The Difference Between Design and Art

Aug 30 2011 by Delwin Campbell | 34 Comments

The Difference Between Design and Art

Good web design is far more than a beautiful site, it’s where art meets an interactive user interface and where, in my opinion, superfluous aesthetics takes a backseat to usability and the user experience.

Ensuring that user interactions are as smooth as possible is good design — don’t ever be satisfied with art alone.

Although the design vs. art debate is nothing new, it’s ripe for a revisiting as new CSS3 features and JavaScript (and particularly front-end web development libraries like jQuery) begin to edge their way deeper into our everyday lives.

These new capabilities, however revolutionary they may seem, have changed nothing about how we should approach web design in general.

Where Design and Art Clash

Art is a problematically inclusive term; anything in the world can be called "art." The main difference between art and design, then, is that design is simply more restrained.

Any artist can look at their work and see it as an extension of themselves, but designers don’t have that liberty.

As designers, our work has to be interactive, accessible and consistent. In this way, art goes beyond design because no one would expect someone to say that all art has to be consistent and follow a pattern. That would be absurd! What if cubists set the rules? Our art museums would be terribly dull and without variation.

Examples of Cubism, a 20th century art movement. Above: (01) Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and (02) Le guitariste by Pablo Picasso.

This is what design is: It’s art with expectations, patterns and consistency. It’s art meeting science.

Yes, it’s limiting, and yes, UI designers have to be trained to think inside the box a little. But get over it. You are a designer, not an artist. If you want complete freedom and no friction between your creativity and your work, you are working in the wrong field.

Artists can work to their whim, eschewing standards and refuting expectations, whereas designers gobble them up and abide by their every word.

Market forces and trends influence designers far more than artists (with some notable exceptions like pop singers and freelance illustrators).

With web design, there are so many more things to take account of: your site goals, your brand, your users. These expectations shape every bit of web design, while art remains untouched.

Design and Aesthetics

Another important distinction to make is the difference between design and pure aesthetics. While all design incorporates aesthetic — and truly, everything in the world has some form of aesthetic — some designs do it better than others.

Take a look at Google’s home page:

Google has looked like this (with the exception of few small changes throughout the years) since we can all remember. And it’s designed perfectly because it fulfills the expectations of the site’s users. It looks nice without being obtrusive and obnoxious towards the user experience. Google, throughout all their websites, has mastered the difference between design and aesthetics.

Although the term "aesthetics" has broad and varying definitions, I’m using it here to refer to "eye-candy." Superficial designs that exist for the sake of beauty. If we were to put it on a scale, I would say most art is near 100% aesthetics (which is not a bad thing, eye-candy can be meaningful too) and Google is somewhere around 5%. Your browser’s default style sheet is 0%.

So this is something designers need to keep in mind: balancing form with function. Function is at the heart of the Web. Almost everything we do online has a purpose and a meaning. We engage with web designs every day, and the good ones are usually more functional than they are beautiful.

Below are some more designs with minimal eye-candy that are actually designed really well.

Delicious does a great job of balancing their layout. Without getting too deep into eye-candy, they make a giant torrent of information manageable.

Zen Habits has a super minimal site design, but it coincides perfectly with the content’s theme and goals.

CloudApp is a little more visually exciting than the ones above, but the design is still subtle. This combination of minimalism and great use of visuals reflects the design of their product perfectly.

These sites probably wouldn’t do so well in your favorite web design galleries. They’re not incredible to look at, and they won’t blow your mind.

However, they do exactly what they are supposed to do: they provide their site visitors with tools and specific information in a logical order (using concepts like visual weight and gestaltism) and then they get out of your way. And that is why they are so well-designed.

Expectations of a Design

The most important user expectation is that design should look like design. Website design should be immediately recognizable as at least one thing: not art.

Look at the screenshot below, taken from a Toyota minisite.

When I first visited the site, I didn’t know what its purpose was. After poking around a bit, it seems like some sort of way to promote new technology from Toyota, but there are a million better ways to do this. It’s far from user-friendly and my expectations were shattered immediately.

These expectations define user interactions on every site. We put site navigation and logos near the top of the design. We provide common site components like search features, social media integration and web forms in a predictable way.

Why? Not because this is an innate human expectation, but because design has evolved in such a way to foster and reinforce these standards.

