My Current Understanding of the Difference Between Art & Design

by sarahgrand

Wow, haven’t posted on the blog in a while! It’s been a very busy couple of months. I’ve been going out quite often on the weekends, and a few weeks back, I went on vacation to California with my sister. Regrettably, my side projects have kind of taken the back-burner during this time, which is why I wanted nothing more this Memorial Day Weekend than to completely isolate myself and simply work on stuff. (I have to say, this weekend has been really blissful so far—good music + Adobe Illustrator + alone time = HEAVEN).

One of the projects I am currently working on (and actually just finished minus some color and formatting edits?!!!) is my New York City poster. You can see a sneak preview of it in the image below. There are 3 different versions of the poster in that image (I would go into more detail, but I’m waiting to do a “big reveal” in a future post).

Anyways…while completely immersed in this project a few hours ago, it dawned on me that I think I finally understand the difference between art and design.

When I first became interested in graphic projects (like this NYC poster) a few years back, I would hear people talking about art vs. design, and I would read about the topic in articles and books, but I never truly got it. To me, art and design were basically the same thing, and you could use the words interchangeably (…and to be honest, I thought people that contemplated the difference had too much time on their hands, and were just being pretentious creatives).

But now, years later, I THINK I FINALLY GET IT. And here I am, writing a blog post on it.

So, I’m definitely NOT the authority on this stuff, but this is my current take…

To me, art is all about freedom. It’s a form of personal expression. It doesn’t necessarily have to have a purpose, or please anyone, or do anything, and it’s ENTIRELY your own.

When I first became interested in graphics a few years back, I had an overwhelming flood of visual ideas, but no real purpose to turn them into reality. I’d make a bunch of random crap and post it on my website, usually calling it stationery, and always considering it “graphic design.” But now, I realize that most of the things I made in my early days weren’t design at all. I may have been using the tools of a graphic designer, but I was actually making art. Nothing I made had purpose or direction; everything I made was just some visual idea in my head that I struggled to find an excuse to turn into reality. One could make artwork using AutoCAD, but that doesn’t make him a drafter.

{Some examples of my earlier work}

Design, on the other hand, always has purpose. And while I’m sure many find freedom within design, there are a number of constraints.

As an example, let’s say Kellogg’s develops a new brand of cereal and needs to come up with a box for it. Well, there’s a lot riding on this box. Kellogg’s has put a lot of money into creating and testing this new product, and it’s important they make a return on their investment. Studies show that the look of the box can have a crucial impact on sales. The box must therefore be designed. An artist can’t just come rolling in and make whatever they want. No—the creativity must be directed. There are specific goals, budgets, deadlines, target audiences, research, and most annoyingly, a hierarchy of people who have to approve it.

In art, no one has to give you approval. You are your own client, and have complete freedom. To me, this is the biggest difference between art and design, and looking back, subliminally, the reason I did not go into design as a career. The most successful designers can reach the point where their style is sought out, and they do have a great deal of freedom, and client work can surely present challenges that are freeing and force creativity in a new way, but I don’t know…it wasn’t for me. I’d rather pursue whatever pops into my head on the side, without the pressure of pleasing other people (for now at least). But props to the people who are up for this challenge.

So, if there’s such a distinction between art and design, why do some people (like myself a few years ago) get so confused?

I personally found that two things contributed to my confusion. One—I briefly mentioned earlier—involves the overlap of tools used by designers and artists. Had I been using a literal paintbrush rather than one on Adobe Illustrator in my early days, would I have been so confused?

The second involves the frequent morphing of art into design, and vice versa. A purely artistic idea can be turned into design, and the result can be very successful. I believe there are many examples of this all around us on a daily basis.

As a personal example, for a while now, I’ve have a strong desire to make something inspired by Rorschach tests, and recently a design opportunity came up where I can apply this idea. The design will have purpose—it will be directed—but I’m using an idea that once was purely visual. I believe the opposite scenario often happens as well. Design can turn into art— something made with purpose, like an advertisement, can be so visually appealing you’ll want to hang it on your wall as artwork. Does this make sense or am I rambling?

{Early progress on my Rorschach inspired project}

In any case, right now, I feel like I’m more of an artist than a designer. But I am HOPING that I can one day have my own brand of products, and if that day ever comes, I will probably be more of a designer than an artist. Or ideally, somewhere right in the middle. I think that’s the sweet spot for me.

THANKS!! I HOPE SOMEONE READ THIS/ENJOYED THIS. MORE BLOG POSTS COMING SOON.