Art and Design, what’s the difference?

As a student, many MANY years ago, I studied Art & Design as a combined subject. The aim? To help me decide on my future studies and a career path by reconciling my strongest interests with my creative talents. Basically, I liked colouring things in …most infamously, my Maths GSCE paper (I still passed!)

But throughout my time at college one question wasn’t resolved, and it’s one that still pops up in conversations down the pub with creative friends, in between discussions about socio-economics and World Of Warcraft (yep, we know how to rock!) The question is, “what’s the difference? What makes art Art? And how does it differ from design?”

After battling with this question for years, I think I’m as close to an answer as I’m ever going to get. So for what it’s worth, here’s what I think…

Art is SubjectiveDesign is Objective

Blimey! Was it really that simple?! Well no, of course not, those are just the headlines. They look good in a tweet. But like an iceberg, or a politician’s smile, there’s far more going on beneath the surface.

So let’s look deeper.


Why is Art subjective?

Whatever inspired the artist to create their work of Art is unlikely to be correctly interpreted by the audience. But more importantly, nor should it be.

The emotional response felt by the audience depends entirely on each person’s own perspective, it has very little to do with the artist.

Of course, the viewer may be biased if they know the artist’s previous work, or they’ve read a review by a critic, but beyond that the audience’s interpretation is entirely down to them: what they like, what mood they’re in, maybe if they’re trying to impress someone (been there, done that) but ultimately it’s a subjective experience.

Mona Lisa with a pint of beerIs the Mona Lisa a work of Art? Absolutely. Do we know why Leonardo Da Vinci painted it? No. Do we know what the model was thinking when she sat for it? Also no. Personally I always thought she looked a bit impatient …perhaps desperate for beverage.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. You simply need to ask if it elicits an emotional response, positive or negative, from you the viewer. What does it say to you? And that’s all that matters.

Carl Andre and his sculpture 'Equivalent 8'

BBC/PA/PA archive/Press Association Images

What about something more abstract?

Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII caused controversy in the 1970’s when it was purchased by the Tate Gallery, who received fierce criticism that they’d wasted money on a pile of bricks. Now in this instance we do know something of why the artist created his sculpture, but that still only tells us about the artist. The sculpture itself is the thing that elicits an emotional response.

So again, positive, negative or ambivalent, it’s a subjective experience.

…all of which leads us to ask the somewhat rhetorical question, “what’s the point of Art Critics?” Answers on the back of a postage stamp please.

It also leads us to a slightly more controversial question, “if an artist makes a work of art on a desert island where no one will ever see it, or know of its existence, is it Art?” Technically I’d have to say the answer is no, not until it’s observed …but it’s usually at this point I’m asked to leave the pub for inciting a brawl.

But then what about this? If a piece of Art is controversial or unpopular then doesn’t that affect its monetary value? Well yes, but that’s just market-economics, it doesn’t stop it being Art. However, if the piece was created to make money or communicate a message, then it primarily has a function to perform. And that’s where we move into the realm of Design.


Why is Design objective?

Unlike Art, Design is primarily about form and function. It’s about what the designer is trying to communicate (yep, I’m afraid it really is all about me, me, me!) Although of course, most design is commissioned by someone, so actually the designer is trying to communicate something to a particular target audience on behalf of a client (so it’s more about them, them, them).

If the design doesn’t communicate the correct message to the intended audience then it fails as a piece of Design.

The secondary consideration is the aesthetic, the form …aka the arty bit. In addition to performing a desired function, it also needs to appear pleasing, to elicit a positive emotional response from the target audience. As I always say, it must intrigue the audience to participate, inform them during their engagement and inspire them to take a particular action.

This is the main thing that separates Art from Design.

The controversial redesign of the Gap logo didn’t go down well with customers

When a piece of Art is disliked or generates a negative emotional response it doesn’t fail at being a piece of Art. But if a visual or physical piece of Design generates a negative response from the intended audience, either because it’s difficult to understand, hard to use or because it’s aesthetically displeasing, then it prevents further engagement.

It’s that termination of engagement that qualifies it as a failure.

So what if a gallery, or a sponsor, commissions a piece of Art? Does that make it Design or Art? Well that depends on the creative brief given and whether the artist or the client has the final say.

If the brief merely asks for a piece of Art inspired by a particular theme and the artist is to be paid irrespective of the final creation then yes, it is Art. If the brief demands particular requirements that must be met in exchange for payment then no, it has quite literally been designed.

In fact, one might argue that the difference between Art and Design is somewhat analogous to that between anarchy and order. But then one is usually gesticulating loudly outside the pub by this point, and is shortly afterwards firmly escorted into the hurry-up wagon with a set of matching bracelets.

At the end of the day, both artists and designers get paid for drawing and colouring things in. And that’s pretty cool.

…as for the arguments in the pub, it’s probably best just to quote Monty Python, “I may not know Art, but I know what I like!”


Greg Matthews profileGreg Matthews is an award-winning graphic designer and illustrator based in Cornwall. He has provided design services to companies, large and small, across the UK and beyond for nearly 20 years – from logos and brand identity to advertising, exhibitions, merchandise, packaging, books, brochures, direct mail, POS, vehicle livery, web design, video production and animation.

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