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on design vs. art

Thursday April 27, 2017

“What is art?” and “what is design?” are two of the more difficult questions that generations of philosophers and creative practitioners have attempted to grapple. The recurring question of my working identity as either an artist or a designer has always been a great source of contemplation and confusion, as I have attempted to describe myself (to myself and) to others, within the framework imposed in default questions such as, “…so what do you do?” But ultimately, does it really matter if one cannot be placed so cleanly in the boxes society will tend towards? Do definitions really help to appease the ambiguity of true self identity?


A look at the semantic differentiation between the nouns ‘art’ and ‘design’ may prove useful to some, but I for one am not convinced.


From Apple Dictionary:


art 1 |ɑːt|

1 [ mass noun ] the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power: the art of the Renaissance | great art is concerned with moral imperfections | she studied art in Paris.
• works produced by human creative skill and imagination: his collection of modern art | [ as modifier ] : an art critic.
• creative activity resulting in the production of paintings, drawings, or sculpture: she’s good at art.
2 (the arts) the various branches of creative activity, such as painting, music, literature, and dance: the visual arts | [ in sing. ] : the art of photography.
3 (arts) subjects of study primarily concerned with human creativity and social life, such as languages, literature, and history (as contrasted with scientific or technical subjects): the belief that the arts and sciences were incompatible | the Faculty of Arts.
4 a skill at doing a specified thing, typically one acquired through practice: the art of conversation.



design |dɪˈzʌɪn|

1 a plan or drawing produced to show the look and function or workings of a building, garment, or other object before it is made: he has just unveiled his design for the new museum.
• [ mass noun ] the art or action of conceiving of and producing a plan or drawing of something before it is made: good design can help the reader understand complicated information.
• [ mass noun ] the arrangement of the features of an artefact, as produced from following a plan or drawing: inside, the design reverts to turn-of-the-century luxe.
2 a decorative pattern: pottery with a lovely blue and white design.
3 [ mass noun ] purpose or planning that exists behind an action, fact, or object: the appearance of design in the universe.


verb [ with obj. ]
decide upon the look and functioning of (a building, garment, or other object), by making a detailed drawing of it: a number of architectural students were designing a factory | (as adj., with submodifierdesigned) : specially designed buildings.
• do or plan (something) with a specific purpose in mind: [ with obj. and infinitive ] : the tax changes were designed to stimulate economic growth.



As nouns, I believe that both dictionary definitions can be be switched to still clearly describe stages of what constitutes art or design. Try substituting the meanings and please tell me if they cannot fit into one another.


In applying the definition of ‘designing’ (verb) a work— understood as one which looks to define an outcome that solves a set problem within a set of given constraints (a certain type of object or experience with specific predetermined qualities)—all works of art may be viewed as design works if an artefact or experience reveals the initial intention of the designer/artist whilst keeping within those predetermined parameters. By this logical yet obscure reasoning, design is art with specific intention that retains a certain proximity to its predetermined constituents; any form or experience which intends to do something specific, and does it, whilst abiding by some rules which look to predict its final form. Despite this, I am still unclear on whether I am a designer or an artist, at heart…


Let’s take a different view. Does the ‘success’ of a created object or experience change its noun status? Considering intention and judgment within this perspective reveals imposed linguistic limitations. Using the example of a ‘house’, most would determine that the form itself is a piece of design, insofar as it is a structure constructed to shelter people and is primarily created with that intent. Whether the house is successful in sheltering people or to what level this success can be measured determines how ‘good’ a house it is; how good a design it is, draws subjective processions of conclusions from its functionality, or its liveability in the case of a house, with its perceived aesthetic appeal. Apparently this may prove a house is a piece of design (noun).  However the very same house, may have been realised by a sculptor, and not an architect, with the very same material knowledge and stylistic penchant, resulting in the very same final construction. Designed by an artist. Further, the so-called greatest houses in the world, through common vernacular, may also be called “works of art”, further adding to confusion around definitions. In this way to describe a creative work as ‘art’ is then an elevation bestowed only to the finest deemed designs. 


The design of a Pandora’s Box is a work of art, set out by Pandora to achieve growing complication…


I’ll stop here for now.