Art and design aren’t mutually exclusive, even if there’s a clear line between the two. Beautiful sites can still be usable, and they can still surprise us without being disorienting.

But there will always be noticeable constraints in web design that are bound by things such as technology limitations, accessibility, usability, site speed, and so on.

From N.Design Studio.

Objectives of Design

One of the great divides between art and design is the objective. John O’Nolan wrote on Webdesigner Depot:

Typically, the process of creating a work of art starts with nothing, a blank canvas. A work of art stems from a view or opinion or feeling that the artist holds within him or herself. They create the art to share that feeling with others, to allow the viewers to relate to it, learn from it or be inspired by it.

By contrast, when a designer sets out to create a new piece, they almost always have a fixed starting point, whether a message, an image, an idea or an action.

I will have to disagree with O’Nolan here: Artists, just like designers, sometimes start out with a message, idea or an action they want to motivate. Every work of art and design has a message, but each has its own agenda.

Art doesn’t need to be understood — it’s digested and interpreted differently by each viewer (another point O’Nolan brought up in his article, which I agree with).

The accuracy of the statement that a piece of art makes is not always so important; artists often leave their work open-ended.

On the other hand, design is meant to be understood and interpreted uniformly by everyone. As I said before, it has to be consistent.

Is this too limiting? It really isn’t. The consistency that design requires is not aesthetic. It’s functional. That’s why it’s not important to have your design display exactly the same in every browser. Although art is information in itself, web design is a gateway to information. That’s all the user cares about.

So the consistency required on a website is only user-specific. A user is rarely going to use Firefox and Internet Explorer to access the same website and be surprised by the inconsistency. Where the issue of consistency gets interesting is mobile design. But that’s a whole other story for another day.

Evolving from Art to Design

The face of the Web would be interesting if the unrestrained creativity allowed in the art world was also permitted in web design. But this isn’t the case, and as designers, we’re responsible for creating great design that meet user expectations and site objectives.

Forget your newfangled CSS3, forget your jQuery for a while and get back to zero.

Here are some tips to separate your design from art:

  • Balance usability and content. Although content precedes design, inaccessible content is useless.
  • Always write code to a standard and follow best practices. The Web can only advance if we stick together and move forward as a whole.
  • Even though the Web is full of limiting technology considerations, we can’t stop being creative. In fact, to push pass these barriers and expectations, we have to be even more imaginative than before.
  • Start from scratch and keep it simple. Keep reductionism and minimalism in mind for clutter-free designs.
  • And once you’ve mastered good design, keep pushing through and make it great.

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About the Author

Delwin Campbell is a web developer (among other things) at No Enemies, based in Austin, Texas. He is a crazy person with too many hobbies; right now he’s learning Swedish! Check out his personal site.

34 Comments

dp

August 30th, 2011

Sorry, I found this article to be all over the place. I thought the most interesting point within the article was the one you quoted and quickly disagreed with by John O’Nolan of Webdesigner Depot.

Also, you’re not using the word “aesthetics” correctly in meaning or sentence.

Sean Henderson

August 30th, 2011

I thoroughly enjoyed your article. Being both an artist and a designer I must remember the goals and purpose of each medium. Mastering great design requires dedication and practice, your article is a great sign post in this endeavor.

Maryline

August 30th, 2011

Nice article. “In this way, design goes beyond art”…Did you mean art goes beyond design? As there is no restriction in art. When it comes to websites the minimal look is always best as it allows the user to navigate faster ans more efficiently without any distractions. It almost feels like spam to me when I stumble upon a site with design distraction everywhere.

Salman Saeed

August 30th, 2011

Very nice article :)

Shani

August 30th, 2011

A well-written and much appreciated article, thanks!

Antonio

August 30th, 2011

I think that the real difference between design and art is that design is utilitarian, art is “utile” (useful).

Abhimanyu Rana

August 30th, 2011

Good Article. ****

Bradley

August 30th, 2011

“In fact, to push pass these barriers and expectations, we have to be even more imaginative than before.”

This is the statement of the article. Innovation and some great creativity comes from limitations. If you have ever seen the movie “Evil Dead”, the director had to be super creative. Even to the point of using a camera mounted to a wheel barrow for some shots. Now days, they just use CGI, but it often feels less organic.

