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I've noticed that I often use the words "artist" and "designer" in the same context. It seems to me that every designer can be an artist, but not every artist is a designer.

I wasn't sure though, so I had a look at the definition of design, by Google:

de·sign

noun

  • a plan or drawing produced to show the look and function or workings of a building, garment, or other object before it is built or made.

synonyms: plan, blueprint, drawing, sketch, outline, map, plot, diagram, draft, representation, scheme, model

  • the art or action of conceiving of and producing a plan or drawing.

synonyms: pattern, motif, device

  • purpose, planning, or intention that exists or is thought to exist behind an action, fact, or material object.

synonyms: intention, aim, purpose, plan, intent, objective, object, goal, end, target


Based on that definition, a designer could be the creator of many things. So in that way, it seems every artist might be a designer.


So, are the two interchangeable? If not, what is the difference?


Edit: Please support your answer via citation or definition so that your answer might be marked correct, rather than being a matter of opinion.

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There's certainly a difference. What that is depends on who you ask. –  DA01 May 7 at 5:06
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@JonathanTodd no, evolution (if we're talking about biology) has a definition based on scientific fact. Established scientific terms have little in the way of debatable definitions. But 'art' and 'design' are not scientific terms. The definitions of those terms are very much in the eye of the beholder and open to philosophical pondering (which is great). –  DA01 May 7 at 6:28
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tldr; Design works to a brief. Art doesn't. –  user568458 May 7 at 10:13
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@user568458 what about commissioned artists then? –  Scott May 7 at 10:14
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@Scott good point! Hmm... how about: Design works to a brief. Art works to an idea. –  user568458 May 7 at 13:38

13 Answers 13

up vote 0 down vote accepted

There is no difference.

Design is art, art is design.

Any good artist is designing their work. Any good designer has an art to their work.

The artist "designs" the composition of any piece they create, be it a painting, sculpture, furniture, etc. There is design even in a child's drawing. They choose where the sun goes, where the dog is, where the grass stops, etc. That's all design within artwork.

The designer uses "artistic" choices to create appealing images. Colors, line weight, position, proximity, scale, motion, are all artistic choices made by a "designer".

If any possible difference does exist, it could possibly be argued that there is a responsibility difference. But that does not convey to any of the work specifically. Those who self-classify themselves as "designers" may perhaps be more time clock punchers while creating art. And those who self-classify as an "artist" may be slightly more free to create their designs when the mood strikes them.

I see this question as being similar to asking, "Is that a dollar or a buck?", "A quid or a pound?" Same thing.... just different terminology.

Referencing dictionary.com....

Designer: a person who devises or executes designs, especially one who creates forms, structures, and patterns, as for works of art or machines.

Artist:

1 a person who produces works in any of the arts that are primarily subject to aesthetic criteria.

2. a person who practices one of the fine arts, especially a painter or sculptor.

3. a person whose trade or profession requires a knowledge of design, drawing, painting, etc.: a commercial artist.

4. a person who works in one of the performing arts, as an actor, musician, or singer; a public performer: a mime artist; an artist of the dance.

5. a person whose work exhibits exceptional skill.

I've crossed out obvious unrelated definitions, but the other three are pretty much the same as the definition of "Designer"

In today's world, many may see a "designer" as a computer operator and sadly many designers may see themselves that way as well. However, design traditionally has required great craftsmanship, steady hands, a good artistic eye, etc. Design hasn't always been as simple as launching an application and them moving some objects around on a digital page. There is art in it, same as there is design in art.

I, personally, don't know any designers who would not also qualify themselves as artists. I do know several artists who would not qualify themselves as designers, but that's more a bigoted stance about money than the actual work.

Were the designers who created the wonderful music posters and album covers of the 60s and 70s not artists?

Was Paul Rand not an artist?

enter image description here enter image description here

Saul Bass and Milton Glazer merely designers with no "art" in their work?

enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here

I think not.

Oh so many down votes.... :) Apparently a great deal of designers think they aren't artists or a great deal of artists think they aren't designers.

