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Between Art and Design

posted by Matt Ward on Apr 28, 2010.

The question of art vs. design is has been raging for along time. In this article, we will look at some creative disciplines that seem to fall somewhere in the grey area between art and design and consider why they may be a mixture of both.

Several months ago, I read an article on WebDesigner Depot entitled “The Difference Between Art and Design”. It was a fascinating piece that attempted to establish a clear distinction between these two very closely related concepts. Over the past few months, the article has really stuck with me and caused me to do a lot of thinking. I would like to expand on some of those thoughts here.

Between Art and Design

Between Art and Design

The WebDesigner Depot article presents five different statements that attempt to establish a clear distinction between art and design. These are as follows:

  • Good Art Inspires. Good Design Motivates.
  • Good Art Is Interpreted. Good Design Is Understood.
  • Good Art Is a Taste. Good Design Is an Opinion.
  • Good Art Is a Talent. Good Design Is a Skill.
  • Good Art Sends a Different Message to Everyone. Good Design Sends the Same Message to Everyone.

I can’t say that I completely agree with all of these statements – especially the taste/opinion and talent/skill pairings, but the article certainly raises some interesting points. By and large, it also seems to be suggesting that art is personal and design is universal. In many ways, I think this distinction may actually hold up very well, though it may face certain challenges.

Personally, I would also add a sixth statement: Good Art Stands Alone. Good Design Supports Content. Basically, a good piece of art is able to stand on its own, and exist in its own right. A painting, a poem or a short film can all be their own, independent works. Design, however, always exists in order to support its content. A website is a means of framing information on the internet. An magazine ad presents information about a company, product or service (even if that information is very abstract, as in some more “artistic” ads).

Recently, though, I’ve been thinking a lot about how much material seems to fall somewhere along the boundaries of this distinction, possibly even in that grey, indistinct netherworld that exists between them. There are a number of different areas of expertise that seem to hover somewhere between design and art. Here are four that stick out the most in my mind.


At first glance, illustration may not seem to have any ambiguity associated with it. It’s art right? Maybe not – or at least not entirely. After all, what is an illustration other than a means of providing visual support from some other form of content? In a children’s book, the colourful illustrations that span the pages are created (or even designed) specifically to match the words (sometimes abstractly). On the covers of full-length novels, illustrations are crafted to in some way represent the story itself, either through mood or theme, or literally by portraying an actual scene.

The same is also true of illustrations that you might find in magazines, on direct mail or accompanying an entry on your favorite blog.

In a sense, these illustrations that look so much like art are actually carefully designed. A cover artist will very often be given a creative brief, just like a designer. The publisher may require a specific character, or a specific look for the illustration. These are essentially problems given to the artist, allowing them to apply their unique skill to develop a visual solution.

Even though the illustrations may look and feel like art, does the intentional focus behind it not seem to be venturing dangerously close to design?

Character Design

In this case, even the very name seems to suggest a distinct blurring of the art/design opposition. Again, the final product may actually appear to be art, since it usually involves some form of drawing or painting (traditionally or digitally). Yet we have the word “design” right in the title.

Basically, character design is design. It simply (and generally) uses techniques that we often want to reserve strictly for art. Yet, the character artist’s job is actually to help design something. They will likely be given an idea, a concept or possibly even a full description of a character. It is then left to them to bring that character to life. There are all kinds of different decisions to make, regarding body shape, costume, appearance, accessories, weapons and so on.

Take, for example, this character design by Brandon Peterson which I found on the Behance network:

Tao Feng Concept

Tao Feng Concept

This is a very simple and typical way to approach character design. The figure himself is featured prominently against a white background. Despite the pose, all the major physical elements are clearly present. The wide-legged, silky pants suggest a distinctly Asian influence, while the pattern and colour gives the impression of a fiery persona. This is emphasized by long hair and the red, tribal tattoo.

Contrast that against this other image, from the same gallery

Tao Feng Concept

Tao Feng Concept

Here we have another male character, rendered in much the same style, but for a vastly different type of character. This one appears much less fiery, though likely no less powerful. The strong blue colours are more calming than the reds of the other character. The hair – either cropped short or tied back – is much more orderly and even the tattoos are more geometric and structured.

All of this simply demonstrates the way careful and intentional decisions were made regarding the composition and key elements of the characters. The final product may look like art, but it’s also very much a form of design.

