Art. Design. What’s the difference?

Commenting in the Washington Post about Facebook’s user interface, Bill Moggeridge makes an excellent distinction between art and design:

“One of the big differences between art and design is that art is mostly about commentary — it’s making a statement that you’re expecting other people to contemplate and be moved by, emotionally, or altered by, in terms of their perceptions.

“Whereas design is really about solving a problem that makes something more pragmatic, and useful, and valuable or valued, and of course you can add qualities of aesthetics to that, that make it also a delight. At the same time, if it fails on the functionality side, all is lost, whereas if it fails on the delight side, it might still fit into a lot of people’s lives in a satisfactory if not an exciting way.”

Bill Moggeridge is director of the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. The original Post article is here (requires sign-in). Thanks, Mary Jane.


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39 Responses to Art. Design. What’s the difference?

  1. John Mahan says:

    Mr. Moggeridge makes a well-defined and valuable distinction. As I continue engaging both design and artistic projects, I now have some useful criteria to help guide my decisions.

  2. Mark Elgar says:

    While generally agreeing, I do think a vital point of distinction has been missed. In the real and grubby world of business, where value, especially monetary, is the major driver and where everything must pay its way, the distinction is even clearer. Art has no intrinsic commercial value. Design, on the other hand, must pay its way. It must deliver both on form and function, as without a careful blend of the two it has diminished value. To say that design which addresses function but fails on form will not “delight” is an elegant but academic distinction. If both are not met, the “it” which the design is addressing will not appeal and will fail to achieve the unpopular, but very real, objective of creating a sale and delivering value.

  3. Martyn Shouler says:

    The paradox is that, in order to pay its way, design can be compromised by very person who is commissioning it -– either through lack of vision, confidence, or power politics. It must be one of the few businesses where the customer actively demands the mediocre . . .

  4. Mike Roche says:

    Art is by definition subjective for creator and audience. Art elicits a response as unique as each and every person who encounters it. Love it or hate it. Study it or ignore it.

    Design, if done well, is where form meets function. Design elicits a response as well, but furthermore (hopefully), a desired response, i.e., join us, write your congressman, call now, respond, visit this website, pledge your donation, pay attention: this is important! It is the secondary principle that I believe separates design from art.

  5. Len Williams says:

    The purpose of “design” is to communicate a message, whether as information or a sales message. The use of illustration, photography or other art should be used to forward the message, and if it doesn’t, it becomes distractive and confusing. “Art” is a slippery term that can have many applications; however, a good designer is an artist who is able to get his communication/message across to the viewer in a pleasing and engaging manner. This is a skill and an art.

    “Fine art” on the other hand is completely different and is intended to involve and invite contribution from the viewer in his or her interpretation of the artwork. A simple photo of a car is not necessarily fine art, but an interestingly lit image of a car from a unique angle that shows off its sculptural details, color or movement could be considered fine art. Fine art evokes emotional response of some kind.

  6. “It must be one of the few businesses where the customer actively demands the mediocre . . .”

    I disagree. I find that my customers demand what they want. They demand I do what they ask. They are giving me money in exchange. Any subjective label on the end product seems kind of silly to me.

    On any assignment, I give them my best and ask for approval. Sometimes I get a signature right away. Sometimes their change requests result in more clarity based on their knowledge of their own business. If I think what they ask is detrimental to sales, I’ll let them know. If they say, “Do it anyway,” then it is done without contempt.

  7. The difference between artists and designers is for me a little like the difference between architects who draw but don’t engineer, and those who do.

  8. Neil Myers says:

    My experience is that true designers understand the difference between art and design. If they don’t, they are not designers. They may (or may not) be artists, but they are certainly not designers.

    But, the very best designers also have strong artistic capabilities as well. The designer’s palette is too limited without that art.

  9. Can we actually pigeonhole these things? The lithographic posters made by Toulouse Lautrec to advertise club nights in Paris have become thought of as works of art. Is it context that defines a piece of designed work as art?

    The idea seems to be that art is somehow more elevated than design because of the fact of design being a commercial art. However, many artworks created by the old masters had been commissioned by the church. Surely, then, they were commercial artists who were designing paintings to fulfill the design briefs given them by the clergy. The selling of art for money is often the reason for the creation of the piece of art.

    Is art better than design or vice-versa? Some design is better than some art because it communicates more directly with the viewer. Think of Raymond Loewy’s or Saul Bass’s work on various logos — think about how iconic their work has become over time and how influential it has been in shaping the visual world around us.

