The Gracious Relationship between Art and Design

Afzal Ibrahim
10 min readMar 9, 2018

Art and design — both involve compositions, using physical and visual means. Both share a base of knowledge and skill. Both involve applying imagination and creativity to the concepts they address. And yet they are not the same — obviously, you might think, of course, they are not the same. Difference between art and design is a continuing debate — So, Is there a difference?

As both fields have developed over the years, people have tried to separate the two. This is more difficult than one might think.

Design is no longer following cut and dried rules, and art is no longer just pictures in a gallery.

What if the architect that creates a building with curved, sloped sides, so that it looks like a continuation of the landscape — is this design or art? And what of the artist who uses typography and stencils as their medium — is this art or design?

The first argument one can make is that design is, in fact, a kind of art in its own right and that the attempt to separate them is meaningless. The other is that they are completely distinct practices that happen to share some attributes

Yet what each of these ideas seems to end up doing is arguing both sides. By pointing out the places where they diverge, we must also show the places where they fit together and vice versa. One of the recent researches has arrived a table to illustrate the differences between art and design, but in doing so had to find points of contrast that fit together.

Art, for example, was said to be an abstraction of the concrete, while the design was a concretization of the abstract. Art was said to act on the mind, while design acted on reality, and so on.

One cannot deny the differences between art and design. Yet the two still remain inextricably linked; in a gracious harmony with one another.

How far does this relationship go?

Art Questions, Design Answers

The typical approach to a piece of art is not to ask “what is its purpose?” but rather “what does it mean?” — a question that, invariably, leads to more questions. Arguably, the success of a piece of art might be measured by its ability to make people ask questions of themselves and the world around them. It exists to serve no purpose but its own existence — to be art. To challenge, or set people on a path of reflection.

Design, on the other hand, is intended to answer questions, beginning with “what is its purpose?” It does not challenge; it assists. It exists to solve problems. The problem could be anything from “how do I get more customers to notice my storefront?” to “how can we make the face of our watch easier to read?” or even “how can we make this safety belt more comfortable?”

Think of art you might see every day, street art, for example. Those huge, colorful murals one finds on city walls, designed to make passers-by think about the nature of society, or government, or themselves, even as they go about their daily commute.

This is art.

But what about the sign which tells them where the bathroom is, or the colorful poster informing them of an upcoming event, or the easily understood markings on the road which show the pedestrian crossing?

These involve shapes, and colors, and lines, but they are not forcing people to ask questions — they are answering them before they even arise. This is design.

Art Inspires, Design Motivates

Both art and design might be said to be about communication. Both aim to create a reaction. They even use some of the same methods in which to achieve these goals. The reactions, however, are where we can find another major difference: art, generally, aims to make those who view it have an emotional experience, to be inspired to think a certain way or to consider a certain topic.

The artist shares their emotions and views through choices of color, shape, and content. Design aims to motivate. To make the people who view it actually do something — also using color, shape, and content.

One of the most famous paintings in the world is the Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali. It shows a surrealist scene of clocks melting in the foreground of an open landscape. It brings to mind thoughts of decay, of dreaming, of the chaotic nature of the universe, of whether we can ever correctly perceive our own reality; the clocks create strange shapes, lying next to a monstrous half-face, cast in shade, while a pale yellow horizon gives the scene depth by drawing the eye to the background and contrasting with the shadows.

Similarly, one of the best design inventions in POST-IT notes

That particular shade of yellow, by the way, is one you may well see every day. It is the color of a post-it note.

Post-it notes have one of the most famous design stories out there: Dr. Spenser Silver, trying to create an extra-strong adhesive, accidentally made one so weak that it could be removed and reapplied over and over again. After some development, the post-it note was born.

The most common color is that light yellow, not chosen because the designer wanted us to consider eternity, but because it is eye catching and contrasts well with anything written on it in darker ink. Same color, same principle, same effect — and vastly different reactions.

Art is Interpreted, Design is Understood

“I don’t understand it,” complains the disgruntled tourist in the gallery. “What’s it supposed to be?”

“You’re not supposed to understand it,” soothes the friend that dragged them here instead of the cheese festival, “that’s the point.”

And, one might say, that really is one of the main points of art. All those questions it forces us to ask ourselves lead us to an interpretation. Yet no-one will have quite the same interpretation as anyone else; they will be affected by their own perceptions, history, and worldview. Again, this may well be the point, that each person will have a different answer to the question asked.

