Should design be considered an art? Although this seems a much straightforward question, it is actually not that simple. One would think it a fairly easy task to choose a yes or a no in a decisive manner. The trouble arises when you look a bit further beyond the simplicity of saying yes or no to this question. In thinking through this seemingly simple but very loaded question, it appears that design should not be considered an art.
Anything that is done based on a set standard, a philosophy or by a methodology is a science rather than an art. This argument is based on three main positions:
The historical meaning of the word design,
The association of design to fine art studies and
The effect of design on everyday living.
In this discussion a few viewpoints of regular non-academic industry players who did have quite varying positions on the matter but largely leaning towards the position that design should not be considered an art are articulated. There are a few questions to be answered to successfully justify the position that design should not be considered an art.
Design from a Historical Point of View
What have we come to know design to be and how did we get here? Once there is a design, there certainly must be a designer. It is however unclear where to place the concept of design and what the designer’s clear job really is. The word design in itself can be looked at from various perspectives and in diverse ways. It can be a verb (which makes it an activity), It can be a noun (and this makes it a product) and it can be descriptive (meaning that it can be an attribute of a product or a process). “What is the essence of design? Is it for the form or for the function?” (Flusser, 1993) and makes some comparative analysis to how machinery and devices are all man-made items to play tricks on nature.
The root of the word design can be analyzed from different cultures, which will all essentially have one similar theme running through it; its either a process of making something, or the effect that something, which has been made, is expected to have on life.
The Greek word for design is ‘schédio’, which translates into everyday words like plan, drawing, scheme, project and outline.
Most people attribute ancient Egyptian design to the engineering, structural and architectural design and construction of pyramids and tunnels, which were sophisticatedly networked in the dessert dunes.
The Hebrew people also seem to follow in similar fashion to the Greek and Egyptians, referring to design as shape, mold, lay out, or plot. In more modern civilizations, the German word for design is ‘entwurf’, which also translates into words like draft, project, plan, and sketch.
It is easy to find a common theme running through the various definitions given to design by various cultures from historic civilizations to even more modern present day culture. There is a theme of a thought through process or the product of a thinking process with the aim to achieve something specific. The philosophy of ‘deceit of nature’ that “this is the design that is the basis of all culture: to deceive nature by means of technology, to replace what is natural with what is artificial and build a machine out of which there comes a god who is ourselves” (Flusser, 1993), does not necessarily explain the reasons why design should not be considered an art, yet it shows that the concept of design from historical times, in its raw form, is geared towards the function and not necessarily the form and that this cuts across civilizations and cultures and by his statement, “Hence in contemporary life, design more or less indicates the site where art and technology (along with their respective evaluative and scientific ways of thinking) come together as equals, making a new form of culture possible” (Flusser, 1993) suggests that design is the missing link between the arts and technology.
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One thing we notice though is that over time the design of a product and its actual production do not necessarily have to be done by the same person. This has gradually introduced further confusions into the argument of what design is and/or what it should be. In historic times, it was easier to determine if design was an art based process or otherwise as one person did most things: the designer. “In modern times we find that in larger companies, specialization processes of have progressed to such an extent that a designer in a large company is only iresponsible for one specific part of a product” (Burdek, 2005).
The Design and Fine Arts Relationship
Why do we even equate fine art to the concept of design?
The constantly confusing misinterpretation of one for the other is perfectly summarised in the thought that “it is certainly necessary to say that if the words ‘fine-art’ and ‘design’ simply refer to a duality as experienced in art schools, it is difficult to set up satisfactory distinctions on that basis alone” (Potter, 1969).
This statement excuses the many reasons why there is always a misunderstanding of one for the other, design and art. However in finding a clear different between design and art, designer can be seen as one whose work is guided by principle, standards, philosophy and/or methodology.
In this case it is hardly ever the case that a designer produces anything out of personal gratification or self-satisfaction derived from the final outcome of the product.
The essence of design in this context leans more towards problem solving as against the artist whose major concern is the aesthetic or visual appeal of the product. There are quite a number of expectations that one usually has of a designer and Porter captures some of these expectations saying that “it will be seen that a designer must be capable of more detachment than may be necessary to a fine-artist” (Potter, 1969).
If we performed an assessment on the amount of responsibility a client places on an artist versus what they expect from a designer, it appears that “while the artist is free to express any and every form of unplanned and consequential creativity, it is easy to gather that a designer must be able to weigh up a problem, or an opportunity, in a dispassionate way and must like and understand people and be able to treat with them.
The designer is also expected to be able to accept fairly complex situations in which he or she may well be working as a member of a team and must be reasonably articulate. The designer must be practical and prepared for extensive responsibilities to other people” (Potter, 1969).