    Yes, “art” tends to be about eliciting an emotional and often personal response to a piece, whereas “design” aims to plant a desired response in order to lead the viewers to a common conclusion. Both are planned. Maybe the best design spills over into art when the underpinning sales message is less obvious, but then it begs the question: Is it good design in selling its idea clearly? I have watched car adverts becoming more abstract and aspirational and less about the physical car. In these designed adverts, the main intention seems to be selling a mood (artist theme) and then showing a product that could satisfy the viewer.

    Design is about effective problem solving using the visual language developed through the fine arts, often using pastiche or parody. Design is often honest in its appropriation of art but builds on it. Humour is often present in design and lacking in art, but still the title “art” is the gold standard to which great design aspires.

    Is design seen as the poor cousin to art, and what can we do about it?

  10. Michael Gill says:

    The difference between “art” and “design,” in my mind, is like the difference between math and engineering.

    Mathematical formulas are used to create mechanical systems which, if done well, complete the given task successfully. In turn, I have always described design as “applied art.” Artistic formulas are used to communicate a message which, if done well, completes the given task successfully.

    While an engineer uses established mathematical formulas, a designer uses established artistic formulas. An engineer’s formulas are things like venturi flow-rates, equations of equilibrium, and secant formulas. A designer’s formulas are things like color palates, visual balance, and medium.

  11. Hugh Henry says:

    During many years as graphic designer, I have always been amazed at how many “artists” believe they are qualified to be designers and vice-versa. Sadly, being visually aware does qualify anyone to be either.

  12. Jeff Byrne says:

    This brings up a point that I’ve struggled with as a graphic designer for the better part of 14 years. No matter how “good” we think we are as designers, we still need to submit our work to a client who, on the slightest whim, can say yay or nay, change this, or remove that. I’ve had pieces that I thought I executed superbly that were subsequently trashed by the client. So the ultimate question is, who is right? Is it me, with my education and design experience, or the client, i.e., the “man on the street,” who likes it, or doesn’t like it, but can’t really give you a learned answer as to why. Then, is design education and experience even relevant? Because, if our work does not please the “man on the street,” then have we not failed at our task?

  13. Design can only be a division of art and punctum.

  14. Lorraine says:

    @Jeff — on point! Thank you for saying what I was thinking as I read. Who is right?

  15. MG says:

    Most people look at art for a message or simply enjoyment, so the artwork itself is important. If we design our sales pieces well, people won’t especially be aware of the design of our work, but they will be drawn into it (because of the design and copy) to learn more about the product we’re selling. The message and the enjoyment is there but in a way that seems to come from the product itself.

  16. Mr.Bill says:

    Design is “applied art”. . . simple, really. We designers take artwork, (often created by other artists) and apply it to our designs to convey a message for a client. The client is the commissioner of said work. If they don’t like it, they don’t pay.

    Art just IS . . . it’s usually a statement or a vision of the artist. An artist almost always has an agenda for creating an artwork (political commentary, public awareness, evoke thoughts/emotions, self expression, etc.).

    Whereas designers are, by nature, “problem solvers” and are commissioned to do so in a visual fashion. It takes artistic skill to properly convey a message visually. There is no denying that. Even bad designers get it right once in a while. As long as their client pays, I suppose that makes them effective for their target audience. Art doesn’t have to have those restrictions.

    Does Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Can “design” also mean that it’s art, just because he’s an artist? He solved a problem for the soup company. His design transcends into art because of who he is, and his ability to market himself as an artist. Any designer has the ability to get worldwide recognition and fame if they land the right client. Carolyn Davidson created the Nike Swoosh. Iconic brand image — does that make her an artist? Well, maybe if she touted herself as such in the same way that Andy did, she’d be a household name for iconographers and pop artists.

    Bottom Line: Art is subjective . . . design is functional.

  17. Can we actually pigeonhole art and design? Yes, we can and we do. There are important and useful distinctions between art, design, visual culture and visual communication.

    The lithographic posters made by Toulouse Lautrec to advertise club nights in Paris have become thought of as works of art. Is it context that defines a piece of designed work as art? Yes, the context defines design and art. Lautrec’s work precedes the identification of “illustrator” or “graphic designer” as professions. Today, in a different context, we like to look at his work as art (free from the functions it served at the time). There is nothing confusing about things changing their function based on context.

