I've been thinking about this topic most of the morning. I've thought about it often at other times too. I've discussed the subject with artists, designers, family, friends and it is sort of like discussing the difference between what is 'smart' and what is 'educated'. Conversations of this type can go on and on with no true conclusion.
So without hope or agenda in reaching any finalized conclusive outcome here, I'm feeling the need to write and ponder certain ideas. And with regard to the topic at hand, let's begin with some basic definitions.
Design: There are many kinds of design; interior design, urban design, industrial design, packaging, architecture. For the purposes of this article, I'm writing mainly about graphic design and in some cases web design and about design which is thoughtful and well executed by a professional. The mission of graphic design is to communicate an idea or to create a call to action. Each project is based (or should be) on the needs of the individual client and the mission of the project whether it be branding, sales, information, promotion etc.
Art: This is more difficult to define. What the heck is it? Painting, drawing, sculpture. Of course there is also technique, application, form and content and such that comes into play. I think we can safely say art is expression of the artist. It doesn't necessarily exist to communicate. But while not communicating in a way like graphic design, art does most certainly communicate meaning, ideas, sensations, the internal angst or wonderment of the artist...whatever. Art is bigger than it's components. An original piece of art is that which has been created and touched by the hand of the artist and can not be ever again replicated. Is a masterful example of architecture art? I can't define art in a paragraph so read on and hopefully we will come to some understanding of what may make art so special.
Graphic Designer, Communication Designer, Graphic Artist, Artist: There have been big discussions lately on who's what and who does what and what does that mean. What do graphic designers now call themselves? In the case of AIGA, American Institute of Graphic Arts, their website provides the following description: "Aims to further excellence in communication design as a broadly defined discipline." This is an argument of semantics.
Where am I going with this?: Conversation with an artist friend, informed me that graphic design can not be art. Why pray tell? Because (as my artist friend feels) graphic design does not conform to the lofty levels and aspirations of "fine art." I am told graphic design is commercial and secondary. It does not take into consideration the expression of the artist, technique and application. It is not even able to compete with the trendy notions of "pop art." Graphic design is about, so many feel, hype and buzz and marketing of commercial concerns. Are the posters of Toulouse Lautrec graphic design or art?
While appreciation of art is a personal and subjective thing, art also incorporates elements of design. An educated eye will see the elements of composition, shape, form, texture, perspective, color etc. Notions of historic or political ideology might even come into play. Some artists create just for the sake of creating pure beauty. There is no doubt that art embellishes our lives. It can move us to tears or cause us to rejoice. Art can and has had a profound effect on our culture and on our history as a people and it transcends mere elements of form and content. Can the same be said for graphic design?
I worked some years ago for an art gallery and was employed by that gallery to create an identity for it. I designed the gallery's business cards, brochures, website, letterhead etc. At some point during my employment the owner of the gallery said to me "Well you are a designer so you just make things pretty ." Whoa! This statement rocked my world. I was offended on so many levels. Graphic design is about so much more than creating "pretty pictures." I was hired to perform a job by the gallery so clearly they had a need. Hopefully I was hired based on my portfolio, my skill set and my business reputation. (I might also have been hired because I look pretty in a skirt...but let's hope not.) Having a business or corporate identity is an important thing as is evidenced by the multitude of businesses that pay big bucks for logos etc. An identity sets the business apart from other businesses and creates the face of that business. I was paid for my services so clearly the graphic design services had value. What did the gallery owner mean by his statement? Was it a slight on the graphic design industry as a whole or perhaps an insult to my skill set? Did he mean that design wasn't as important as the art contained within his building? I'll never know but I do know it caused me to consider my process and intention in creating thoughtful well executed graphic design and what that meant to me.
Creatives will often tell you that they are compelled to do what they do. For some artists creating a piece of work is their reason for getting out of bed in the morning. For those of you who have visited ArtLOOK before or who have worked with me, you know I have the greatest of admiration for artists. They see the world in remarkable and unpredictable ways and by some gift are able to take that sight and translate it on to canvas or carve it into stone. But I have also met graphic designers who create with such intensity of purpose it makes me want to cry. These designers will draw and sketch pages of ideas and will spend hours and days thinking of concept. There will be more hours and days and weeks working on detailing everything from typography to pin point precision in layout. I've known them to create their own fonts for a project or go in search of the perfect found item to make the project unique. They agonize over just the right color or hue. They pour passion and purpose into their projects and and they are absolutely artists. Their work is not to be taken lightly or under rated in terms of value and some could argue that the value of outstanding graphic design serves a greater purpose than a work of art hanging in a gallery or living room.
I believe that as designers we can artfully create the content of our portfolios. And when done with passion, care, and imagination I say absolutely yes graphic design can be art.