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Can't imagine why this received downvotes. I agree with it. And its very much in line with what ekloff said that has the most votes. So peculiar. –  Ryan May 7 at 12:41
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I don't think it's necessarily wrong, but almost every answer so far has pushed that there are very distinct differences, so I think there is disagreement involved. –  CuriousWebDeveloper May 7 at 17:25
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Nah.. every answer is pushing a difference because you set the question up to lead people that way. –  Scott May 7 at 18:03
    
I like this answer very much, it's by far one of the best provided. Your wording is a bit misleading in the above comment by the way. I didn't set it up to lead people one way or the other. I simply set it up the best way I could think of. I think it's put rather fairly for answers to go both ways. –  CuriousWebDeveloper May 8 at 1:19
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Well, by posting a predefined definition of "design" and failing to do the same for "artist" I feel you lead readers down a specific path. –  Scott May 8 at 1:20

Art is typically something that an artist designates as art, or society has deemed culturally important. It’s often a physical work (or just an idea) that had a certain aesthetic or intellectual intent. It’s purpose can vary, from being an outlet of personal expression, to excite the eyes, to set a mood/emotion, to provide commentary, etc.

Design is typically meant to give order to an idea or goal, to address problems, and solve them. Designers have to deal with practical utility (something that serves a purpose). What sets designers apart is that they must consider function and usefulness in addition to artistic qualities. However, some designers may have no interest or skill in art and deal strictly with researching or conceptualizing ways to manage an issue through design.

They can overlap heavily.

More confusingly, Applied arts deals with the use of art for a specific purpose.Industrial design, graphic design, fashion design, interior design and the decorative arts can be considered applied arts as well as design practices.

Something like architecture involves a sense of visual art and necessity for careful design.

Commercial illustrator artists create art with design purpose for a business (like a cover of a magazine).

Some designers can make work that does the job for design, but also is a work of art.

I’m sure a handful of objects in history museums were both design and art. A pot was meant to hold water/food/plants (design), while the shape or visuals also provided snapshot of the culture (art).

One difference is practicality.

Art does not need to be practical whereas design does. A chair that will be used needs to be designed for the proper purpose (to sit on it). And a chair can be art because it is designated (like a readymade). A person could also make a chair made of sharp spikes and it could be art, but not really the right design for sitting.

In reference to the comment below, design can have no final practical outcome (such as a wallpaper designer). However, a wallpaper designer still has to consider practicality within a highly decorative medium. They probably have intent to comply within certain parameters: such as how the form or pattern may repeat and seamlessness of each strip, what scale make sense for a wall to be visible in a room, the appropriate subject matter (or abstraction) that is suitable in a household or business. They may also think of what is practical from a business perspective (Does this design have enough appeal to be profitable?). Wallpaper isn't usually considered "fine" art, but the wallpaper designer may feel that the design requires forms of art, whether subtle, simplistic, or bold to contrast with the interior space.

To sum up, artists aren't confined by practical restrictions (although sometimes they can be self-imposed). Designers may be required to create under certain guidelines that may or may not have artistic components.

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I notice that while you don't cite or use any specific definitions relating to the question, you do support your answer with a myriad of useful comparison examples. +1 for that. –  CuriousWebDeveloper May 7 at 6:37
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There is tons of design which are not practical - for example, most wallpaper designs are decorative rather than practical (the designer of the wallpaper is unlikely to be the person who decides the mechanical or insulating aspects of the paper or whether it has a easy-clean coating, so probably has effectively zero input on its practical aspects) and such decorative designs aren't often considered art. –  Pete Kirkham May 7 at 12:43
    
Don't forget that there is non-visual art as well. There's also non-tangible art, such as when a killer is so skilled in his craft that he is deemed an "artist of death" (a macabre example, I admit). –  TylerH May 8 at 14:44
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Great answer (+1). My droplet: the definition of art changes with history, particularly because Humanity tends to forget (sadly) the "whys" and "hows" that were the setting of the creation of many objects. Aspects of those objects that were merely the result of a practical process might look to our eyes like a very unique and ingenuous art statement. Things that might have been extremely practical, like a wicker basket with an embroidered pattern (probably considered design on its time) look to our eyes like pieces of art because we have forgotten the process that was used to create them. –  cockypup May 8 at 14:54

I've been a designer for 8 years and I worked with many designers and artists.

To summarize it quickly I would say:

  • Artists are concerned about the design itself, they want to make something beautiful in their own way.

  • Designers want to solve problems first, then to make it pretty
    according to the target and client.

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+1 that's the key: design begins with a problem to be solved and then one or more ideas of how to solve it branch off from that, whereas art simply begins with an idea. –  user568458 May 7 at 13:43
    
So artists target an idea to express, and designers target a problem to solve, while both can overlap into each-other, artists being possible designers, and designers being possible artists. –  CuriousWebDeveloper May 7 at 17:33
    
That is a succinct way to put it. One problem with your summary is that many artist don't care about making something beautiful, and instead are solely focused on unbounded criteria. Artists may not have an idea either, and instead focus on the process, or emotionally-detached rationalism of form (something like Donald Judd). An artist could "choose" an existing design and call it art. Art is "more free" in that sense. Designers may not make something pretty either. In most cases, they are solving problems though. +1 –  ekloff May 8 at 2:32

It's doubtful that there will be one 'correct' answer to this question. But that's what makes it fun.

