Why Does Design Aspire to Art?

Revisiting the age-old question: where do the two diverge?

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.”

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.”


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 Eco-chick.com, a columnist at MNN.com, and contributes to Inhabitat and The Huffington Post. She is Metropolis’s copyeditor.

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