Dear design student: You are not an artist

Design can’t live on creative expression alone

A paint brush with the “no” symbol (red circle and slash) placed over it

Like a lot of people that began studying design in the early 2000s, I was drawn to field because I liked the sound of “computer art.” It seemed new and different at the time. But during my four years of undergraduate design courses, no one took the opportunity to point out something pretty critical: What I was learning and practicing every day wasn’t art.

I had to figure that out on my own.

This is a pretty common problem. The boundaries between art and design are confusing — especially for students — because people often talk about them in the same context. But when it comes to putting either into practice, one is not so much like the other.

Understanding the differences between art and design is an essential first step for anyone in the early stages of their design education. But—so be it—many designers still like to consider themselves artists. If you’re one of them, it’s time for a harsh reality check:

You are not an artist.

Allow me to clarify: Designers are not artists. And viewing yourself as one—especially when approaching your journey as a student of design—is already a step in the wrong direction. In fact, design schools share a tremendous amount of blame for this misconception. But that’s a totally different conversation.

Yes, design and art are very closely tied together. Many art forms—printmaking, for example—are undoubtedly the roots of our profession. And, of course, many designers are artists in their spare time.

So when you pick up that paintbrush, call yourself an artist or “creative genius” all you like. As long as you can separate that mentality when it’s time to roll up your sleeves and tackle a design problem.

While they do share many overlapping qualities, design and art are two fundamentally different disciplines. Each is informed by different data, is created through different processes, and wholly exists to fulfill different functions.

When I teach first-year students at the university level, this distinction between art and design is one of the first things I want to communicate to them; to explain these differences and break down the distinctions. For example: Art is about the artist, and design is about the audience (or the user). Art is subjective, while design is objective. Art expresses creativity while design leverages creativity. And so on.

Art has an intrinsic and independent value, while design has a value that’s informed by external factors. Art is about form, and design is about function. Art makes you think (or it’s interpretive), whereas design should communicate and eliminate questions. Art is about exploration, and design is about observation (and, if you’re doing it right, iteration).

When you focus on individual motivations: Artists make art for themselves, but designers make things for other people. And artists depend on their audience for approval and praise, while designers rely on their audience to confirm understanding or usability.

The design process can’t be based on intuition, or opinion, or creative expression on its own. Designers can undoubtedly make artistic choices to create compelling images, but, in reality, design is a humble “artform.”

The hard truth is that we, as designers, can’t afford to make judgments based on our own sense of aesthetics. Design serves a very distinct role: It has to be functional. Graphic design, specifically, is the place where art, or image and text, come together to communicate. In my opinion, that’s the root definition of what a print designer does.

Illustration is art. Of course, it is. But placing that illustration into a composition with text, color, etc.: That’s where design begins.

A poster with the saying “Design is not art. Design is utilitarian, art is not”
This is design. Not art.

As a process, designers observe a specific situation or problem—or respond to a need—and address it with a solution. Our job, first and foremost, is solving problems.

Typically, design (and the design process) should give order to an idea or goal. In an over-simplified way, design is really about making someone’s life easier. Not happier, not more content. Not providing more joy, necessarily, in the way art would. But about resolving an issue or improving someone’s experience.

The goal of design is to support the function of content. No matter how beautiful or sexy the solution is, the result must be—at its most fundamental core—a successful resolution to a stated problem, answering all the questions that existed at the beginning. Any aesthetic beauty is a nice-to-have, not a need-to-have.

So design doesn’t need to be flashy, it doesn’t need to be ornate, it doesn’t need to be eye-catching. A lot of people even argue that good design is often invisible.

We’re here to deliver the most successful—not necessarily the best-looking—solutions. Now, you can be an artist in your free time. But in a business setting, you’re a problem solver.

You’re a designer.

Don’t get me wrong; design is still creative work! The keyword that needs to be removed from the equation is “expression.” Artists and the art world don’t own creativity. They don’t have a monopoly on it. Creativity just takes on a different role in the design process. A functional one that, when applied, can help solve a problem.

Designers and artists both work in creative mediums, and design absolutely can and should be creative. It’s the “why” behind that creativity that matters most.

With art being a personal form of expression, creativity can come solely from within. But design is almost always informed by outside sources.

Good design isn’t creative for creativity’s sake. Creativity comes in the form of an approach to solving design problems.

Designers can, and should, bring creativity and personal experience into the design process in a way that enhances the functionality of a design. We should never be proud of a design (primarily) because it’s beautiful or creatively different. We should be proud because it solves a problem to a high degree.

And, of course, a more aesthetically pleasing design will always stand out on the shelf and be more intrinsically attractive to a consumer. We all know that many people will buy something just because they think it looks cool. But if it doesn’t work or solve a need, you can be damn sure they won’t purchase it again.

In the end, consumers will always prefer a product that’s functional and aesthetically pleasing over one that’s pleasing but not functional. So designers must always put themselves in the user’s or audience’s shoes—rather than satisfy their own urges—to create successful, meaningful work.

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