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.
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.
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?
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.
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!