I think the web works in much the same way. I have been working on a site that is just plain code. Well HTML5 and CSS3, but no PHP or anything like that. It is nice to get back to the basics, and forget about working with a CMS for a change.

Steve

August 30th, 2011

In a talk, google mentioned the origin of google’s search page. It is the way it is because an engineer made it and they left it like that ever since. Simple and functional.

Early on in user testing, the users would just sit there. They would ask them if they needed help and they would reply “I am just waiting for the page to finish loading”. Google then put a copyright at the bottom to let users know that was the end of the page.

James Johnson

August 30th, 2011

I’m sorry, but I have a hard time agreeing with your definition of Art and how it differs from Design. It’s rather simplistic. Your early modernist example, Cubism, actually explores the ramifications of a certain set of compositional rules. In fact all great art follows very specific conceptual and technical rules. You may need a certain amount of art history education to sometimes decipher the intent of an artist, but it’s usually there.

You are correct in pointing out that design is meant to communicate an idea clearly. But sometimes, design is concerned with communicating an emotion rather than an intellectual idea, and that is where the line between art & design blurs. I think this is what your theory fails to hold up. Boring, functional designs fail to convey any sort of emotion. You end up with just a bunch of cookie-cutter designs that no one notices.

Both Art and design are rarely concerned with beauty for it’s own sake. That would merely be decoration.

Amber

August 30th, 2011

An interesting article… but I feel like a great many artists, including myself, would take issue with your characterization of art as being merely “eye candy”. True, art and design fulfill different functions, but that does not necessarily place one above the other.

Nathan Smith

August 31st, 2011

I have thought about this a lot and I believe the difference between art and design is that design fulfills a function that is more than just creating an emotional response from the veiwer/user.

lynn

August 31st, 2011

well… throngs of museum going people don’t pay good money to cast their hearted eyes on commercials.

Maria Eya

August 31st, 2011

Weird point of view. Graphic design is a form of visual art, isn’t it? Though, yeah, I guess we should know the limitations of traditional art vs. the commercial type. After all, not everyone appreciates fine arts that much and it will not work in business if we use such.

Lastly, art is not secluded in museums, as many would like to believe. The designs we see everywhere are only a modern samples of such.

Edd Fear

August 31st, 2011

As a designer (among other things) who is constantly fighting for more time to create art, I think your comments are pretty spot on. Especially when discussing things with an eye toward “stuff on the screen.”

My example of art vs. design is Craigslist. Very simple, very straightforward, well designed (from a useability standpoint). Which counts for a lot (for what it is). But boy is it as ugly as a mud fence.

Craig Elimeliah

August 31st, 2011

Great insight. I wrote a similar article in 2006 for AIGA and the debate went on for years in the comment box. Seems like a hot topic that really needs to be fleshed out.

http://www.aiga.org/art-vs-design/

Andrew B.

August 31st, 2011

The difference is very simple:

Design solves a problem.

Darshan

August 31st, 2011

It’s art if can’t be explained. It’s fashion if no one asks for an explanation. It’s design if it doesn’t need explanation.
-Wouter Stokkel

Heid

August 31st, 2011

Design is a function but also contains art. Just as beauty, admiration of art and a design is held in the eye of the beholder. If you look deep into what a designer creates, you will see the beauty of the plan. Art and design do go hand in hand. I am a designer and an artist. One is not more important than the other. I need one to complete the task or requirement of the other and both involve the eye of those whom will view it, wish to possess it, or simply admire the innovation and complexity of it.

WEBSOFT STUDIO

September 1st, 2011

Great article i really enjoyed it and learn many things from it.

Michael Gunner

September 1st, 2011

A nice attempt, but I don’t understand why people still insist on trying clearly define two subjects that are so blurred, so crossed, so inter-connected, so unclear. You can’t just do that, it doesn’t work.

Some art is more than aesthetics, some design is purely aesthetics. Look at Philippe Starcks lemon squeezer. It is design, but completely useless design. You could then argue it’s art, but it isn’t just art, it’s still design too, and arguably more design than art. Confused yet? So you should be, because you cannot clearly, concisely distinguish between the two.

It just does not work like that, and the true definition of someone who understands art and/or design is somebody who does not try to separate or distinguish the two, but instead accepts that they are very much two sides of the same coin.

