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!).
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!
Looking for a change of careers?
Designlab’s UX Academy program offers rigorous curriculum, personalized mentor support, and a thriving, global student community. Ready to launch your new career as a UX designer? Get all the details here.