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The Line Between Art And Design

/ Thoughts & Opinion

I shudder to think about the amount of times that designers the world over have heard the nonchalantly delivered quip “you just make it look good” in conjunction with pretty much anything that gets thrown at them. “Yeah, but you just make it look good.” or even those designers that will jokingly confirm it “Well, I don’t know how it works, but hey – I can make it look good”.

“Look good.”

Neither of those two words encompass anything like what an accomplished designer should be able to achieve.

“Look” suggests that what we do is merely on the surface. Just a goopy aesthetic gloss on top of something with no regard for whether it works well or not.

“Good” is subjective. What one person thinks is good, may not be good for another person, and despite being able to roughly determine the general consensus of what might be good or not, it’s really not scratching the surface of what design is.

I recently thought about this perceived notion between what designers actually do, and what people think they do.

Here’s what a “good” designer (let’s say “an effective designer”) should do in my opinion:

An effective designer should be able to present content and information efficiently for the user. The designer should be able to structure the information effectively for delivery on whatever medium they are working with or for. The designer should be able to use their knowledge of the intended audience and their behavioural patterns, as well as common design principals to inform a finished product which communicates clearly with the user.

This is all fine and dandy, until you present the argument that a designer should also be able to bring in his own style and artistic talent to the table, or that design should tell a story.

At what point in the mix does this then stop becoming purely design and end up more to do with art or illustration?

Is there even a line to be drawn? My money is on no, and perhaps it should be left at that, but we all know I can’t let something go, so here are a few further thoughts.

Swiss design

Led by Josef Müller-Brockmann and Armin Hofmann, this popular and oft-referenced style of design, termed “International Style” or “International Typographic Style” employed heavy use of grid systems, sans-serif typography and asymmetrical layout. There is a recognisable aesthetic at play with Swiss design and subsequent styles that it heavily influenced. There are certain rules and an amount of regulation to the work (despite effective freedom within these perceived constraints).

Should we consider this restraint a conscious attempt to distance this design work from traditional art? Much of the poster work to emerge from this era (which originated in the 1940s and 50s) was designed in a way that provided the most effective means of communication. The goal here being the communication of information in an effective way. As much as artistic licence comes in to that, the main objective still seems very clear.

Design should tell a story

Design is often cited to add value and tell a story, be it visual or interactive, whatever medium is chosen there should be a narrative. I don’t know where to stand on this. Part of me says that design should present the content, and the content should then tell the story. Design is just the method of delivery. But then Does the delivery its self not in-turn tell a story? When you read a book to a child, the delivery of the words your reading can amount to how effectively the story is told, and also the retention of the information from the child’s point of view. Is the way that the story is told considered artistic? Should design incorporate art in order to more effectively communicate information? This seems like a plausible allowance.

So, designers have a style – it’s impossible not to, but how much should they embrace their style and let that influence the design? How far from the standard should we stray in order to incorporate artistic licence? Maybe design is all about taking risks?

Many designers know the principals, the standards that define effective communication, so perhaps what design has become is problem solving through taking risks. Trying to push the boundaries of what is accepted as a design solution in order to incorporate some form of artistic vision.

Maybe we need to push it further out, in order to reel it back in. Maybe we need to go so far down the art route, in order to test the elasticity of the design world. Will excessive artistic drive slowly contract us back to designing purely functional things?

I guess the answer is balance. Balance within the scene, where some are working functionally, some are working artistically. Balance within our work, to incorporate standard design principals, while also allowing artistic interpretation to feed in to our solutions.

What are your thoughts? Do you feel strongly one way or another? Let me know!

This post was originally written for the QueryClick blog.

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Alex Cowles

About The Author: Alex Cowles

A largely cynical and often sarcastic designer and front-end developer by day. Unknown international DJ & music producer extraordinaire by night (and at weekends). You probably won't like him.