    The idea seems to be that art is somehow more elevated than design because of the fact of design being a commercial art. Yes, we make a mistake when we think there is a hierarchical distinction among art, design, craft, popular culture, visual culture, etc. Visual communicators, such as photojournalists, are recognized with Pulitzer prizes. Designers for movies win Academy Awards. Architects vie for the Pritzker Prize. There is excellence, mediocrity and failure in all visual forms, but each has different goals and standards.

    The selling of art for money is often the reason for the creation of the piece of art. Selling art does not make it design. Design is work created to meet the needs of others. Art is purchased to admire the unique voice of the creator.

    Raymond Loewy’s industrial design, Saul Bass’s graphic design, Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture, etc., shape the visual world around us. They stand on their own without need to compare them to art or justify them through the lens of “artiness.”

    Design is about effective problem solving using the visual language developed through the fine arts. This is a common mistake. Art, visual culture, design and visual communication each use visual language, but it did not come from the fine arts. It just seems that way to people in the fine arts because that is where they started. Fine art isn’t where visual language started.

  18. Max Levy says:

    I find that the difference between art and design is not solely in the effect it has on others, but what the person creating it intends it to be. For example, Lautrec’s works for clubs in Paris may be considered design by those who view it, but how did he regard them when he made them?

    To me, design is when you cater to a problem and create a systematic, and sometimes aesthetic, solution for it. The problem may be a customer’s quarrels or the layout of a web page. Design in this sense is very broad.

    Art, on the other hand, is not an opposite or a separate topic. In fact, I believe it often overlays with design and is more relevant to the intention of the artist, and not the public context it introduces.

    There are works of art that we as audience members will view, and wonder about, because that is a natural reaction to it. But an artist’s primary goal is not entirely to feed to a viewer. If, by side effect, this occurs, so be it, but in the end, an artist tries to recreate what he envisions in his/her mind; what they are thinking, what images flutter through; what symbols and concepts are amidst the clutter. Whatever is of value to the artist is the most important, and any audience is secondary.

  19. Alan Vitek says:

    As a younger artist who dabbles in design, reading this distinction between art and design will more than likely become something that I will continually refer back to again and again.

    I hope that both designers and artists live between these two worlds and move between them freely. While successful art may not always need “conscious” design knowledge, I do believe that successful design needs some form of artistic knowledge.

    While Bill Moggeridge may think that design can still be functional without “delight,” I fail to agree with him when it comes to people like me. I don’t care how functional something is — if it isn’t pleasing, I don’t like it. That’s just me.

  20. Jana Rade says:

    I agree with the statement. Art is a purpose in itself. Design is art with practical aspect.

  21. Stephen Mason says:

    Sometimes we find ourselves considering art to be worthy and design to be a bit grubby. Console yourselves, designers. There are a lot of artists who pander to clients or put aside their own preferences in favour of what they know will sell.

  22. T.C. says:

    As an artist and designer, I find it necessary to marry principles of the two continuously to gain a pleasing outcome. I find that art is generally better if the artist has an eye for design elements. Great artists just seem to have much of it built in. The viewer may be unaware that these elements have been used, mainly because they are not obvious to the non-designer, but find somehow the piece is just more pleasing. We, the design-aware people, know it’s about colors and their placement, balance, shapes, movement, space, air, etc., etc. I find that art, particularly the hands-on, manual kind, can have a refreshing lack of constraint that most design requires. It can be as surprising and boundless as an artist’s imagination and daring allows.

  23. Anne Forrest says:

    Well, I think that very few of us are lucky enough to create art for the sake of art. Most of us have to create design and have to please our clients — “the man on the street” who sometimes may not be so easy to please — from a design point of view or financial point of view.

  24. Rene says:

    The difference between “art” and “design” is chess and checkers.

  25. Louise Claes says:

    Art is created to please the eye.
    Design is created to have function while pleasing the eye.
    If a design client asks, “Why did you put that blue curve there?”
    You just say, “It’s art.”
    There is no answer for that, so everyone is happy.

  26. Hector says:

    Design requires thinking and planning; art does not.

  27. Don Cheke says:

    I agree with Talis Baltgalvis’s comment and appreciate his insight into the real working world.

    I have seen time and again how preceptive my clients are when it comes to their businesses and their visions. Many have often made suggested tweaks that make the end product that much better. They may not have the skills to pull off the technical process needed to create the final graphics, but they certainly are creative in their own way. They wouldn’t be in the positions they are without their own talents.

    Art or design? Who cares — as long as I get to be creative!

