Four Differences between Art and Design

How does art differ from design? While there are many similarities between art and design (I’m talking specifically graphic design, but this applies to industrial design and other design practices), there are also key differences. Both are firmly rooted in fine art and the creative process. However, the existence of these two creative categories in the world and in the market are very different.

As you read, please realize that, while I make sweeping statements about art and design, there will be instances when these statements don’t always hold true. And if you disagree with anything, please feel free to dialogue!

Also, keep in mind that often, art and design work hand-in-hand. And, just because you’re a designer doesn’t mean you aren’t creative or you aren’t an artist. This is just an analysis of differences between the two fields that have so much in common in terms of ideation and creation.


1. The audience

I would venture to say that audience is one of the most important factors that differentiates art from design. While art is unfettered creativity, design is creativity within the boundaries of client expectations and user interaction.

While artists are typically responsible for imposing their own limitations and boundaries upon themselves, the number one boundary designers face is their clients. Clients (and/or) have expectations for a product or design that designer must learn to interpret and work within.

While a designer may make a beautiful logo and printed layout, if they fail to taken their audience into account, they may have engaged their own creativity, but they’ve failed to draw upon the sentiments of the people who will be engaging with the product.

Artists, on the other hand, tend to determine their own audience by the type of work they produce. Certain art forms will draw certain types of audiences. When an artist receives a commission for work, it’s typically because the client has already seen their work, enjoys the creative process of the artist and wants a piece of their work, perhaps tailored to some of their other tastes or interests.

Often times, an artist doesn’t know who their audience will be until they’ve been producing work for a time. This is because typically, the work that an artist creates is produced as an expression of themselves that they hope will connect with an empathetic or understanding audience. Design, on the other hand, finds an audience first, then creates work specifically to engage that audience.


2. Existence in the market

Art and design’s existence in the marketplace is perhaps the most striking difference between the two. Design has a very direct tie to capitalism, commerce and the marketplace. While a piece of art is typically inherently valuable because of the artist who created it, and not always because of its visual appeal, the value of design lies in its ability to connect a business with their consumers. Design may be extremely ugly but functional. As designers, we must recognize the value of ugly design even if we fail to appreciate it.

(I do want to make sure to differentiate design from marketing. All I will say to this is that, while design tailors to an audiences needs, marketing manipulates a user’s wants. Design helps brands and consumers feel connected; marketing make products appear to be needed. Design is about humanity, connection and interactions; marketing is all about a product.)

Art is typically developed without much attention given to its marketability. Many artists hope that the creative process and the concept behind the art will will inform the work and give additional value to it. Artists follow a creative process, often tailored to fit their own methodology, and expect their audience to find value in it.


3. Boundaries and limitations

The boundaries and limitations impressed on artists and designers can contrast quite a bit. One primary boundary designers face is their clients. Clients come to a designer with expectations for a project. Additionally, the budget, project scope, ability to scale, city or neighborhood signage restrictions, brand standards, user needs and a million other factors place limits upon the work that a designer can create. A designer must consider these various factors and create solutions that takes each of these things into account.

Artists, on the other hand, are typically responsible for developing their own set of boundaries. Whether this is working within a certain creative process, implementing a regimented means of gaining inspiration, or limiting themselves to a certain color palette or mood, an artist has to find boundaries to work within for their work to not become a wild amalgamation of chaos.


4. Copyright and signature

Finally, copyright. My general analysis is that artists can claim their creative work while designers cannot always do so. Artists almost always own the copyright to their work unless they choose to sell it to a publication, museum or other entity. I do, however, recognize that artists will run into issues of copyright, especially when it comes to reproduction of their work, and copyright can also become an issue with commissioned work.

In the world of design, the matter of copyright can get a little dicey and can vary from designer to designer, or firm to firm. While some agencies opt to retain copyright on projects (this happens with websites a lot), often times designers will turn copyright over to the client for reproduction as long as the design is not altered. However, there is often still the matter of creative copyright, which becomes even more confusing. Designers who are employed by agencies surrender creative copyright to the agency, though most agencies will allow the individual to present the projects in their portfolio with proper credit.

Additionally, artists typically have every right to sign their work. Almost every painting or photo hanging on someone’s – or a museum’s – wall with have a signature in the bottom corner. However, designers typically don’t receive this right (except on most websites). There have often been times when I’ve seen a rebrand of a business and searched for the designer only to run into dead ends and have to acknowledge that there were probably NDAs and other contracts involved.

Designers tend to be hidden. They get giant paychecks for great work, they get the pleasure of seeing their work in the real world and they get to share that work with their circle of friends. It’s enjoyable to gloat smugly about work you created that people see or use everyday. But a majority of audiences will never know the designer behind many of the brands they interact with on a daily basis. And I’m not saying this is a bad thing because generally, I think designers are ok with this.

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