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Design is Not Art

September 19, 2016

In any field, if you go deep enough, you'll find lots of blurred lines and borders where one particular discipline ends and another begins. The frontiers of theoretical physics often collide with metaphysics, a branch of philosophy. Linguistics brushes up against literature quite often, and history and archaeology are sometimes studying the same things through different approaches.

One of these twin-fields is visual arts and design. It doesn't seem like it most of the time, because some disciplines of design, like architecture and graphic design, are very artistic. Often, when you study design, you'll also be studying the visual arts, from color to composition. But for me, the last three years of learning design has largely been me teaching myself out of the idea that design is an art form, instead teaching myself to see design as a science, and as the multidisciplinary field it is.

A few months ago, a friend of mine wanted to get into design and asked of my thoughts on the difference between art and design. I said,

design is creativity in pursuit of a goal, while art is creativity in search of a purpose.

In less poetic terms, I think design and art differ because of why they exist -- whether a particular work has a purpose, and what they are.

Works of art tend to have a purpose that's self-contained. Whether it be an oil painting honoring the beauty of a scenic view, a film about the conflict between ambition and compassion, or a photograph critiquing discrimination, the best works of art hold within them stories, and the purpose of a piece of art is often found within the stories it tells. Not so with design.

Design is fundamentally different in that it's a way of problem solving. The purpose of a particular design isn't created in the process of making or sharing it, as in the arts, and the process of design starts with a concrete, unobjectionable goal. Because of that difference, works of great design often have goals and purposes that are abundantly clear rather than nebulous and free.

Take the design of a poster, for example. While the illustration may be eye-catching and the letters might look like they're flowing off of the page, the purpose of that poster, the reason it was created, isn't to ask a question about some moral quandary or make a statement about a theme; the purpose of a poster is really simple -- to get you to pay attention to it and go somewhere or buy something. And this simple, practical goal doesn't degrade the design in any way; it doesn't make the poster any less creative or beautiful. But it does make it a work of design, rather than a work of art.

There's lots of examples like this in the incredibly wide discipline of design. Architectural design's purposes may be to create a sense of space where there isn't one or to blend in with nature; a product design's goal is usually to solve the users' problems elegantly and easily (think iPhone and Google Search), and in a less-famous part of design called type design, the goal may be to improve legibility in a font, to stand out, to convey a particular emotion through unique letterforms, or something completely different. The bottom line is, a work of design starts with a very specific, almost scientifically rigorous goal. Less so in the arts.

Because these "design goals" exist, and because we weigh the success and value of a design not around its aesthetic appeal, but around how it solves the problems it set out to solve, sometimes aesthetics are sacrificed for the sake of practicality. If hiding a button behind a convoluted menu made a webpage visually simpler but difficult to use, an artist might go ahead and hide it, but a designer would be wise to put that button front and center, and think about visual balance second. If making all the locks of a building smooth, touch surfaces with no breaks for a key, it might look exceedingly beautiful, but it could also be a headache when the power goes out. Design is creativity with a goal, and works of design live or die by how well they solve their problems.

So there's a difference between design and art, but of course, that doesn't make either any more or less important than the other. In some cases like art galleries or interior design, you can't really live without one or the other. We sometimes need things that make us think and wonder, and sometimes need solutions that get things done (and, hopefully, look amazing while doing it).

As I learned more about how to balance aesthetics with pragmatics in design, I've tried to find that same kind of equilibrium in my lifestyle. I want to find a point of balance where I can do both hobbies that I enjoy for no particular reason, and work that gets me up in the morning because I'm making cool stuff that solves problems and helps other people.

Our lives aren't just roller coaster rides of thrill, and they aren't winding roads of clearing roadblocks after roadblocks to climb the ladder to the ill-defined peak. We need things in life that make us smile just to do them, and we also need things that give us something greater than ourselves to inspire us and push us along, to make life something of a journey that transcends beyond daily drudgery. Or as Elon Musk put it,

Life can’t be just about solving problems. There have to be things that are inspiring and exciting and make you glad to be alive. - Elon Musk

And I think we should all strive for that.