Archives For art and design

Milton Glaser’s “Dylan.” Art or Design?

“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for . . . We need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”

—Franz Kafka

A couple nights ago I went to visit a friend at his bar. While I was there eating, a mutual friend of ours came up in our conversation. This mutual friend, a graphic designer/artist (I would give her that title—“artist”—whatever that means), had previously done all the typography for the menus on the chalkboards for happy hour. I could tell by the style that it wasn’t hers anymore, that the quality had been greatly diminished.

“She is so gifted,” I said about her. “You can just tell it’s below her level of skill.” I went on to say that she could easily become a successful artist, having galleries in the city, etc., because talent like hers is very rare.

Unbeknownst to me, the other bartender working with my friend, a woman I had never met, was an artist (whatever that means). She responded to this conversation saying that that wasn’t art. It was design. Which led me to ask, “Well, what’s the difference?”

“Art is a diverse range of human activities in creating visual, auditory or performing artifacts (artworks), expressing the author’s imaginative or technical skill, intended to be appreciated for their beauty or emotional power.”


“Design is the creation of a plan or convention for the construction of an object, system or measurable human interaction.”


What’s the difference between art and design?

Clearly a rhetorical question, but I would think that most people would say (or maybe this is just what I think) that design is the application of an artistic skillset for a specific, intended purpose. Design typically involves a team that makes decisions together to meet a functional goal; whereas art, generally, does not have a clear functional goal, or even no intention (all of this could be very heavily debated). But, art can certainly involve a team, and design sometimes has no clear functional goal.

And there are many more exceptions. When art is commissioned the client had a reason for requesting the art, a goal that the client expressed to the artist. Thus, the artist made the “art” (whatever that means) to satisfy a need, the desire of the client (and because the client is paying them, one has to assume that they influenced the production of the art). For example, most of Beethoven’s work was commissioned by the German and English government, and the Sistine Chapel was commissioned by Pope Julius II. These two men made these things for a specific reason and audience, but does that mean they weren’t artists? Also, in response to Kafka’s belief that art should be a “suicide”, that it is meant to provoke, disturb, and “stab” you, is the Sistine Chapel art? Or is that design, because it was commissioned for a purpose?

When is the decision made whether or not a creation is “design” or “art”?

I think, maybe, this is a historical decision. As the generations pass, if something is seen as culturally relevant, or made a difference, an impact, changed the world at all, or is maybe universally loved, then it would be given the honor of being called “art.” Is that how it works?

Who decides what’s art and what’s design?

First off, and this is my personal opinion, if you let people decide for you what is art and what is design, then you’re allowing them to make the decision. I think you should decide and what is art and what is design, or, probably even better, you can decide that you don’t care, that the question is irrelevant, because who knows what’s the difference anyway?

All that aside, the people who decide what’s the difference between art and design, who classifies what is what, are art critics, scholars, and Rolling Stone magazine.

By: David Plick