Design, on the other hand, seeks to provide a single answer. The same answer for everyone, and the more easily understood, the better. It would not do, after all, for every person who looks at a street sign to come up with their own personal interpretation of it. “Sorry, officer, it’s just that orange is such an indecisive color, don’t you agree, that I simply felt like the sign might also have meant that you didn’t have to turn there, you know, that it was up to how you felt in the moment… you’re fining me how much?”

And yet, design so often relies on artistic principles, and art can, in fact, seek to communicate a single message to everyone. Again and again, we see these factors overlap.

Take, for example, the art which represents a specific culture. Sometimes, it can be the only way a person from one culture can begin to understand another — and the fact that it results in this understanding means that it has, in fact, managed to convey a specific message.

We still cannot separate the two.

Art is a Talent, Design is a Skill

To be successful in either art or design involves talent and skill.

Talent is an innate ability; it cannot be taught. Skill, on the other hand, must be taught. The rules and practices that will be used in the creating process must be learned methodically.

But is it the same for each? If design is truly about using known reactions to create predictable results, then perhaps an innate talent is not all that necessary. You know that using a particular shape, color or texture will elicit a certain response, and you design accordingly. And whether you are designing shoes, kitchens, or car doors, you can learn what is required for each.

An artist, on the other hand, can become an expert in every artistic skill there is, but still be unable to create a piece that truly effects those that see it. They might be able to perfectly recreate a still life, or draw a straight line without a ruler, or knead, sculpt and bake a clay figure without any assistance. Without talent, however, without the ability to make personal choices, is it really art?

Again, each of these arguments can be taken the other way. A designer may know all the rules of their trade, but will require the talent for true innovation. An artist may have the perfect image ever conceived tucked away in their head, but without the skills to put it on the page or canvas, that is where it will stay.

Art is Imagination. Design is Imagination+Intelligence

Sometimes, a piece of art and a designed work will share an aim. Not just something basic, like knowing that yellow draws the eye, but a deeper reaction than this.

We may say that art is more emotional than design. Yet design can also be based on emotional reactions; an excellent example is the seating plans at Planned Parenthood offices. Some sections of seating are placed close together for people sitting in intimate groups, others are more open, so people can speak to others they meet, and some sections have seats facing away from each other to allow isolation.

Emotional needs are being met through furniture, through design.

Art often seeks to elicit specific reactions as well, as the artist will know that certain images will often be met with certain responses. This is one of the places where the separation becomes the most difficult: each uses a knowledge of human behavior, and each uses this knowledge to meet its goals. In seeking a difference, perhaps we might look at how the knowledge is used.

Think of any of the famous pieces of art which feature death. The concept is an unpleasant one; the viewer experiences a jolt of sadness or fear. This is predictable, but the art itself is not. Then consider a famous poster brought out recently which featured the striking image of babies’ cots laid out, interspersed with tiny coffins. Again, we experience a jolt. But this time, the reason is clear: the poster uses this image to remind viewers to practice good hygiene around infants, preventing the spread of disease.

Art is a Journey, Design is a Process

Perhaps, in the end, one of the few lines that can be drawn between art and design is that one has an ending, and the other does not.

Design is about meeting goals. There is a problem, and the solution must be developed. The idea for the solution will require creativity and imagination, but the goal itself with be reached through a disciplined process of rules, research, and the application of knowledge.

Art begins in the mind of the artist.

It may be planned, or it may be started from the faintest inkling of an idea with no guidance but a blank canvas. The artist may think that they have finished, then come back to the piece in a day, a week, or a month’s time, and take it in an entirely new direction.

And even once they have declared themselves to be done, the journey continues with each person who experiences the art after this point. It never ends; it cannot have a goal because the goal would be forever moving.

Closing Thoughts

With our world progressing as rapidly as it is, we find the lines that previous generations may have drawn between art and design becoming increasingly blurred. They share goals. They share methods. They share skills and knowledge.

And, as new innovations and discoveries are made in each, their overlaps allow a cross-pollination of sorts, with each being enriched by the other. Yet we cannot ignore what separates the two, as their very division allows us to understand each one with more depth.

Design reaches out to people; art draws them in. Art challenges; design assists.

Design solves problems, it belongs to the way the world needs to function. Art points out problems and invites people to consider ideas beyond reality. Design changes the world; art changes the people in it.

We will always find them hand in hand. Design shows you where to cross the road, and art makes you wonder why you were headed that way in the first place. Despite their differences, neither can be considered without the other; nor should they be.

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Afzal Ibrahim

Tech, Design, and Art — love’em all. Just out here exploring new ideas and sharing what I learn with y'all. Curator at