Mar 27, 201309:30 AMPoint of View


Design vs Art

Design vs Art

Shenzhen China, Steven Holl

The March issue of Metropolis digs deep into how the creative process happens for a number of designers. From Steven Holl’s watercolors that structurally ideate—and ultimately become—homes, to John Pawson’s travel photographs that inform the museum he’s building, and Matali Crasset’s modern vessel inspired by age-old dishes. These stories not only show how designers navigate the tricky spaces between design concept and final product but also reveal how art is integral to the design process. Indeed, in each of the pieces—the watercolors, the photographs, the African bowls—art is firmly in timeline of the design project it’s attached to. Is there, then, a line between what is art and what is design? What is the fundamental difference? Typographer and designer Roberto De Vincq de Cumptich, author of Men of Letters and People of Substance, defines the difference as being about the economics of consumption: Design demands and expects a consumer, art hopes for one but is not dependent upon it. He writes: “Design is not Art, since Art exists as an answer to a question posed by an individual artist, while Design exists as an answer to a question posed by the marketplace.

Design must have an audience to come into being, while Art seeks an audience, sometimes, luckily, finding it, sometimes not. Art pushes the limit of human experience and language for its own sake, while Design might do this but only to humanize and integrate people’s lives in the context of an economy. Design needs an economic system, while Art does not. Art may become a product, but it’s not the reason why it was created, but how our society transforms it into a commodity.” Similarly to De Vincq de Cuptich’s idea of design being dependent upon context, Craig A. Elimeliah writes, in an essay for the AIGA, “Art vs. Design” that art isn’t expected to follow rules, whereas design absolutely must, “…design in the commercial sense is a very calculated and defined process; it is discussed amongst a group and implemented taking careful steps to make sure the objectives of the project are met. “On the other hand, art is something completely separate—any good artist should convey a message or inspire an emotion it doesn't have to adhere to any specific rules, the artist is creating his own rules. “I can completely appreciate the paths laid down by past artists who establish a style or method but at this point it seems that when that style or method is used the art then turns into design.”

In an essay from 1998 on the University of North Carolina’s site, Michael Brady argues that the difference is really about perspective and intent. In his piece, “Art and Design, What’s the Big Difference?” he writes: “Beginning the mid-1800s, many artists chose to stand apart from worldly life in order to critique it, to forsake the programs of patrons in order to set their own programs, to discard the public moral code to promote a different code. Although many artists claim to address their art to the world, their method has been to take from the world only on their terms and give back as they see fit. This is definitely not the way of design, which considers the world's purpose first and fits the work to that end.” Brady also suggests that a designer “arranges the ingredients,” whereas an artist has “all the options …available without precondition,” leading us to an idea inherent in all of these discussions. Each new design has history of principals behind it and, more importantly (because this could be true of art), those principles are ultimately defined by its end-user (whether a given design achieves that or not depends on the specifics of the project, of course). If the designer’s credo (via architect Louis Sullivan) is ‘Form follows function’ then the artist’s is Keats’s ‘Truth is beauty/Beauty, truth.”

Starre Vartan is an author, journalist, and artist whose work concentrates on sustainability in consumer products, including a focus on vernacular, nature-based and eco design. Recognized as a green living expert, she is the publisher of, a columnist at, and contributes to Inhabitat and The Huffington Post. She is Metropolis’s copyeditor.

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