We realise from this that separation of duties in a production chain gives the opportunity for an artist where applicable to make a significant contribution to the final outcome of the actual design of the product. Vitruvius (ca. 80–10 B.C.), a military engineer names a guiding principle that has found its place in design history: “all buildings must satisfy three criteria: strength (firmitas), functionality (utilitas), and beauty (venustas)” (Burdek, 2005). It becomes increasingly clear from most assertions that design is separate from art but however, like a cake and its icing, art is a topping for design and although it is helpful that a designer can appreciate art, it is not the end of the world if the designer makes no artistic consideration during the process of development.
Design, Art and the Marketplace
A question is often asked why the designer is not the artist and many executives do not realise the need to even distinguish design from art. Many of these executives think that the position and or function of ‘designer’ is interchangeable with ‘artist’ and vice versa. There is always the scuffle for frontline attention in the market place. In this place, one must win over the other.
Design is inclined toward problem solving while art leans toward the visual appeal of the product. “It is no secret that the real world in which the designer functions is not the world of art, but the world of buying and selling” (Rand, 1981) and as such, the salesmen who more often than not have absolutely nothing to do with the production process, care little about the effect of the design but look at the finished product and how sellable it its. So schematics, maps, prototypes and frameworks are of little value to the artist or the salesman.
To the designer “design is a way of life, a point of view. It involves the whole complex of visual communication: talent, creative ability, manual skill and technical knowledge. Aesthetics and economics, technology and psychology are intrinsically related to the process” (Rand, 1981).
It is not strange that most people within the design space tend to be resentful of their management executives who mostly tend to criticise their work or make an overall evaluation of their work most times from a completely uninformed position using rather their position of authority and their visual impression of the product. It is not so difficult to understand why a superior would overwrite a concept that is not fully understood but the bottom line in such cases is that “the misuse of privilege is a disservice to management and counterproductive to good design” (Rand, 1981).
In such cases, it becomes imperative that these executives who have no appreciation for design need to be given the enlightenment that designers are not necessarily artists and that a design doesn’t always fall under the ‘artwork’ category. It is fair to say that there are some designers that have a very high ability to appreciate art and therefore compensate for it in their design process. “It is usually clear that the vast majority of non-designers don’t actually understand what a designer’s real role is” (Frankel, 2017).
Even though there is a clear attempt to establish that design is not art, the consideration exists that “visual communications of any kind, whether persuasive or informative, from billboards to birth announcements, should be seen as the embodiment of form and function: the integration of the beautiful and the useful” (Rand, 1981).
It appears that the subjective matter of the essence of design becomes the final element in determining if or not design should be considered an art. The artist’s primary concern is the form over the function whereas the designer bears the burden of function over the form thereof. An artist’s work is judged on the basis of opinion, and this opinion is determined largely by the taste and preference of the one judging. Design is rather the opposite. A short debate among a group of designers of vast experiences and varied backgrounds revealed responses which were just as diverse as their design backgrounds. “Is design art?”, “Or is it not?”, “What then can design be considered to be?” A few of the responses from the debate as shown below put more weight on the side of the divide which refuses to consider design as an art:
Referring to an online definition reveals that common use has two forms as a noun and one as a verb.
Design is often paid problem solving that expresses the purpose of the customer, while art is free and can be seen as an extension of the artist.
Art is by definition not constrained by anything else than the artists’ will and ability.
To me design is the science of simplifying human life while art is asking questions and expressing emotion on its own terms and conditions.
Design is art with purpose backed by science.
“What is the essence of design: form or function?” A design is expected to communicate one message or deliver one result. If a design is experienced in a way other than the one for which it was intended, then it has not met its requirement. It has failed in its purpose.
Art sends a different message to everyone in different ways however; a good design sends the same message to everyone the same way. From this, we can see clearly that design should not be considered an art.
From the above arguments, we can show that in no uncertain terms, art is a free-flowing process based on an artist’s feelings and emotional state as against design which must follow standards, philosophy and or methodology regardless of how the designer feels.
Burdek, B. E., 2005. Design: History, Theory and Practice of Product Design. s.l.:s.n.
Flasser, V., 1993. About the Word Design. The Shape of Things: a Philosophy of Design, pp. 55-57.
Frankel, K., 2017. HubSpot. [Online] Available at: https://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/designers-are-not-artists [Accessed October 2019].
Potter, N., 1969. What Is A Designer. 4th Edition ed. New York: Studio Vista, London, and Van Nostrand Reinhold Company.
Rand, P., 1981. Politics of Design. Graphis Annual, pp. 233-235.