  28. Jean-Pierre says:

    Art is pure meaning — expression form free.
    Design is meaning hidden in a form.
    Think paintings before the invention of photography and after. Photography liberated artists from the reproduction of something.
    Designers are boxed artists, pushing the envelope from within.

  29. Para mim, tanto arte quanto design são formas de comunicar aos outros algum conceito.

    No design, o designer/artista gráfico tenta entender o que seu cliente deseja comunicar e tenta entender como o público alvo irá entender a mensagem.

    Na arte, não há cliente, só o artista querendo se expressar. Ele pode até não estar tão interessado em saber se o público irá ou não entender sua mensagem. Afinal, o que ele deseja é convidar o público a fazer uma viagem, de preferência inesperada.


    From Google Translate . . .

    For me, both art and design are other ways of communicating some concept.

    In design, the designer/graphic artist tries to understand what the client wants to communicate and tries to understand how the audience will understand the message.

    In art, there is no client, only the artist wanting to express himself. He may not be as interested in whether or not the public will understand the message. After all, what he wants is to invite the public to take a trip, rather unexpectedly.

  30. Janet says:

    Design is a subset of art. It is a form of art, just as sculpture painting and architecture are art forms. Therefore, there’s no “difference,” because one is part of the other. The difference between sub-forms of art — i.e., design and architecture and painting and sculpture — is whether or not the client is an essential component. Painting and sculpture can be an inward-looking expression of the artist’s own self, whereas design and architecture are an outward-looking solution to a client’s problem. That’s not to say there is no crossover — sculptures can be commissioned, and architects can design their own houses, but in the majority of cases the “fine” artist is following their own desires and ideas to a result, whereas a designer is almost always trying to give the client the result they need (not necessarily the one they think they want — if you have a good client manner, they may never know the difference ;-) ).

  31. Joey Stocks says:

    @Mr.Bill — Warhol did not design the Campbell’s soup label any more than he designed the Brillo box (among other logos), which he also appropriated for his art.

  32. Robyn says:

    This reminds me of a quote I read about the difference between the two:

    “Art is like masturbation. It is selfish and introverted and done for you alone. Design is like sex. There is someone else involved, their needs are just as important as your own, and if everything goes right, both parties are happy in the end.” — Colin Wright

    Really, I think he nailed it on the head.

  33. Rishi says:

    Before moving on to differentiate between the two entities, it should not be forgotten in the first place that any creation of “art” primarily hits the visual sense; whereas “design” remains hidden at first sight.

    Any object that is designed to the maximum level of perfection should seem simple and natural to human perception. The design aspect of the object should be able to remain hidden, while the art aspect should be able to retain its essence (in terms of functionality and expression).

    Art cannot exist without design. Design cannot evolve without art.

  34. Adele says:

    I always struggled to make this clear to people when they ask “but what is the difference between design and art?”. Although both have the influence of what your mood is to what the outcome of the final product will look like, it’s different in many ways . . . not always easy to put into words.

    A great statement in words made by Mr. Bill Moggeridge.

  35. Roger says:

    The only possible definition of art is that it’s whatever I define as “Art.” It may have a message, but it doesn’t require one (in fact, it needn’t have any meaning at all). Design is Art with an agenda.

  36. Tom Semmes says:

    I think it isn’t a question of art vs. design but where the final product is seen and and what purpose it is supposed to serve. “Art,” meaning something in a gallery or in someone’s home, is meant to be looked at carefully and possibly for a long time. “Design” is meant to grace the consumer goods that we purchase, or encourage us to purchase them, and lasts as long as the object is disposable. “Illustration” is art that appears in publications and has a short shelf life. But beyond their respective purposes and places, there isn’t much that is different.

  37. Rebecca says:

    Design is art made to specifications, on time, and within budget. Period.

  38. Lars Jensen says:

    Art is subtext, that’s all.

    There’s still room for all the subjectivity in the world. Good or bad, high or low, fine or coarse? But if it intentionally expresses something indirectly, it’s art. Otherwise, it isn’t.

    That’s why even a crude drawing of the Grand Canyon can be art, while the Grand Canyon itself can’t. (Unless you believe that it was created by someone attempting to express something indirectly.)

    This is a much more useful and straightforward definition than the usual one, which boils down to, “the part that I can’t describe and/or do myself.”

  39. Simon says:

    “Design requires thinking and planning; art does not.”
    I would have to disagree. To be successful as an artist, producing art requires thinking, planning and working within a budget. If you don’t, you will not know what to do, how to do it, and will run out of funds to complete it. Even great artists deliberately not finish an art piece for a reason.

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