Design is Not Art, Redux

Leeanne Lowe pushes back hard on my claim that “design is not art”, one of the five principles I design by. She says:

“I have often thought that people who say ‘design is not art’ have no real idea what design is. If a designer were to say it to me I would seriously have to say that this person is not a designer at all, simply someone who is concerned with production and sees what they do as a job.”

Well, I don’t…

Leeanne Lowe pushes back hard on my claim that “design is not art”, one of the five principles I design by. She says:

“I have often thought that people who say ‘design is not art’ have no real idea what design is. If a designer were to say it to me I would seriously have to say that this person is not a designer at all, simply someone who is concerned with production and sees what they do as a job.”

Well, I don’t view design as production and only as a job that I do (although it’s part of it). I view it as a tool to solve a problem…a communication problem in many cases on the Web but also physical problems, like sitting down.

Leeann emphasizes the overlap between design and art:

“Designers produce ideas. Then turn those ideas into visual communications. Art is also about ideas, and those ideas are also (mostly) turned into visual communications. The only difference being that artists do it to meet their personal needs and designers do it to meet the needs of others.”

Saying designers produce ideas and turn them into visual communications sounds good to me…interface and visual designers do that. But when that visual communication is good, when any design is good…then some action happens. The design becomes useful…the person uses the design.

In the least actionable scenario, when we’re talking about long-term branding, a visual designer creates something that a viewer notices but probably doesn’t act on immediately. Maybe they see a logo several times (I’ve heard its 70 times to really stick) and are more likely to purchase or remember that logo when purchasing in the future. But if that action never happens, if the logo doesn’t work…then the design can said to have failed.

But when art is good…there is no use at the end of it. It’s all appreciation…a feeling of acknowledgment.

That’s a big difference between design and art. We can measure the results of design because it’s meant to solve a problem. We can see if the problem has been resolved or lessened in some way. With Art we can’t do that…other than some subjective “Do you like it?”.

But judging from Leeanne’s entry maybe this is a definition problem…what does a designer do?

What designers do is to solve problems by deciding on the look and function of something. This can be writing text, laying out an interface, planning a chair, or coming up with a better Netflix envelope, lightbulb, or chair.

I take a relatively broad view of design because I talk about it in terms of use. Anything that affects use is part of design. And, more importantly, the success of a design hinges upon how well it is used. We need a way to judge design objectively…and important metrics include how much and how well it is used. Art, of course, is subjective. But design doesn’t have to be…

Art, on the other hand, is not about use. It’s about the appreciation of beauty and life. Does that mean we can’t appreciate design? No, of course, not. But it does often occur that we don’t appreciate great design, because when designs work well we tend to take them for granted. We don’t notice how well they work…we just use them.

For example, the door handles on my Honda Accord are excellently designed. There is no way to use them incorrectly. Even my 1 year old knows how to use them. You grab them and pull, and your arm doesn’t contort in an unnatural way like they do with the pull-up handles. They don’t snag clothes because of their shape. And you can open them with a pinkie finger. But I bet 95% of Accord owners never even consider if this is good design or not. They simply use the door handle without a second thought. Good design becomes invisible in this way.

And there’s also the problem of two words meaning the same thing. If we continually say that designers are artists, or conflate design as art in all cases, as Leeann seems to be suggesting, what does that do to our language? While it’s cool to say that “less is more” or “orange is the new black”, or some other (X is not X) type of statement, it really only serves to dilute our language of any meaning we have left. Call me a curmudgeon, but we have a hard enough time agreeing on the definition of words to begin with…let alone trying to redefine them as something else.

So I’m sticking to my guns here. Designers create something to use. Artists create something to appreciate.

Published: June 13th, 2007

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