By Brittany Norris | Contributor

Design is not art. Art is not design. They are different and that is a very good thing. I should be able to end there, but what is the creative world without a little controversy? 

Explaining how art and design differ can cause a bit of a headache. Too often the conversation devolves into a debate of which discipline is the most important. As both an artist and designer, I find myself playing favorites, which is easy when design has been the most profitable endeavor of the two. Sometimes it becomes a story of livelihood versus hobby. In discussions with other creative professionals, artists and designers alike, I continually hear the definitions expressed too quickly in terms of “this” versus “that.” It’s practicality versus innovation. It’s talent versus skill. It’s right-brain versus left-brain. The debate becomes polarized and we are left with the most important question unanswered: why do we need to understand the difference between art and design?

I think the answer is easy. If we can come to an understanding of how art and design differ, then we will easily recognize good design and good art. But please understand what I am not saying. I’m not launching into a dialogue of what counts as art. That’s a totally different ballgame and there aren’t enough pages in this magazine to start on that. I am also not saying that design and art are completely separate. If you have ever taken an art class or even just doodled, you will know that there are shared principles that allow artists and designers alike to create good work. Such essentials like line, shape, space, balance and more are just the beginning of what art and design share. No argument there. And most importantly, I am not saying that one is more significant than the other. Design often utilizes art for its own needs and vice versa. Enjoying beautiful creative work is hard enough to measure without making it a competition. Doing so sells ourselves short, and we miss out on the fun of discovering and enjoying both.


I am saying that artists and designers, whether professionals or hobbyists, find shared ground in the drive to communicate. However, it is their intentions that differ. Design is charged with an end-goal or task. Art instead focuses primarily on transformation.

Let’s explore how we encounter art and design in daily life. Of the two, design is the most unassuming, for when it’s successful, it’s unnoticed. Take for instance the ergonomic design of a desk chair. For those like myself who spend hours sitting, if the chair has been built well, I don’t notice. At the end of the day I’ll leave my chair without any pain in my lower back. Mission accomplished. Compare that with the Hands Chair (1936) by Salvador Dalí. The back of the chair is comprised of two outstretched arms that end in open hands. While you might be able to sit on this piece, I doubt its final intended function was anywhere near seated comfort.

Perhaps the most easily recognized design is graphic design. This familiarity is due in part to its rise in popularity as a career path, but also because we are a media-driven consumerist culture. An estimate from 2007 by Yankelovich, a market research and analytics company, suggested that the average consumer was confronted with over 5,000 marketing messages daily. That includes everything from the label of canned goods to the sidebar banners on Facebook. That means there are hundreds of images created by designers that no one calls art.

The tasks of graphic design are numerous and usually ambiguous. There are print-based designers (this magazine for instance). Then there are digital designers who specialize in user interface (UI) and user experience (UX). For some, their sole focus is that of responsive design and translating a single experience across multiple mobile devices, from a laptop to a phone or tablet. The list of graphic design continues with editorial, packaging, advertising, informational, identity and more. All of these exist to accomplish a desired outcome.


The world of design doesn’t stop there. There is city planning, architectural design, automotive, lighting, interior, landscaping, interactive, industrial, typographic and many, many more. While the methodology and processes may vary, the end result or final product has a function to fulfill and that objective is usually set within strict parameters of accessibility, so as to reach a large audience. Design always has a defined end-goal and works tirelessly to meet that benchmark. This is the substantial distinction that sets design apart from art.

The main objective of art is to transform the viewer and sometimes even the creator. Unlike good design that is generally unappreciated due to its successfulness, good art does not blend into the background. Facing less weight on the end interpretation, the discipline of art is far less inhibited. With a lot of artwork, the audience to be reached is smaller and less universal than that of design. Whether it’s paintings, interactive performances, sculptures, mixed media presentations or installations, all are created to set up a transformative experience with the recipient, the viewer. It’s an interaction between creator and observer with few or no limits on interpretation and no demand for general accessibility.

A staunch example of this is the rise of conceptual art. More often than not, the messaging of this contemporary style flies over the head of the general public. Sticking with the theme of chairs, there is One and Three Chairs (1965) by Joseph Kosuth. His sole contribution to the process is the starting concept and the only constant of the artwork between displays is the printed definition of the word “chair” and instructions for the installation. The curator is tasked to choose a chair, set it up, take a photo and hang that photo next to the selected chair. When finished, the installation is literally one physical chair but combined with the photo and definition, is also three.


Unlike more traditional forms of art where heavy emphasis falls on the execution, everything about this piece elevates the initial concept. The physical installation is secondary to the idea. This style of work is meant to question the very nature of art and in doing so, the conceptual piece leaves the viewer changed.

It is this expressed that differentiates art and design. The first transforms. The second completes. There shouldn’t be a debate but rather an exploration of how a piece successfully meets one of those statements. The next time you encounter a piece of art or a work of design you can use this as your guide. A website might be beautiful, but does it accomplish its task of being informational or selling product? If no, then it falls short of being good design. A colorful painting might cause you to take a second look, but does it transform your worldview or challenge your assumptions? If there is no change in the viewer, that artwork might be beautiful, but not very successful overall.

So here’s your chance. Don’t take what you see for granted. Challenge what you’re presented and start the conversation. Both artists and designers will appreciate you a bit more for it.

Brittany Norris is an artist and designer at Adjective and Co. She can design and build websites, execute social media ventures, generate fancy email newsletters, illustrate with a variety of media, and take great photographs utilizing natural light. As a local industry expert, we asked her to write something specifically for this month’s Design issue.