant idea.

The elements of art, for example, can be seen in the curves and colors of a car, but they are secondary in many ways to the vehicle itself. In graphic design, the primary function is information – the design pleasingly conveys information using the principles of art. Still, graphic design is often valued based on if it means the necessary duty while looking good.

Similarities Between Art and Design

The differences between design and art can vary greatly, but they both heavily involve elements of creative expression. Even if they have design guidelines, professional designers work in their expression, even when dealing with commissioned tasks. After all, the design process needs to come to an acceptable end, right? The design needs to look good. Personal expression is a critical element of design inherited from art.

Like art, design can lean heavily into understanding human behavior and psychology. A knowledge base of concepts like color theory is essential to success as a traditional artist and a graphic designer. An art director, naturally, has studied and learned artistic design principles that correspond with graphical design methodology. Just as art can be emotional and draw from the experience of the artist and viewer alike, so too can expressive design be a thing to consider.

While art lovers may have an inherent understanding of what makes art interesting, just as artists may have a natural ability to draw from, designers can also have an intrinsic skill. Superior design can be the spontaneous result of a brilliant designer, but it’s often a learned skill. Objective design choices and unity of form can be understood and developed like the art process.

Design vs. Art Comparison

Sometimes we perceive design through a dash of subjectivity, but a good percentage of subjectivity comes from understanding artistic principles. Ability in art, while able to be learned, comes more naturally to some than others, and the same applies to a design sense. Design is, in many ways, art composition, just pointed to a primary purpose that one should never lose sight of.

One of the most basic ways to compare art and design is through purpose. Art is meant to provoke thought and express creativity. At the same time, innovation is intended to use the principles of art to make a more pleasing experience for something existing independent of art. Successful design decisions can be compared to art but are not necessarily the definition of art.

But what can we learn from design thinking, and how can we spare ourselves from bad design?

Designer sitting with a laptop

1. Designs Must Be Functional & Solve Problems. Art Asks Questions.

When weighing art versus design, it does not need to be antagonistic, as understanding the differences helps you better understand design trends. Design trends that needlessly complicate or get in the way of functionality are bad design. Dipping too far into art techniques to the point where they interfere with the thing’s purpose is a sign you’ve gone too far.

Art raises questions, but the principles should not interfere with a design so much that it raises questions to the point of a product or app.

2. Design is Data-Driven. Art is Instinctual.

Design tends to be more researched and practiced, whereas art can be a more emotional experience. Current trends in design come from observation and experimentation, while artistic design can be more impulsive and emotional. Emotional design can be tricky when tackling problems, but art often encourages spontaneity.

Remember that function in design is paramount, and preserving function takes discipline and an iterative design process.

3. Design Has Many Limitations and Constraints. Art Does Not.

Proper design objectivity often leads to limitations and constraints when dealing with design elements. While art can feel freer, there’s some excitement in working within constraints such as a user-centered design process. Such challenges are embraced by the foremost designers in any industry, and design majors often cut their teeth on particular challenges.

While the process of art may be more unrestricted, design is a process with lots of innovation and satisfaction.

4. Design is an Ongoing Process That Involves Constant improvement. Pieces of Art are Completed.

Design is a process with lots of challenges and iteration, just like the process of art. However, while an artistic work, such as that of a ceramic artist, can often be finished, design never is. An iterative design process becomes necessary, especially in fields such as digital product design. New features and industry standards roll out yearly and can often result in a rework of a design methodology for any team.

The key to functional design is objective design choices, and those needs are never quite settled.

5. Design Skills Can Be Learned. Artistic Ability Tends to Be Natural.

Often people may carry an innate talent for art, and that is a sense that can be developed. However, design skills can certainly be learned, and superior design is developed through training. When it comes to function in design, you’ll find it comes best from cultivating an understanding of art and training in design skills among design majors. Design elements and methodology can be understood, studied, and developed among even the foremost designers.

Having an innate understanding of art is a leg up in the art world, but anyone can cultivate skills in design methodology with practice.

Is a Graphic Designer an Artist?

When tackling the art vs. design debate, the inevitable question is whether a graphic designer is an artist. Can brilliant designers be held up alongside masters of traditional arts?

It’s entirely possible, and there are undoubtedly graphic designers who more than pull their weight in understanding human expression and unity of form. One consideration, however, is that graphic design has an inherently commercial element that may cause critics to balk at the suggestion of graphic design as art. However, one does need to point out the tremendous market for original artwork.

The more significant takeaway here may come down to a matter of opinion, but if art composition is used in a design, then one can argue design is art.

Final Thoughts on Art vs. Design

Perhaps the idea of art vs. design is questionable because these two halves of a contentious theory have more in common than they differ. While art is often abstract and for enjoyment, that’s not to say those principles cannot be applied to functional objects and software and still maintain that quality of the artistic. Usability testing may help refine some products’ experience, but the DNA of art is found in design.

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