Art vs Design

Art vs. Design, Is it Art or Is it Design?

For the longest time, I viewed the terms as interchangeable. 
“Art” referred to a piece of “design”, and “design” was what you did to make “art”. You ‘design’ or ‘make’ art in different forms, right?

I like to keep the two distinctly separate now after being in this field for over two decades. The misuse of these terms or the interchangeable and loose use of ‘art’ and ‘design’ (or even ‘creative’) often keeps us talking in circles, and at least for a specific project or with a specific client, it’s good to bring clarity by putting a line between these.

Art as a Process

We refer to art as a process when we say, “The art of [thing]”. This makes sense to most of us and works well when you’re in regular conversation. Regular conversation as in not client-to-agency defining terms and discussing a project. 

Selling what you do, or why it has value is truly an art. A discipline and a blend of show and tell may have some science, but not everyone who follows a process can replicate what others seem to have raw talent for; their ‘art’ is in their ability. Less discipline, more …art.

Art as a Finished, Unique Work

We all know the phrase, “…a work of art…” – and that’s the other primary use and the one that, in marketing and development life, I prefer to use this term for exclusively. “Did you get the artwork?” a client will ask, and I’ll expect they are referring to finished unique pieces. Logos, banner images, full print designs like posters with many elements, apparel design, etc., and it usually is when they say ‘artwork’. This is a good thing.

Art, in marketing, is best looked at, in my opinion, as what is about to be published. What is web-ready, print-ready, and in production. I’ve found that few argue with this seemingly minute and granular point, but it’s a point of sanity that I sort of insist on here at Suited with projects I take part in. 

That PSD file with multiple layers used to export product photos is …an asset. A component of a design system, but not art. It’s not done, nor is it meant to be. So, what’s the difference between a finished design or ‘art’?

Design as a System

My point here is in the sub-title; I believe design is a system. “That’s a nice design” is not referring to a single/flat promotional graphic or branded element, but usually a set of rules being adhered to across a medium. Most commonly a website with multiple pages, layouts for devices, and content within it, but not limited at all to websites. Even in the case of finished, unique work, you might say “nice design”, but that is a bit different than the art that went into it.

Example: the athlete posed at the starting line, the background going from a running track to a photoshop-manipulated ‘jungle’ (or whatever blended scene), the teeny details in the drops of sweat, the light source, and use of color.. All art. The intentional restrain of using only 3 colors, placing the ‘NIKE’ logo & type in white, exactly 250px from the border, and with set tracking/kerning, and weight, as well as not overusing ‘NIKE’ or the swoosh on the same line? That’s a nice design. If that doesn’t make sense, the rest of this article is doomed! -haha

I’m not going to go on and on too long about the importance of a design system, only emphasize that creating one, and enforcing it is a beautiful thing. You see and appreciate it daily in food packaging, throw-away labels, and even invoices and junk mail. There is no mystique as to how these things look ‘pro’ and don’t, and 90% of it has little to do with art, or ‘amazing’ creativity, as much as it does simply putting a design system and brand guidelines in place, and sticking with them.

Art vs. Design

The last analogy of the NIKE sports poster lives the best example I can think of. You arrive with a good design concept and guidelines so that you can generate art that …has a story. Ties together, and weaves one big picture. That is, for a company looking to have a brand and …well, to sell a thing. 

Otherwise, this could be a long article about how great art is as a musical recording artist, a painter, and on and on where everything I’ve said previously has no relevance. Make art with no rules if that’s you!

In the world of business and commerce, art and design need some separation and rules. As a Creative Director at Suited, the hardest thing to endure is having clients want to create a lot of art, as cool as the ideas may be, without having the discipline and ‘container’ of design to hold it. 

Sorry if you disagree with my use of terms here, but it’s helped me navigate so many conversations and kept me from confusing others, including myself. If you haven’t gathered already, I believe design first then art. 

Sure, browse other artwork but pull back and look at that company’s brand; their ‘system’. I bet that’s giving off as much appeal as the cool factor (and I’m all about the cool factor), and will provide you with more drive to create your unique ‘thing’ vs. trying to jump to the ‘art’ part of it.

Art and Design Are Two Different Things

Even if you disagree with me on how I’m defining these terms – they’re still different things. Again, in the NIKE poster; you have art in the photography, direction, vision, and cool factor and design guiding the principles of how the finished product comes out, and how it fits into a set of other finished pieces of art to create a cohesive world of art.

My Best Advice to a Company Reading This?

Let professionals that do this full-time help you define what these terms do to your organization’s brand. 

I bet you’ll love seeing what your design system and brand guidelines are, and how your art and design have been perhaps blended when separating them out really helps you think about what to do for a campaign, and why a design you approved felt …wrong… and you couldn’t place it.

Reach out to me anytime and I’d love to grab a meeting with you to look at your business’ current brand via your website or another example and give you some feedback. 


Thanks for the read!

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