In Defense of Graphic Design as Art

design, design inspiration, design theory, fine arts, guerilla art

So what’s the difference between graphic design and art anyway? The short answer: I don’t know. I think, these days, it’s a bit more of a grey area than it has been in the past. I think we have all been taught that design communicates a message and art communicates a feeling. But doesn’t that line blur in some cases? Many cases? Perhaps all cases? What if your design client is Barack Obama circa 2007 and you’re a graffiti artist trying to deliver a message of “hope” to a nation of skeptics? As far as I can tell, “hope” is a feeling, but Obama is a product, and Shepard Fairey and the Obey Giant crew skirt a style line somewhere between fine art and design.

Snootyartfaces in front of Shepard Fairey installation, Cambridge, MA, 2009

So the first point of this post is, who really knows the difference between art and design anymore? Is there a difference? Is it all being blurred? Can’t a designer put as much heart and soul into a poster as a painter puts into a painting?

I have a controversial opinion that a painter, painting study after study of a bowl of fruit is not in fact “delivering a feeling” or leaving anything open to interpretation. I think that painter is trying to improve his or her craft. Some of our favorite and most revered works of art are just studies on a theme. Are commissioned fine artists all that different from a modern graphic designer? I think we like to idealize the works of many painters, needing to believe that there was more to a work than commission. Are we forgetting that the Sistine Chapel was a commissioned piece?*

My second and final point of this post is that though the line between art and design seems to have blurred a bit, no great work playing for either team would be a great work if there weren’t a passionate human behind it. The Sistine Chapel would not exist in the extraordinary fashion it does, commission or not, if Michelangelo hadn’t been a truly passionate painter with a gift for figure and movement and dedication to his art. I believe the same is true for designers, in all senses of the word. Like a fine artist, a great designer is someone who has a passion for figure and form, color and space. I think that if a designer is working on something he or she is truly passionate about, then they cannot help but deliver a genuine feeling through their work.

*disclaimer: I love the traditional fine arts. I paint on the side, and I think knowing how to be both a designer and a painter makes for a more well-rounded “artist” of any type.


One thought on “In Defense of Graphic Design as Art

  1. Emily!

    There was a (replayed) Fresh Air interview with Mike Mills today where he talked a little about this very topic. The point he made was that, as a graphic designer, controversial or subversive things he produces are “twice as interesting” as they would be if done in an “art” context.

    Most of the interview isn’t on this topic (this is in the last 5 minutes), but if you haven’t listened, you should!

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