Is Design the same as Art?

Ah, yes. The age-old conundrum, thought to have been resolved decades ago yet it is something that still resonates today. Students, lecturers and mortals alike continue to problematize, ponder, investigate on the matter. Hours were spent talking, debating, wanting to achieve a definite answer to it.


At the time of this writing, a specific “is design art” search entry on Google Scholar would yield a humble 47 results extending as far back as 1962. Entering the broader term of “design art” shows a significant 17,700 results, while a more succinct and specialized “designart” —more on this portmanteau later— gives us 280 results. Such is a short example on the actuality of this topic, more so in the Design and related fields where its prevalence is inseparable from the discipline itself.


When did the split originate, one might ask? What prompted it, this division between “Art and Design” (or vice-versa, “Design and Art”, in case some of our readers are sensitive on binary oppositions)? Subsequently, how is it relevant to one’s understanding of related disciplines (Visual Communication Design, Interior Design, and so forth)?


If we look back through history, before the emergence of Art and Design Education which introduced periodization and classifications in history and theory subjects, we could argue that there was never really a division to start with. Most of the relevant history subjects taught at Binus University (Western Art, Eastern Art, and Design Histories) would start their initial weeks with Cave Art from prehistoric times as indication to the holistic nature of our ancestors’ ways of communication and (and as) creative outputs. A cave painting serves as much as an interior decoration as it is a form of storytelling and a passing down of ancestral values and beliefs. The same can be said of repetitive patterns and motifs carved on hand tools or bones and other surfaces. Whether as purely visual ornaments or imbued with animistic significance, the point here is that there was a time where no clear separation existed between designed objects and artistic merit. Both were made in the service of a given, usually practical, everyday function.


Western perspective of art history taught us how artists are integral in the shaping of western culture and civilization —from the sculptors and architects of ancient Greeks to the Roman fresco painters and master potters— these are commonly credited under the umbrella of ‘art’ despite also having clear and present design characteristics. So why is this the case, and when did ‘Design’ begin?


The late Czech-Brazilian philosopher Vilém Flusser wrote that, post-Renaissance, “Modern bourgeois culture made a sharp division between the arts and that of technology,” causing it to rift into two separate branches that are mutually inclusive. One side scientific, the other aesthetic: quantifiable vs evaluative, hard vs soft. Such division was, he noted, “irreversible towards the end of the 19th century. In the gap, design formed a bridge between the two, since it is an expression of the internal connection between art and technology.” [i]


He summarized: “Design more or less indicates a site where art and technology (along with their respective evaluative and scientific ways of thinking) come together as equals, making a new form of culture possible.”[ii]


Retracing this notion in the context of the historic timeline mentioned above, art and design critic Alex Coles highlighted “the writings of John Ruskin and designer William Morris, and early avant-garde movements such as Soviet Constructivism, De Stijl, and the Bauhaus”[iii] as fundamental milestones in the gradual development of Design as a separate entity from Art.


The discussion outlined in this writing is intended primarily for students already enrolled in the Visual Communication Design department who may have difficulties or confusion still, when it comes to distinguishing the two. From my experience teaching for the past few years, it is a common occurrence, especially in the early semesters. One easy distinction to takeaway would be: designers create solutions, artists create problems. Oversimplified, but rings true in many ways.


“Design is a problem-solving activity. It provides means of clarifying, synthesizing and dramatizing a word, a picture, a product or an event,”[iv] wrote Paul Rand. Art, despite also having to deal with problem-solving in the process of its realization, tends to be more about posing themselves as emblematic or demonstrative to problems — as reflections of whatever issues the artist may wish to address. This is not to say that there is zero degree of the designer’s mark other than what the brief/client requires. Rather, it is an acknowledgment of one of the key differences between the two. As Rick Poynor reminded in 2005, quoting Norman Potter’s landmark text What is a Designer (1969): “A designer, unlike an artist, ‘works through and for other people, and is concerned primarily with their problems rather than his own’, while a painter’s first responsibility ‘is to the truth of his own vision’.”[v]


A similar voice came from Kees Dorst: “In design, your goals are partly determined by others, the stakeholders, because [it] must fulfil some practical purpose in the wider world. In art, this is not the case. Artists have [a] freedom because they do not aim for any practical application but strive to influence the feeling or thinking of an audience.”[vi]


In recent years there’s been a surge of interest to integrate the two under ‘designart’. Publications such as DesignArt (2010) and Design and Art (2007) are key examples of this initiative, underlining the historic aspects surrounding the issue as well as providing an overlay for further discussions on the matter. Practices by contemporary artists Andrea Zittel, Donald Judd and Olafur Eliasson among others are often typical to the kind of interdisciplinary approach aiming to both reconcile and interrogate the Art/Design categorization.


This relational issue is something that will continue to prevail, as long as the two disciplines exist. From the opinion of this writer, it is simply part and parcel; a facet of discourse that is inherent within the lineage of both Art and Design, whose consequence is to remain dynamic and open-ended as it progresses through time.


Krishnamurti Suparka, April 2021


[i] Flusser, Vilém, and John Cullars. “On the Word Design: An Etymological Essay.” Design Issues, vol. 11, no. 3, 1995, pp. 50–53. JSTOR, Accessed 28 Apr. 2021.

[ii] ibid.

[iii] Coles, Alex, Beyond Designart, MIT Press, 2007.

[iv] Rand, Paul, “Politics of Design”, Graphis Annual, 1981.

[v] Poynor, Rick, “Art’s Little Brother”, Icon no.23, 2005.

[vi] Dorst, Kees, “But is it Art?”, Understanding Design, 2003.

[1] Flusser, Vilém, and John Cullars. “On the Word Design: An Etymological Essay.” Design Issues, vol. 11, no. 3, 1995, pp. 50–53. JSTOR, Accessed 28 Apr. 2021.