Dani Ward

Designer | Teacher | Consultant

Art or Graphic Design?

As you know, most of my professional training and experience is as a graphic designer. The bulk of my career focused primarily on print work and branding. Then I taught graphic design to college freshman and sophomores a couple years. But eventually my disabilities forced me to settle into life as a digital artist. All the same, from my first graphic design class back in 2005, I’ve spent most of my adult life thinking about what makes something art or graphic design.

Maybe intent impacts whether something is art or graphic design.

There certainly can be an overlap between art and design. But I like how I ended up breaking it down for my students.

  • Design is a solution to a problem; therefore
  • graphic design is a visual solution to a communication problem.

I saw many graphic design students (myself included!) come to graphic design from the point of view of art. It took guidance to put a barrier between our artistic sense and the design brief. As a teacher, I reminded students, “Art is about what you want it to be. Design has to solve a problem, whether you like the end result or not.”

Perhaps the purpose or the project itself dictates the categorization.

¿Por que no los dos?

Easily 98% of my current work could qualify more as graphic design than as “purely” art. But I recognize, also, that art can have a message every bit as much as design always does.

A collage of "Guernica" by Pablo Picasso, "El tres de mayo de 1808 en Madrid" by Francisco Goya, and "Moulin Rouge La Goule" by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. ”Guernica” is a large 1937 oil painting on canvas by Spanish artist Pablo Picasso. It’s a cubist surrealist depiction of the horrors of war specifically brought upon Guernica by Nazi & Italian forces in 1937, showing things like dead and dismembered bodies, the death of animals, and grieving humans. ”El tres de mayo de 1808 en Madrid” is by fellow Spaniard, Francisco Goya. Goya sought to commemorate Spanish resistance to Napoleon’s armies during the occupation of 1808 in the Peninsular War. The painting is dark and muddy, showing a French firing squad with rifles pointed at Spanish resistance. The scene is harrowing and clearly evokes the horror of war. Lithographic poster, “Moulin Rouge La Goule” is by French painter, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, advertising for an event at the Moulin Rouge in 1891. A pale blonde dancer takes center stage in front of a silhouetted crowd of gentleman (as well as the silhouette of a gentleman in the foreground). The top 1/4 of the poster contains the name of the event, the type of event, and where it was taking place.
Some might argue that Toulouse-Lautrec’s poster on the right is graphic design rather than how Picasso’s and Goya’s works are considered art. Yet there is still artfulness in his Moulin Rouge poster.

We need to look no further than masters like Picasso and Goya to find art with a clear objective (think: Guernica or The Third of May). There are also artists like Toulouse-Lautrec, who is considered by many to be the father of graphic design. Was his commercial work any less art just because the intent was advertising?

Maybe it’s art if it has an emotional impact.

Small collage of 2 artworks. The first is a square digital watercolor painting from me, Fat Girl Media, depicting a rib cage with clavicles and yellow honeycomb lungs on a splattered black background. There are bees buzzing all around the rib cage, crawling on it and on the lungs. Beneath the rib cage reads, in a frantic lettering style, a haiku: “anxiety is // bess buzzing in my chest, and // I’m afraid of bees.” The second is an impressionist oil painting by Argentine artist, Helena Wierzbicki, entitled “Anxiety,” depicting a pale figure head-on, bent over in grief and panic, frantically gripping their head with their hands. The left 2/3 of the background is a deep blue with some black added texture, while the right 1/3 of the background is a bright, mostly solid red. The figure itself is highlighted in a pale yellow but shadowed with a pale blue, with strokes of red and blue and black to tie the piece together. It very accurately describes the feeling of anxiety and even despair.

I’m not always sure that there has to be a divide between art and graphic design. But I do think there’s a difference between pieces of mine like “Anxiety Bees” and the likes of “Anxiety” by Helena Wierzbicki. Both qualify as art, but I believe only mine could also qualify as graphic design. I wonder why.

Do words change art into graphic design?

A small collage of 2 design pieces. The first is ”Eye Bee M,” by Paul Rand, who designed the original logo for IBM. The logo was (and is!) so iconic that Rand was able to play with it in this way for a wonderfully light-hearted approach for marketing the company. It features a brown eye with an orange-yellow bee and the letter M as a punny play on the company’s acronym. The second is ”Bob Dylan,” by Milton Glasier. This iconic surrealist yet minimalist portrait served as the cover art for Dylan’s 1967 Greatest Hits album and is also sold on posters and other products, perfectly bridging the connection between art and design.

Perhaps the presence of words makes a difference, or the dual focus on words and image. That seems to be a good general rule. I say “general” rule because I don’t think designs like these from masters Paul Rand and Milton Glasier are strictly graphic design! Especially that Bob Dylan poster — that seems to be obviously both art and design.

A small collage of 2 images. The first is a medical anatomy and consent poster I drew and designed for Fat Girl Media. It depicts a lithograph-style simple shaded illustration of a uterus, complete with vagina, cervix, and ovaries. Each part is labeled, and there is a chart beneath the organ that defines each part of the anatomy. A faux-wooden sign hangs above the design, reading "admittance by appointment only." The second image is a small ad design I created for Antietam Cable Television, Inc. The focal point of the ad is a violin against a white background. Typeset very nicely in the top left corner reads, "Where words fail, music speaks." Antietam Cable's contact information is at the bottom of the space, but it still has a strong artistic feel.

Yet I’d argue that these pieces of mine both qualify as art and design. The first shown here is a labor of love finalized last year, comprising hand-drawn illustrative elements and one of my typefaces I’m in the progress of developing. The focus is information about reproductive health organs like the uterus, but it still functions as an art piece. The second is an ad for Antietam Cable Television, Inc. from back in the mid-2010s. The ad focuses on the violin, which fills and spills off the page. I’ve included a frosted window effect as a frame around the outside and beautifully type-set the quote in the negative space to the left of the violin. There is still a logo and signature information in the ad, but it’s stamped across the wood of the violin and can easily fade into the background.

So. What makes it art or graphic design?

Honestly? I have no idea. An unsatisfying answer after a short essay of contemplation, but I’m still not sure what specific criteria a piece must meet to be considered only one or the other. What quality allows a piece to straddle art and design? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Sound off in the comments below — and if you’re a design nerd like me, show me your favorite piece of graphic design that feels like art to you!

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