Like many designers and artists, I’ve run into frustration with finding inspiration and motivation at times. Having spent a lot of time thinking about my creative process and the processes of other creators in order to better understand these frustrations, I’ve learned a lot about my own identity and beliefs around art and design.
These beliefs have helped me in determining where I should focus my efforts and spend my time. In order to help me clarify my thoughts and maybe help others who are dealing with similar frustrations, I thought I’d share some of my observations and how they’ve impacted my work in a series of posts.
For this first entry, let’s start with the difference between art and design.
It’s easy to find or get involved in conversations about what makes something a work of art as opposed to a work of design. And there is a wide range of nuanced interpretations of these differences. I won’t bore you with a long explanation of various ways I’ve thought about the question, rather, I’ll jump to my thoughts.
The difference: expression vs communication.
Art is about expression. Art is about the creator externalizing an idea or emotion in some form. How it is received or interpreted by an audience is immaterial. It is only the act of putting something out that is the art, the expression. Therefore, how an artist chooses to express their idea is completely up to them. They can use whatever techniques, mediums, or other approaches that they wish. Art is inherently personal in that in order to express something an individual must feel it and their own sense will inevitably carry through into whatever they create.
Design is about communication. Design is a conversation and very much dependent on the recipient of the idea clearly understanding and, in most situations, acting upon the information being presented.. The creator must make decisions based on what will or will not work to convey their “message” to the recipient.
Whereas art is impulsive, happening without analytic thought, design is methodical. In a broad sense it is the act of composing and constructing something to achieve a specific set of desired objectives when “used”.
All creative endeavors exist on a spectrum.
So now you’re thinking, “But I make art, and I put some serious thought into it.”
Of course you do. I bet most artists think seriously about what their creation is or should look like, feel like, sound like, and so on. But those thoughts have to do with what the audience perceives; What you want them to take away from your creation; what it communicates.
Creations are not binary. In other words, they are not explicitly either a work of art or a work of design. Rather creations exist along a spectrum with one end being pure art (pure expression) and the other, pure design (pure communication).
Damn. I really need to find a better way to illustrate this, huh. But hey, rainbow gradient FTW!
Examining this spectrum it becomes obvious that very little of what we create ever exists at the very end of either side of the spectrum. More often than not, artists who have managed to establish a career for themselves are strongly considering their viewers and making decisions based on how best to evoke a feeling or thought in them.
And even the most empathic, considerate designers will have their own perspective of how things could or should be, and it would be impossible for every decision they make to be 100% unbiased to those views.
Think about your own creations - how did you decide what to make or how to make it? Was it impulsive, something you just felt should be? Or was it something more methodical, a deliberate set of decisions meant to produce a reaction of some sort in someone else? More than likely there was a combination of both types of decisions throughout your process.
It is this difference between expression and communication that makes pure art impossible to judge. How can anyone judge the quality of another’s expression? Rather what happens in the art industry is the judgement of an artist’s ability to evoke thoughts within a viewer, and this has more to do with communication, whether the artist was actually attempting to deliberately communicate or just expressing themselves (this is my big issue with art criticism in general).
Let’s talk about education and craft.
Based on this understanding most art education isn’t really about art, but more about design and craft. When learning to draw, a student learns about composition, about capturing form, about light and shadow and all of this is through the lens of the effect on the viewer, about how a drawing communicates with the people looking at it. Similarly, in learning music, one learns about structure, harmony, melody, dissonance, again through the lens of their impact on the listener.
Things of this nature, however, are not arts, they’re crafts. A craft is a combination of the techniques and medium with which something is created. The craft defines the tools and techniques used to create something.
Craftsmanship is then the degree of detail and precision with which these techniques are applied in order to produce quality in the objectives of creation. Because craftsmanship is evaluated by a viewer/user with regard to their experience with the creation, I see craftsmanship more as a component of the design-based creation than artistic-based.
A drawing student, a music student - any art student - can go on to apply their learnings in a work of art - something whose purpose is only to express something within the creator. Or they might create something that is purely meant to produce a specific effect in the audience, like drawing an image or writing a song for use in advertising a product. But more than likely, what they’ll create will be a little of both. Some elements of their creation will be a conscious or unconscious catharsis and some decisions they make will be based on how best to communicate with the audience.
Figuring this all out changed the way I work.
In figuring out my own thoughts, I’ve found why some projects are exciting to me and some aren’t. For example, when I began to try to establish myself as an illustrator, I looked for clients to draw for. I love drawing and I thought for sure this would be a way to make a career out of something I love. But I found that I struggled frequently. I thought at first it was about control, but even on the projects where the client gave me near total control I struggled.
What I learned by looking at my work was that I needed the things I was drawing to truly express something I felt. It was more about what was being expressed than control over what was being created. For this reason, I don’t do a lot of illustration for clients. And when I do, I have to make sure that it’s something I really feel strongly about.
I think it’s valuable for anyone involved in creative work (or recreation) to come to their own understanding of what things are or aren’t and why they create them. Take a step back, look at your process and patterns. By having a clearer picture of your own thoughts on the various aspects of creativity, you may find you’re able to be a stronger, more focused creator.
What are your thoughts on art and design? Have these thoughts had an influence on your art or design work?