A bit of history regarding design--at least 'graphic design' given that we're on the GD web site. In the early era of the industry, it was actually called 'commercial art'.

Given that, one argument for discerning the difference between the two:

graphic design, aka commercial art: art that must communicate a defined message to a defined audience dictated by the customer.

art: art that may communicate any message the artist desires (intentionally or otherwise) to any viewer (even if just the artist themself) the artist desires.

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You're on a track that could be a great answer, but like other answers, this one doesn't actually compare the designer to the artist, but rather, falls short, with a comparison between art and design. The answer seems to be in need of a summary of some sort. –  CuriousWebDeveloper May 7 at 6:52
    
I'd argue that an artist hired for a commissioned work (such as a mural painting or a sculpture) is still very much an artist, but must convey the desires put forth by the client, at least in some respect. That doesn't really make them a designer. So, by these definitions... neither really works. At least to me. –  Scott May 7 at 10:03
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@Scott the thing is a designer is also an artist. It's not so much artist vs. other term, but what type of artist one is--based on the gig. For commissioned art, that artist would then be a 'production artist' in my book. –  DA01 May 7 at 15:45

The most concise way I can put it... Good design enhances our lives by making things beautiful and functional while good art makes us question our lives, culture, habits, etc. In my opinion, a beautiful painting that doesn't raise any questions (a nice realist portrait let's say) would fall into the craft category.

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An interesting answer...never really thought about the difference between arts and crafts before! But my gut reaction is to disagree. Monet made art, but it never really made me question anything. But when I think about art that makes you think (Andy Warhol comes to mind), it's usually because that art has been structured in a way that makes you think, and is trying to carry a message. How that message is created and conveyed is, to me, design. I expressed a lot of opinions, didn't I? :) –  Brendan May 6 at 22:15
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Monet never made you question anything probably because you weren't around in 1870s :-) The impressionists were viewed as radicals back then and their way of painting went against established rules in art. –  Emilie May 7 at 3:25
    
I don't see where you answer the question, which compares not the design to art, but more specifically the designer to the artist. Where crafts come into the subject is lost on me. –  CuriousWebDeveloper May 7 at 6:42
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Just interchange design for designer, art for artist and ignore the craft if you wish. However, I think defining crafts or what a crafter (or artisan) does is important because the belief that people who create "pretty" things (that are not necessarily meaningful, like making common potteries for example) are artists seems widespread. There is a lot of overlap, I think it's easier to categorize each piece than the creator of the piece. –  Emilie May 7 at 13:48

To me, design has always been about the structure of things. It necessarily has a functional component. With graphic design specifically, I view it as the organization and presentation of information - visual communication.

So, an illustration would be art, but placing that illustration in a newspaper layout and picking the font to go with it is design. Concept art may set a creative direction for a house or a car, but the architects and designers adapt and restructure the artistic vision to work functionally.

Art can be created for a purpose beyond pure aesthetics and would thus be designed to communicate something or fulfill a role. A website can be designed to strictly display information in the most spartan way possible, but it can be augmented with styles and colors that would make it look nicer. Thus, art can be designed well and design can look great.

So I guess I see the difference between art and design as more of a spectrum between form and function. "Pure design" tends to be minimalistic and functional; "pure art" tends to be more about displaying beauty.

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You've provided a good summary of an acceptable, personalized explanation of the issue. Well written, +1. Maybe you could improve this answer by adding focus on the definitions involved, or reputable source, in order to add validity to the answer. It's a tricky subject, after all. –  CuriousWebDeveloper May 7 at 6:40

Art is the initial concept and often the end result. Design is what happens in between.

Art (n)
the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.

Design (n)
a plan or drawing produced to show the look and function or workings of a building, garment, or other object before it is built or made.

To use Scott's very valid question about commissioned artwork. Consider The Last Judgement

Last Judgement

It is both Design and Art. It was Art in its inception. What should it evoke emotionally? What should it be communicating and tell? Then it becomes Design --- the problem of how to execute it within finite space, finite budget, and finite methods & materials. All of those countless study sketches and drawings that Michaelangelo did. The hours and months spent planning and penciling. Then as others have said, particularly Scott and Ekloff it may become Art again. That is determined by its social and cultural significance. Why is this particular painting considered such great art? Because historians and aficionados tell us it is great art.


