The relationship between art and design

Over the last 2 years, I’ve been making a career change from art to design. My move started as a dawning realisation in 2013 and progressed at speed in 2016. In that time, I moved from a small niche that was deeply familiar (art museums) to an expansive discipline that touches all sectors (design).

I’m not a graphic or industrial or fashion designer. I make and shape nothing physical. I explain my work as making intangible things, like websites and the structures, strategies, processes, services and experiences of organisations and systems. That explanation causes looks of confusion from family and taxi drivers alike.

Richard Buchanan’s 4 Orders of Design

Richard Buchanan’s 4 Orders of Design

I found little meaningful literature on how to defining art or design. And I’m not alone. Buchanan observes what I found, that design literature “is filled with contrasting and sometimes contradictory definitions of design, and efforts to define it have often led to acrimony.”

With my background, I’m sensitive to that tension, especially when it pitches art and design against each other. My ears prick every time a comparison is made, and they’re made a lot. It turns out, the design world loves reducing complexity to pithy quotes. Here are just a few I’ve collected, from well-known designers to practitioners in my day-to-day life:

“Art makes statements. Designs work… Artists think design is decoration. Which is why the world of art and the world of design collide.” - Don Norman
“Design is decoration.” - James Elkins
“All industrial designers work within constraints. This is not fine art.” - Matthew Carter
“Art is a noun, and design is a noun and a verb. Art is a product and design is a process.” - Paul Rand
“Clients are the difference between design and art.”  — Michael Bierut
“Design with ego is art.” - a strategic design colleague
“Design is a balance between art and engineering.” - an interior design friend

If you already work in the arts or design, you might think my pursuit of a definition is futile and irrelevant. Enough examples exist to prove every one of the above statements wrong (and not so few as to be the exception that proves a rule). What’s the benefit of trying to define the two?

Buchanan is helpful here, “definitions serve strategic and tactical purposes in inquiry. They do not settle matters once and for all. Instead, they allow an investigator to clarify the direction of their work and move ahead.” To be truthful, I’m not yet comfortable with being called a designer. Just as Buchanan suggests, this process of thinking about the difference between art and design helps me work out my reasons for changing my career and move forward.

If I put the quotes aside, I’m left with a feeling that I’ve crossed some kind of chasm between disciplines. Is this chasm a reflection of my personal experience of leaving known land and making a leap? We know the two are related practices. But how are they related?

Artists use design processes all the time, whether consciously or not. Designers use the same methods as artists for finding and recording creative inspiration. Take for example the balancing of design processes, engineering and inspiration that combine in the work of ceramacist Michelle Erickson at the V&A. Is this design research? Is it replication? Is it craft?

How Was it Made? An Agate Teapot by Michelle Erickson, Victoria and Albert Museum

If we plot art and design along a spectrum, we can visually establish a relationship while avoiding clear boundaries. It accommodates our unsettled definitions of art and design and our perceived tension between them. But in what space does this spectrum operate? Creativity? Innovation? High and low social power?

Art and design as different forms of innovation, inspired by Simon Wardley

Art and design as different forms of innovation, inspired by Simon Wardley

At this point, I took a leaf from Simon Wardley’s article about innovation in companies (and one making a comeback, thanks to Micah Walter). Plotting art and design against different types of innovation, the two land in different yet related roles. Artists are akin to Wardley’s pioneers:

“Able to explore never before discovered concepts, the uncharted land. They show you wonder but they fail a lot. Half the time the thing doesn't work properly. You wouldn't trust what they build. They create 'crazy' ideas. Their type of innovation is what we call core research. They make future success possible. Most of the time we look at them and go "what?", "I don't understand?" and "is that magic?”

Designers are akin to town planners, who “often disrupt past industries. This can be anticipated quite a time in advance.” Wardley goes on,

“They take something and implement it, taking advantage of economies of scale. This requires immense skill. You trust what they build... They build the services that pioneers build upon. Their type of innovation is industrial research.”

This week, I marked 6 months as a designer. In that time, I’ve been visiting Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto at the Art Gallery of NSW. Kylie has described this installation in a post on her site, Art Matters Now. In a nutshell, it was one work stretched over 13 large screens in 4 rooms, each featuring a unique central character performing an edited script made from 20th century art and design manifestos. As a time based media, the installation is best appreciated over multiple visits.

I took a while to move past Cate Blanchett’s stunning characters and how beautifully each world was realised. Slowly I sensed these worlds and manifestos were conflicting with, commenting on or subverting each other.

In my most recent visit, the art was no longer only found in the manifestos and design no longer exclusively in the supporting installation. Any separation in the roles that art and design played in this piece began to blur and I saw the neighbouring rivers of art and design feeding a shared floodplain. The design manifestos were as equally problematised as the art manifestos. I saw the creative ideologies that inform both:

Excerpt from catalogue for Manifesto, Julian Rosefeldt: A film installation in twelve scenes, Koenig Books, London.

Excerpt from catalogue for Manifesto, Julian Rosefeldt: A film installation in twelve scenes, Koenig Books, London.

After reflecting on my last 6 months, this article has been an exercise in throwing ideas at the wall and seeing which ones stick. Have any resonated with you? Have you moved between art and design or do you work across both? Is a definition of the relationship between them useful for anyone else?

I’m still working as an advocate for our arts institutions and communities “has the leavening agents of society” (to quote Jude Rae). This work as crystallised in an era of extreme cuts to the arts. I deeply believe in the unique power of the arts to pull aside the fabric of everyday life and peek beyond, showing us a perspective we’ve never considered before. Helping others to appreciate that is more important now than ever. But I can do that most effectively from the design end of the spectrum, where I can make tangible and positive impact on the everyday lives of people and institutions and do it at scale to boot.


This post was first published on art matters now, a blog by Dr Kylie Budge. It is a site dedicated to discussing and showcasing art/design/craft in all its dimensions and help build greater understandings about the value of art in the world.