Irina

September 1st, 2011

I don’t think there is a clear line between art and design.
What is pure art and pure design? How many pure artist and pure designers can you name? Are there many designers who are not bothered about aesthetics?
J.Pollock is a good example of a pure artist, but if you look at most contemporary art – it’s all very commercial, trendy, available in multiple copies, ‘designed’ to shock and to make money out of it. And I’m pretty sure many artists are very good businessmen (or women).
Having come from a fine art background I use my illustration skills when designing websites (when it is appropriate). Designing a website involves creative thinking, otherwise all websites would look the same.
Also, both artists and designers often use very similar rules (the rule of thirds etc) and techniques.

sadesign

September 1st, 2011

this is a very interesting article, both from a point of view of an artist and a web designer.

Nikola

September 2nd, 2011

Nice article.

I think the main difference between design and art is that for designing only thing you must have is a mouse, instead of art where you must have skills for “arting” with pen/brush/spray or whatever.

Delwin Campbell

September 3rd, 2011

I thought I’d chime in and respond to some things. :)

Michael Gunner: You’re right (about everything in your comment) — I was attempt to define and classify two very blurry concepts. But the main point of the article isn’t the classification and separation of art and design. It’s that designers have to insure they are considering more than just art when they build websites. They are making a special type of art: something with interaction. Basically, designers need to remember that they have an audience with expectations.

Craig Elimeliah: Thanks for chiming in. I read the AIGA article while writing this one, some very good ideas in it. :)

Amber (“art is eye candy”): I did classify art as eye candy, but I don’t think you interpreted it how I intended. I hold art in high esteem as a way to evoke emotion and solve real-world issues. But it does this visually — that’s all I meant by eye candy.

James Johnson: “Boring functional designs” work. They have a place on the web, places where emotion doesn’t need to be evoked. Search engine landing pages don’t need to be emotional. Some designs do. Consideration of usability doesn’t mean doing away with beauty. The two can often work together wonderfully. But when it comes to web design, emotion isn’t the first thing considered, functionality is.

Sydney Miles

September 5th, 2011

Thanks for the very interesting points you have shared. I believe art and design are like the wheels of a bike…yes, it can go with just one wheel, but it is better to have two for balance…

MGT Design

September 7th, 2011

I often wonder what some of the great artists would of thought of web design. Imagine Dali designed a website?

Joshua

September 8th, 2011

I believe websites seem to have more in common with books than the output of our fine-art institutions. The menu across the top of a website reflects the contents page of a book. Not in the middle, not at the end. So if we change the terms of the argument I agree with your aims.

But I have to cough a little when you say artists are somehow less impacted upon by ‘market forces’. That requires clarification/evidence for it to be anything other than trite.

xiant

September 9th, 2011

Thanks, I like this article…It’s very useful.

max

September 11th, 2011

This article is uselessly biased and sht really. Just reading the opening “Any artist can look at their work and see it as an extension of themselves, but designers don’t have that liberty”, I can already see the flaw of his case being that he’s assuming all designers don’t see their work as an extension. I certainly do, being a freelancer. Also he needs to define design. Design is an all encompassing term, does he mean print designers? digital designers? web designers? etc.

Overall, a lot of presumptions and assumptions. The best this article could be is just an opinion from someone.

jodi

September 12th, 2011

I would venture to guess that the writer of this article has no formal design training nor art history knowledge for that matter. I couldn’t even read this entire article it is so 1) poorly written and 2) full of uneducated opinion and misinformation.

I’m really surprised Six Revisions published this. Makes me think twice about continuing to consider this blog a valued resource.

Del Campbell (Senior)

September 13th, 2011

way too esoteric for this old mathematician…but it’s great to see those of your generation are better writers than we were….(including the writers of comments)…nice article steven/delwin….

shong

September 30th, 2011

People who build their webs in whatever form that makes sense to them, and
it’s up to the users to decide whether design of the web is good or bad. Like,
Google web is not so bad for a search engine, as many people think.
The subtle and well designed webs you referred to are what some of people
who would call themselves experts in design approve and strive for. But it’s
always hard to predict whether all users would like or even understand
the design.

Frank Razo

October 4th, 2011

Art = 5000000 TB
Design = 120 kB

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