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Week 15: Art vs. Design—and How to Develop that Design Eye

Hey there, design reader!

Welcome to Week 15 of my UX Academy Journey. Last week we delved into personal branding, and took a tour through ten years of portfolio iterations on the Wayback Machine. As we move away from personal branding and towards preparation for the first of three Phase 2 capstone projects, it’s time to wax philosophical on art, design, and how to develop that design eye!

When I was a freshman in college, one of my first assignments for the student newspaper was to cover a gallery opening showcasing the thesis project of a graduate student in the visual arts program. Not knowing much about abstract art—or art in general, to be honest—I probably asked her some very boring questions over the course of the interview, one of which was regarding the inspiration behind her choice and use of color.

“This took years of studying color theory,” she said. 

I still remember it today. Years of color theory. Years

As I walked around the gallery perusing her works, whatever small part of me that might have thought, “Hey! This looks so fun! Maybe I could learn how to do art like this. Maybe I should take up painting,” was intimidated right out of the room. 

On being wrong

In my case, approaching my design education from the perspective of “but I don’t know anything about art,” was a major pillar of my own personal brand of Imposter Syndrome, and something I slowly let go of the further I got into UX Academy. 

Why? Because at a certain point, it began disrupting my ability to learn and grow as a designer. I couldn’t go back and change the years of my childhood spent not taking art classes, and it wouldn’t really matter if I could. People say art cannot be taught. I’m not sure whether or not I agree, but I know for a fact that design can be. The only thing getting in my way was my own false assumption that design and art were one and the same. 

The process of being wrong, making mistakes, and trudging through the not knowing, is good for learning. As famed graphic designer Paula Scher says, “It’s through mistakes that you actually can grow. You have to get bad in order to get good.” 

 

 

Kathryn Schulz, staff writer for the New Yorker and author of “Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error” in her TED Talk on being wrong.

Art is a craft, design is a discipline (for the most part)

Early on in Phase 1, I discussed how it was years before I even considered any sort of official design training and how, even after years of relevant on-the-job experience, I still hesitated to call myself a designer. Imposter Syndrome was certainly at work here, although I didn’t know it at the time. 

Instead, I just assumed I didn’t have the skills to be a designer, and consequently spent years making the rounds at various jobs while daydreaming about the one I was convinced I could never have.

Art vs Design

Are they distinctly different or sister disciplines? Does it even matter? Image credit: Mitch Goldstein, an Assistant Professor of Design at the Rochester Institute of Technology, from his series of Venn diagrams aptly called A Helpful Diagram.

If you read much about art or design, you’ll see a lot of people declaring that they are two entirely separate entities, and I’ll get to that in just a moment. But this doesn’t mean they don’t share quite a bit in common—including a basis in visual fundamentals.

Elements at play both in art and design include color theory, drawing, the rule of thirds, and even typography. If you’re thinking about moving from side of the fence to the other, recognizing that you’re already familiar with these might give you a leg up. 

They’re by no means prerequisites, though. In fact, there’s ample evidence out there that to become a designer, all you really need is a willingness to learn, wherever you’re starting from. (Speaking of which, check out Designlab’s own ultimate guide to becoming a designer without going to design school, especially if you’re someone who, you know, might be letting their inner designer Imposter Syndrome get the better of them).

Where art and design diverge

While art and design share much in common, unshackling myself even further from my feelings of Imposter Syndrome (as a designer and an artist), meant recognizing how the two are different. From what I can tell, although there’s a large gray area, there are some important primary distinctions:

  • Art is meant to be viewed; design is meant to be used. Art, while a very personal creation of the individual artist’s unique vision, is meant to be consumed by others. Where art is exhibited for us to view and appreciate, good design often goes unnoticed by its users—some would even argue that invisibility is a marker of good design. Either way, the fundamental purpose of designed things is to function.
  • Art poses questions; design answers them. Walk through any museum and you will be hard-pressed not to find at least one piece that speaks to you. Oftentimes, however, that response is entirely personal—the piece that stirs your emotions, and gets your mind spinning, may not speak to anyone else in the room in quite the same way. That is the power of art, and the emotional response it evokes is part of why we value it so much: it can awaken us and make us question our world, our systems, and ourselves. Design, on the other hand—while it can still awe and inspire—is typically born out of meeting predefined needs, shared by many people. 
  • Art is a personal process; design is a shared one. Artists have a reputation for being reclusive and even “weird” for a reason—in fact, scientists have proved the link between creativity and eccentricity. Design, however, is an intrinsically collaborative endeavor, involving teamwork and a culture of knowledge-sharing that drives the industry forward.
  • Art applauds authentic expression; design solves authentic problems. Art is usually the product of an individual artist’s personal explorations. While an artist’s work may be informed by others they admire, or inspired by artistic movements, the work is likely to be labeled “derivative” and of less value if it isn’t distinct enough from what came before it. Design, however, is judged by how effectively it solves a given problem. Designers are encouraged to learn and master their craft by copying others—something that is frowned upon in the art world (and flatly prohibited in the literary world)—and a strong design solution will typically use previously established conventions and patterns.

Design is learning to design better

I have a friend who is a senior UX designer here in Seattle. She has over ten years of experience and has worked for some of the largest companies in the world—yes, Amazon included. 

Recently, when attempting to organize a happy hour date, my friend offhandedly replied that she wasn’t available on Mondays, because she had class for a UX design certificate course.

“But you’re already a senior UX designer?” I said. “You’ve been working for a decade! When are you even bothering to get a UX certificate when you don’t need it?”

The reason, she said, was partly to quash her feelings of Imposter Syndrome—despite her good job and long, impressive resume—and to strengthen her credentials in an industry churning out more and more UX designers, seemingly by the minute (sorry friend!). 

Knowledge vs not knowledge

Remember, there’s no end to what you don’t know. (Image credit: Another one from Mitch Goldstein’s series A Helpful Diagram)

Even after ten years and a LinkedIn profile that will forever put mine to shame, my friend didn’t have any assumptions about her job—if she wanted to compete, she would have to keep learning.

And that brings me to the crux of what I’m coming to think design is, and how it is different from art. My friend’s work in design, to her, wasn’t about expressing her accrued skills and abilities, but being able to solve problems in the here and now. And in order to do this, you have to keep learning.

As my mentor put it on our most recent call:

“When we talk about art, art is expressive. Design is about the user. What’s the fastest way to design for our user? The fastest way to design for our user is to create designs, not art.”

Until next week, happy designing!

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