Concept Art

The same is true of concept art, which encompasses a much broader range of work, and can often actually include character design. In this type of work, artists imagine and conceptualize things like weaponry, creatures, vehicles and even entire worlds!

This kind of work is incredibly popular in the development of movies, comics, video games and any other media where visuals play a strong role as the primary means of communication. Here are some great examples of different types of concept art that I picked up on deviantART:

Vehicle concept art

Vehicle concept art

Landscape (environment) concept

Landscape (environment) concept

Weapons concept

Weapons concept

Many of the same points that I made about character design also apply here too. The landscapes, vehicles and weapons are all developed in order to establish the look and feel of a unique, fictional world. Moreover, they are created to help support a particular type of content, whether that content is a film, a video game a comic book or some other medium.

As such, despite it’s obvious artistic heritage, I think that in many ways concept may also be more akin to the world of design than it is to pure art.

Icon Design

Of all of the disciplines that we will look at in this article, I think that icon design is probably the one that seems to be a clear cut case of “this is design”. While looking at illustration, character design and concept art, the suggestion was pretty much the same: that though these things look like art, they are also actually a form of design.

Now I want to invert that argument. The creation of icons may seem to rest firmly withing the realm of design (see my Icons and the Web series), and they are certainly a popular topic among the design community. However, is the creation of these icons not closely related to illustration?

It’s a matter of drawing pictures.

I know there’s a lot more to it than that, but if you strip everything else away, an icon is really nothing more than a tiny (and sometimes not so tiny) illustration used in any one of a range of unique contexts. Just look at this incredible icon set:

Remarkably detailed icons

Remarkably detailed icons

These are all beautifully rendered, and are almost like works or art in their own right. The detail and all the shading is exquisite, and with the increasing size of icons these days, these types of completed projects are becoming increasingly popular, meaning that this branch of design is becoming home to many incredibly talented artists!

Wrap Up

Okay, so some types of art are more closely related to design, while some types of design seem to branch over into art – so what? Does it even matter? Yes and no. It doesn’t matter at all insofar as the individual disciplines are concerned. Illustration, character design, concept art and icon design will all continue regardless of how we may chose to classify them.

At the same time, however, I would argue that it does matter because of the ramifications that it has on the definition of design itself. At the very least, it raises a series of very interesting questions.

  • What is design?
  • How do we define it?
  • Is our definition unintentionally narrow?
  • How does the definition of design relate to the title of designer?

I’m not going to try to answer these questions now, but I encourage you to start thinking about them. I will be posting a follow up article either next week or the week after, in which I will attempt to address these questions in a little more detail.

In the meantime, though, it is certainly interesting to look at that grey area that exists between the worlds of pure art and pure design, and to really consider how many disciplines may actually involve a little bit of both.

What about you? Do you call yourself a designer or an artist? I struggled with this myself and eventually settled on the term digital artist, though I’m still not completely satisfied with that! I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, or the article in general, so leave a comment!

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Also from Echo Enduring Media:

An Unfolding Tale

About the Author

Matt Ward is a digital artist who lances freely under the moniker of Echo Enduring Media, and specializes in graphics design, illustration and writing. He is also the Creative Director for Highland Marketing, a creative direct marketing company based out of Waterloo, Ontario. You can follow Matt on Twitter

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Apr 28, 2010

Dan says:

Great article. I think a lot of todays art and design crosses paths with each other. It’s definitely incentive to hone your skills in multiple areas.

Apr 28, 2010

Richie says:

I think you have pretty much made clear, the distinction between art and design but if we go back to the time when “art” originated, we can certainly tell that a lot has changed ever since. The understanding of the concept of “art” has definitely evolved and narrowed down to something very succinct, to say the least.

In my belief, that which is ‘acquired’ from a young age, the intuitive behavior in seeing things differently and the “talent” which we talk about, is “ART”. Thus and artist is someone who is able to contemplate his ideas, emotions and thoughts onto a tangible platform whereas a designer is someone who learns, understands and follows certain rules and principles into creating this so called ‘design’. I’m not saying he doesn’t incorporate his ideas and thoughts but its the way he expresses them and brings out the final product that differentiates himself from an ‘artist’.

When we say ‘Art’, we mean the skills used to express the artist’s creativity, or to engage the audience’s aesthetic sensibilities, or to draw the audience towards consideration of the “finer” things in detail. Thus re-branding itself to ‘Fine Art’. Likewise, if the ‘skill’ is being used in a commercial or industrial way it may be considered design instead of art because a ‘design’ must send a similar message to every one in the audience which puts me thinking to re-brand it as ‘Applied Art’

About Illustration, character design and icon design, I think you are quite right with your opinions but I believe they fall more towards being called ‘design’ because there is a purpose behind creating them.