According to the University of Minnesota's Fine Art Department:

We promote creative expression and conceptual development through a broad range of art disciplines and practices. Initial experiences emphasizing traditional methods are supplemented at intermediate and advanced levels by experimental processes.

According to the University of Minnesota's Design Department:

Through a unique commitment to creativity and advancing technologies, the College of Design at the University of Minnesota leads, innovates and educates in the full range of design fields by researching ongoing and emerging issues, exploring new knowledge, and addressing and solving real-world problems; all while adhering to socially responsible, sustainable, and collaborative design thinking.


One person's perspective published by the AIGA, art Vs. design

Now, it is my understanding that design in the commercial sense is a very calculated and defined process; it is discussed amongst a group and implemented taking careful steps to make sure the objectives of the project are met. A designer is similar to an engineer in that respect and must not only have an eye for color and style but must adhere to very intricate functional details that will meet the objectives of the project. The word “design” lends itself to a hint that someone or something has carefully created this “thing” and much planning and thought has been executed to produce the imagery or materials used for the project.

On the other hand, art is something completely separate—any good artist should convey a message or inspire an emotion it doesn't have to adhere to any specific rules, the artist is creating his own rules. Art is something that can elicit a single thought or feeling such as simplicity or strength, love or pain and the composition simply flows from the hand of the artist. The artist is free to express themselves in any medium and color scheme, using any number of methods to convey their message. No artist ever has to explain why they did something a certain way other than that this is what they felt would best portray the feeling or emotion or message.

Many designers are artists and many artists are designers, the line between the two is complex and intriguing.

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My short answer is that designers are designing for the audience. If the audience doesn't understand your content almost immediately, then it's a bad design. An artist makes art either for themselves or others, but they don't have to make their message immediately understood by outsiders. Design is a type of art, but it has specific goals to be understood by its audience. Art is very broad, and doesn't have to stick to that goal.

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Well said. Perhaps you could include a cited source on the matter. It's tough to accept an answer when so many are opinion-supported. They're pretty much all valid, but to choose a "correct" answer, we need some sort of citation involved. –  CuriousWebDeveloper May 7 at 17:29
    
IMO the only artists who don't need to make their message understood are bullshit artists; and any artist who only makes art for themselves are “hobbyists”. The notion of 'immediately' complicates this a bit, but I believe it's not necessary in either case. There are many many instances of absolutely brilliant design that can and do go entirely unseen or un-noticed. –  adrien May 8 at 11:33

Art has no tangible purpose, it is the most purely intangible thing in existence and it exists simply to be.

Design has a tangible purpose.

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I don't agree with your entire statement about art. Art most certainly does have tangible purpose and rationale. –  Ryan May 7 at 3:14
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I think it would be better to say: Art can have a purpose or not (is expression a purpose?), but design always does. –  Yisela May 7 at 4:31
    
I think you're missing my point here, I'm not saying art is "purposeless" it's about the tangibility of purpose. The purpose that art serves is an entirely intangible, abstract concept. If art, for example, exists to be beautiful, with what tangible means do we measure it's beauty? Beauty is an abstract concept. Design is more tangible than art, there is normally a tangible purpose that it serves. If you design a toaster you design it with the tangible purpose of making good toast if you design a website you do so with the tangible purpose of communication. Design has some tangibility. –  InfluenceJamie May 8 at 4:22
    
I call this the Scott McCloud definition (scottmccloud.com/2010/07/05/things-i-never-said) and it's as close to a useful definition of Art as I think we'll ever get, but still falls enormously short of a very complicated reality. –  adrien May 8 at 11:38
    
Hmmm, you might consider it an over-simplification and you're probably right. I've always thought an arrogant concept for any artist to try and define what is or isn't art. However, this topic is seeking a definition and I think one can only be given as a simplified definition. Getting into the specifics of motivation or degrees of creativity only opens up space for exceptions. There can be no design without a tangible purpose, I don't think thats what people disagree with. I think it's trying to define art that people disagree with, but how can we separate design? Tangibility. –  InfluenceJamie May 9 at 12:58

Artist – a person who produces works in any of the arts that are primarily subject to aesthetic criteria.

Designer – a person who devises or executes designs, especially one who creates forms, structures, and patterns, as for works of art or machines.

