Design vs. Art

I am writing these words in Amsterdam. Yesterday, when I arrived here, I visited the Stedelijk Museum of contemporary art and design. The featured exhibition was the work of the Dutch industrial designer Marcel Wanders. This exhibit was timely, for I’m currently reading a book titled Design This Day by Walter Dorwin Teague, one of the founders of industrial design. The juxtaposition between Wanders’ current work and Teague’s formative concept of design struck me as extreme. Wanders is the antithesis of Teague. The exhibition of Wander’s work featured this huge photograph above the entrance:

Wanders work exhibits conscious, unapologetic self-expression—”Look at me!” One of the quotes writ large on the museum’s wall expressed Wanders’ belief that a designer’s work should exhibit his personal signature. I disagree, as does Teague.

When speaking of the rightness of a design, Teague declares that all aspects “should derive their sanction from something more necessary than a designer’s fancy.” Design strives to solve a problem, to serve human needs, not to express the personality of the designer.

Wanders’ notion of design is quite different.

It is our responsibility to be magicians, to be jesters, to be alchemists, to create hope where there is only illusion, to create reality where there are only dreams.

He shuns the formative principle of industrial design that “form follows function.” His aspirations are those of an artist, not a designer. This perspective is reflected in his work.

No, this is not a toy, it is Wanders’ full size, running “holiday car,” its exterior covered with colored stones.

The designer’s approach should be one of interaction, not imposition: interaction between human needs, the tools, techniques, and materials of construction, the environment, and the designer’s skill and imagination. As designers, we use the best materials, tools, and techniques available to solve real problems in the context of our environment as well as possible. We are directed by human needs and the problems that must be solved to fulfill them, not a desire for self-expression. We are restricted objectively by our tools and materials and their impact on the world, not subjectively by the expanse of our egos. The product of our efforts should show no visible sign of ourselves, though it is born of our imagination. Perhaps this is a fundamental difference between art and design: the former an act of self-expression, often beautiful; the latter an act of integration and resolution, no less beautiful, but assessed differently. As designers, we speak in silence, but our voices, though anonymous whispers, are no less heard. Silently, we change the world.

Take care,

7 Comments on “Design vs. Art”

By Marty E.. May 13th, 2014 at 8:09 am

This just seems way too much like a false dichotomy. Anything that’s designed will project an image and a personality, both of which will reflect the values and taste (and perhaps, by extension, the egos) of their creator. Designing for function imposes constraints, but there will always be design decisions that come down to taste and fancy, rather than utility. Also, “I want my design to look humble and utilitarian” is very much an act of self-expression.

On the other side, personality and fashion is not merely something that gets “added to” a design. Form and function are inseparable from each other, no matter the purpose and style of the design. Would people enjoy owning the Volkswagen Beetle as much if it didn’t have its trademark personality? Would anyone want to read a children’s book written and illustrated with the premise that its authors should be invisible?

If Wanders’ designs are misaimed- which I have to admit, I probably wouldn’t want to drive that car- it’s not *merely* because they bear the designer’s signature. Rather, it’s because that signature makes the product feel silly and unfashionable. That’s not a failure of form over function: that’s a failure of function, full stop.

By jlbriggs. May 13th, 2014 at 9:00 am

I’ve made the same argument for many years.
Artists generally make bad designers, and designers bad artists.

It’s not always the case, but you must be able to compartmentalize the processes rather than thinking of them as the same function.

Great art, when observed *should* elicit a “that’s great art” response.

Great design, on the other hand, is much like great acting – when it’s done right it elicits a “that’s great” as opposed to a “that’s great design” (or even better, elicits nothing at all except for the seamless use of the designed element, or the uninhibited enjoyment of the show).

The user should only have the design stand out to them if they are consciously evaluating the quality of the design.

By Joe Mako. May 14th, 2014 at 12:51 pm

On Design vs. art, Massimo Vignelli says: “I am convinced the solution is always in the problem. You could do a design that you like, but it doesn’t solve the problem. Design must solve a problem. Then, the design is exciting. But I find it extremely difficult. This is why I respect artists. Without a problem, I don’t exist. Artists are lucky; they can work by themselves. They don’t need a problem.”


Both design and art are needed, but the difference is that design solves a problem.

By Srinivas. May 14th, 2014 at 11:01 pm

I feel that both Design and Art are self-expressions. The difference being that Design needs an issue/problem/need to complete itself, while Art is complete on it’s own.

By Stephen Few. May 16th, 2014 at 1:28 am

Marty E.,

The dichotomy that I’ve suggested is one of “intention” in design vs. art. To strive for self-expression conflicts with the goals of design, but it is consistent with the goals of art. I have not said that designs do not reflect the values and tastes of the designer. Without question, they do. This is impossible to avoid. This reflection of the designer is quite different, however, from the ineffectiveness that results when a designer sets out to put his mark on a product as a goal of design.

When I design, I do not attempt to produce a data visualization that looks “humble and utilitarian,” even though I value humility and usefulness. When my designs exhibit this appearance, this was not intended but was a by-product of my efforts to make the data visualization serve its purpose as effectively as possible.

You wrote “form and function are inseparable from each other.” Actually, form and function are quite separate in that the forms given to designs can entirely fail to support the functional requirements. This is a common problem in design. Good design, however, exhibits a perfect match of form and function. You also wrote about the failure of Wanders’ work: “That’s not a failure of form over function: that’s a failure of function, full stop.” If, as you stated, “form and function are inseparable,” how can Wanders’ work be a failure of function alone? It is the form that he gave his car that makes it insufferably dysfunctional. Had he intended to design a car to provide an enjoyable, efficient, safe, economical, and environmentally responsible driving experience for anyone but himself, it would have been given a different form.

“Full stop.” (Actually, neither of us should declare a full stop. Ongoing discussion is always welcome.)

By Neil Barrett. May 16th, 2014 at 7:57 am

Interesting and important!

Some designers refer to two aspects in their design: utilility (does it achieve its goal — so if it is a jug, does it pour); and significance (the fluffier, emotional experience of the thing. Does it feel good when you’re pouring from the jug). A designer can actively choose to maximise both, given the interdependencies and other constraints.

I like to think that Dell (for example) designs for utility, whereas Apple designs for for Utility and Signficance (they constrain Utility to increase Significance).

Art also seems to optimise for significance, but measured by the artist’s self-expression, rather than the end user. Of course, you do get ‘artists’ who paint pictures to sell to tourists who’re doing the same thing. But then, artists would probably call that illustration rather than art…

Many of the information visualisations I see are more like art. Instead of charcoal and paper, the Graphic Artist (certainly not designer) is using data and InDesign to indulge their need for self-expression.

By Michael Carper. June 3rd, 2014 at 11:50 am

It seems to me that Wanders is an artist. His definition of design is uncannily close to what most would call art–a medium concerned solely with form. The only attribute of his creations that qualify them as traditional design, a medium concerned with function (and whatever form is necessary to function), is that their form resembles the form of other creations. Except the other creations are actually designed with function in mind. So he starts with the form of the car, which follows from the function of the car, and adds more form elements that cancel out the original function. And “this” is art: taking the form of a functional object, but replacing the function with more personally-inspired form.

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