Design is Art at Work

”Design is not art. Design is utilitarian, art is not.” – Massimo Vignelli

While there are days when I would lean in slight agreement with this statement, most days I could not disagree with it anymore.

When I was in college working on my Graphic Design degree, I had to take a ton of art classes. Why? Because graphic design was considered a form of art. Even the advertising majors had to get a minor in graphic design…from the College of Art at the university.

Painting, drawing, 3D design, ceramics–I took just about everything. And in order to get my bachelors, I had to fulfill all of these art requirements. But here is where I struggled. My design class requirements were, on many occasions, not taught with the overall goal of preparing me for a career in graphic design. And because of that, I didn’t consider myself an artist. A creative? Absolutely! But not an artist. Let me explain why.

As an aspiring designer, I wanted to design logos, websites, and a variety of other items. I wanted to design things that worked. While the fine art majors were wanting to theorize and discuss the subjective nature of why a certain color was used, I wanted to learn tools that would allow my creative thinking to excel in the business world. While most were enthralled with a display of post-it notes as art (this actually happened) or something that looked like baby food on a canvas, I wanted to design logos like the original heroes (see image below of three poster designs I did of well-known logo designers). Again, I wanted to design stuff that worked. Because of this I didn’t enjoy art school. In fact, I really struggled and felt cheated. Let me provide an example.

I had a specific class that dealt in photoshop. Day one of class the professor walked in, said the first project was due the following Monday, and then left. Eventually they came back in and I asked how to use photoshop.  I was told “to just play around with it.” I was distraught. I felt like the valuable tool that was at my fingertips was being wasted. I wasn’t being taught how to use it. Instead, it was desired of me to make artwork (keep in mind this was a mandatory class for my Graphic Design degree).

For one of my classes, I had to put together a “trilogy” based on a historical matter related to design. Because of my passion for logos, I studied 3 crucial logo designers. Above are pieces for Saul Bass, Paul Rand, & Lucian Bernhard.

This class became something that I dreaded. Whenever I made a print of something with some literal or objective sense to it, I would get a poor grade. However, I eventually figured it out. This professor had a liking for conceptual art that spoke of a random chance worldview. I began providing assignments that had random shapes splattered onto huge and expensive pieces of paper. My grades went up, but my spirits went down. This would not work in the business world. I was being prepared for failure. This was not what my future clients deserved.

As I stated above, I didn’t feel like an artist. Now you know why. I felt like I was being subconsciously trained to see art and design as two separate things. But the more I looked into it and studied on my own, I realized design could be art that worked. And if you look up a standard definition of “art”, it will read something along the lines of:

Works produced by human creative skill and imagination. (Oxford)

I don’t tell the story above to show disrespect for fine art and conceptual art. And I don’t tell it to disrespect the professor (my university actually had some really good design professors). Rather, I tell it for the sake of showing the disconnect that can exist between the graphic design world and the business world. Many in the business world don’t think of graphic design as art and they don’t understand the value it can add to a business.

Ironically, Massimo Vignelli was a well-known designer; and his statement does represent a lot of how the business world has started to see design.

It doesn’t matter if it is a logo, a poster, a website, or a brochure; the design can be artistic. After all, it is a product of creative skill and imagination and it is something that can be used for the advantage of your business. It is something that can set you apart. So if I were going to offer some advice for the next time you work with a designer, I would suggest two things:

1. Be open to the designer’s concepts

I understand it can be frustrating when it seems the designer isn’t “getting your vision”; and I believe the designer should be more open to their client’s needs. But don’t be afraid to let the designer be artistic and think creatively. They could very well come up with something you were never expecting and it could be something you absolutely love!

2. Don’t be afraid to get a little crazy. 

As a follow-up to the first point, don’t be afraid to get a little crazy. It is hard to set yourself a part these days in the business world. Working with a designer and being open and free with direction could be the very thing you need in order to look different (in a good way).


One Last Word

It wasn’t until the last year that I truly started to feel like I could consider myself an artist. Do I prefer the term “designer”? Yes. But at the same time, why can’t I be an artist with the mission to create art that works?