Those don’t put any clear difference in the meaning. So we will have to create one ourselves for now:

Designer – we will view designers as trained people with vast knowledge in rules of the design process, how to use different elements to ones benefit, meaning of colors etc.

Artist - artists will be those guys out there, who probably are self-taught, they have a basic understanding of the rules out there and saw their use in multiple occasions, but in their work they tend to go their own ways.


  1. Good Artists Inspires,Good Designer Motivates
  2. Artists is Talanted,Designer is Skiled
  3. many designers are artists in their spare time
  4. designers are uniquely skilled at taking something from rough concept to beautiful completion
  5. Designer is a Planner,Artist is a Creator
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I really like this answer for being the first answer to clearly compare the subjects of the question via definition, rather than going into subjective philosophy. +1 for that. The elaboration makes sense, perhaps cited versions of those starting definitions would make this the most complete, objectively rooted answer provided. –  CuriousWebDeveloper May 7 at 6:48
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I don't think the self taught vs. trained distinction is valid. There are plenty of self-taught designers, and plenty of highly trained artists (many with degrees in art). –  DA01 May 7 at 6:48

As it applies to Graphic Design, I will say that the difference between Art and Design or Artist and Designers, is Expression vs Communication. Expression and Communication have entirely different goals. Expression is about the Artist and their view, Design is about the audience and viewer. Expression can be abstract and intangible but Design has to clear for the most part.

I explain it in a video here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QLMJjzJ7g4Y

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Looking at the terminology form outside either field, I think the nuances of the functional terminology would based on social relationships and economics. I have some experience with the matter with graphics designers in the software industry.

I would say that one would articulate, "I need to hire a designer," but seldom or never articulate, "I need to hire an artist." Likewise, anyone can call themselves "an artist" but if you call yourself "a designer" you had better have cashed a check from someone.

In terms of skill sets, the skills of a designer usually encompass those of an artist but people defined by themselves and others as artist rarely have, or are expected to have, any skills at design.

Sociologically, artist are stereotyped as egocentric, self-absorbed, flighty and undependable. Designers, by contrast, are professionals able to operate within a team of other professionals with complimentary skills in order to carry out a larger goal e.g. releasing complex,functional and aesthetically pleasing software.

One can quibble endlessly about platonic ideals but when picking which word to use in what context, I think there is a fairly sharp real world distinction between "artist" and "designer".

...at least for the people who write the checks.

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I think that this answer contributes worthy information; I'm not sure why it got the down-vote. –  CuriousWebDeveloper May 8 at 1:14
    
@JonathanTodd Because its misleading and in my opinion entirely wrong, borderline rant. Particularly misleading by stereotyping all artists with four negative traits and then hints at the idea that nobody should ever hire (write a check to) an artist. A quick read through two scholarly psychology papers on the subject of personality types associated with artists specifically said how dependable and focused they are, which is in complete contradiction to TechZen's statement that artists are flaky and undependable. –  Ryan May 8 at 1:51
    
@Ryan I didn't see it in a negative light though. Try imagining that he means well by the answer, its quite possible that you might be misinterpreting his intentions. I'm an optimist, and I'd be willing to bet that you're a realist. Perhaps it's good for either types to see things from the opposite perspective at times. Though I would definitely say that the last line of the answer doesn't contribute anything and should be omitted. –  CuriousWebDeveloper May 8 at 3:14
    
There are parts that I disagree with surely, but think the only line that suggests a rant is the final line, which I've just edited to be removed. @Ryan –  CuriousWebDeveloper May 8 at 3:18
    
In terms of skill sets, the skills of a designer usually encompass those of an artist but people defined by themselves and others as artist rarely have, or are expected to have, any skills at design. - you can't be serious? I don't know of any artist that would say he does not have any skills in design. See Scott's answer for elaboration, if you like. –  CuriousWebDeveloper May 8 at 3:19

Design is a process, art is a product. Design is an essential an inescapable part of creating something, art is a something.

Both of these terms have been so mangled and misappropriated, are so adaptable and adapted to so many different things, and have meant such different things in so many places and times, that they no longer have, in my opinion, any precise and fixed meaning other than how the person using the word intends it to be understood.

As a professional designer, I believe that everyone is designing all the time, there is no non-design per se, just good design and bad design and the difference between those two is simply a matter of effort and concentration and a little bit of experience and knowledge and possibly “talent” if that word can itself have any useful meaning.

As an artist, I intentionally avoid using the word Art or Artist to describe what I do (and what most other Artists do as well) – and try to use specific terms such as "photography", "painting", "illustration", "performance" or, simply "work".

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