However, I still think there needs to be a lot of improvement in understanding the difference between art and design. At this point of time, its all about how we interpret it and not what the text book says.

I for one, consider myself to be a digital artist, than a graphic designer. This again, is very controversial in a similar context. Something which I’ve been pondering over for quite sometime now.

Well, thats just my opinion and I’m sure there are many who have indifferences with them but Hey!, Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, right? So, as long as you can justify your opinions, I think we can draw a clear line between an artist and a designer ;)

Apr 29, 2010

Aidan says:

I always have been trying to establish the similarities or differences art and design. I think it’s more to perspective of an individual. What may be art could be perceived as a design to others. It’s such a thin line between them.

Thanks for sharing this insightful article.

Apr 29, 2010

Jason Gross says:

What a great article Matt! I feel like you have sparked a debate, at least going on in my own head.

I think it all comes down to scope. If you take a broad view at art and design you can make a good argument to them almost being the same thing. Among your first points and one of the common threads through this debate is that design is used to communicate content or a message. But if we go back to our beginnings as a human culture images and paintings were used to communicate messages to other people long before language was developed.

As a result images and all art will always carry a message along with it. Even fine art hanging in galleries around the world carries along with it emotion, interpretation, and often times a huge message, sometimes more than words ever could.

So to me this element of the topic at hand all comes down to how much we narrow down our scope.

Richie brought up some good arguments saying that design is a learned skill that follows standards and best practices. Of course this is very true but is art so different? While I would never argue that some people are more talented than others when it comes to art the fact of the matter is that everyone must learn from scratch, like any skill. Additionally art also follows standards and practices just like design. The idea of shapes, lines, perspective and motion are all art standards that we use to interpret and critique art.

The interpretation bit stands out the most to me as a real separating factor between art and design. In most cases art is meant to be interpreted and thought about, invoking deep thought and questioning. On the other hand design is generally created in a way that gets a specific message across to a targeted group with the least amount of effort possible.

All of this stuff is just fantastic to think about! :p

Apr 29, 2010

shane says:

I’ve always taken a simple view of it.

Art is for made by you for you. It is an expression of your emotions, your ego and your need to share.

Design is by your for others. It is to express their emotions, their ego and their need to share.

Both take great talent, skill and most of the items discussed in your post (nicely written). It is simply a different discipline entirely.

We run a digital agency and purposely + carefully hire designers not artists. Our success comes from successfully executing other people’s visions, not our own.

May 31, 2010

Margaret says:

I like your explanation – simple and clear. Of course nothing is 100% but it totally makes sense.

Apr 30, 2010

Chris says:

I really agree on you points. Another example for this is the American artist Edward Hopper. While starting as a print designer and illustrator, he later changed to art. On the one hand, common design principles like the use of complementary colors or the golden ratio are present in his works but they are really interpreted as art. I think this is a really interesting phenomenon!

May 2, 2010

designi1 says:

Great Article Matt. Size you sent that twiter asking the differences betwhen art and design I was looking day by day to see when the article comes up! now it is…

Really share your thoughts and much already at commnet section was said here. Richie got the point and makes a good destintion as well of art and design. I agree with you all in many defitions of art and design.

I just want to add that this both fields can be related in some way. You can do design, a design object,(flyer, sculture… whatever) with some personal thoughts and ornments. But the object works for his purpose. Well the main reason is design of the object, but the art comes here to take it personal.

Keep it up buddy.

May 5, 2010

Taylor Potter says:

I agree on the points stated above. While art can both stand alone or support a literature, design works to emphasize a content, that is why web owners and users social media are particular with their page design or background. A twitter account for example which is inspired by retro twitter backgrounds will justify that it is an account made for art interactions and dialogue.

Jul 15, 2010

Mike Harmon says:

I always felt the difference was between how you viewed the boundaries. designers embrace them, artists fight or break them.

one of my professors always felt that there was so much dissension in the art community because there was no higher education in art above a masters degree, I wonder if these sort of questions were what she was referring too.

Jul 17, 2011

Shawn Rome says:

I think everyone sees art different, depending on your culture background, I like to take in all kinds of art, Im a mixed media artist myslef but I also enjoy graphic design and print ,carcoal,and even graffiti

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