I used to say that “I’m not an artist, I’m a designer.” At the time, it was a serious distinction: when popular fine artistry became more concerned with personal expression, social commentary, and testing ethical limits, rather than technical ability, I immediately sought to distance myself from the term. For me, it was important that my work satisfied on the aesthetic level and spoke its own message, rather than having to rely on a sales pitch.
Oscar Wilde wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray that art is “useless.” While this angered me when I first heard it 10th grade, I have since learned what he meant, and Wilde indirectly struck on why artists differ from designers. The artist creates work in the hopes of creating a mood, or perhaps to communicate some inner thought. Art needn’t be “good” in the academic sense to be of value to anyone. This is central to the practice of art therapy, where the experience of creation is just as important as (if not more important than) the finished project. While art only requires one person to appreciate it (or at least the process of its creation,) design runs in the opposite direction.
Self-expression is not the primary goal of design. Design is conveying an action or idea effectively, without drawing attention to itself as a distraction. Dieter Rams summed it up when he said that “Good design is as little design as possible.” Where art’s existence can be justified by just one person’s opinion, design’s purpose hinges on the idea that it is accessible to as many people as possible. Where art can be created to enjoyed for its own sake, design is meant to serve another’s message before its own inherent beauty is recognized. Where one can sit down with a cup of coffee and enjoy a piece of art, design is making sure that you are sitting comfortably, that your cup is perfectly weighted and warm, and that your coffee was no hassle to brew.
For the most part, artists and designers don’t get the chance to explain their work, and on many levels, they shouldn’t have to. Art can be appreciated for what it is, while design must achieve a specific goal to be of any worth. While the artist struggles with making his own voice heard, the designer struggles to make someone else’s voice heard.
Different as those goals may be, I’ve since come to appreciate both art and design more. There are some things that designers do that don’t make any sense: “because it looked better” is often a completely valid design decision. That’s where design relies on art. Artists deal with existing concepts and social tropes all the time; that’s where art relies on design. It’s certainly important to recognize the difference, but it’s equally important to recognize the similarities.