When is Design Not Art?

Hello, 2019.

All art is design, as I’ve written before, but the obverse is not the case. All design is definitely not art, in fact very little of it is even artistic. Especially in this digital world we now live in.

Because we live in this digital world propagated by personal computers, all the information we get and see and digest and infuse into our daily lives has a mechanical aspect to it. It has to have that. Computers are designed to give mechanical results. That aspect shows up in the most visual ways in print magazines and television commercials and digital animated movies. And it shows up in the most minimal ways in email, emoji, attachments to email blasts, and in notifications you may get through things like Facebook and Twitter.

In the art world, geometric forms started taking hold in the late 1950s through the 1960s. Painters like Josef Albers (top left) were challenging the critics with movements into chart-like forms and color, and Frank Stella with his Protractor Series (top right) in his paintings and print making took things further. These are examples of design as fine art, but apart from other fine art, they convey no emotion from such techniques as broad brushwork or splashes of color. They are very controlled pieces with precise definition and form. Thought-provoking, yes. But being emotionless, they impart little in the way the artist communicates.

I’m certain that back in the ’50s and ’60s, the Albers and Stellas were not projecting—or had any real vision—toward the advent of computer-generated communication of the ’90s and beyond, but in looking at their artwork, millennials may wonder just how viable their work was—and is—as fine art today. Certainly their work was a precursor or harbinger of the phenomenon of digital art and design, but only in form. The fact that any or all of that work could easily be duplicated on home computers nowadays tends to minimize the fact that these artists were groundbreaking in their own time.

If this article appears to be another of my assaults on computer-generated art, I really don’t intend that here. What I do intend, though, is to show how far our culture has come in its detachment from artful thinking. What Albers and Stella did in their time was not to deter their audiences from seeing beautiful art, but rather to have them rethink what art can be.

And that is what I wish we as designers could accomplish in this era of digital art. It doesn’t matter where you do your artwork: be it in package design, magazine design, website design, what have you. Use artful thinking in your designs.

So much of website design deals with selling and communicating. Navigation through the site is paramount, we know this. But the sterile check list web page (bottom left) could at least be as minimally artful as a catalog page (bottom right). The addition of a pictorial element goes a long way in achieving visual interest. These pages are definitely not art, but they could be more like art.

When I was in college, I would get an occasional letter from one of my favorite relatives, my Uncle Paul. His penmanship was just the best, his handwriting so beautiful and flowing. These days, handwriting is no longer taught in grade schools because our communication no longer demands it. I myself use handwriting only to sign an occasional check or greeting card. But that’s just one example of long lost art: if one had nice handwriting, you noticed it. It was art in itself.

Then several years ago, my wife’s family came across a treasure: a short pile of postcards sent from her father to his parents during World War II while he was in France. What made the postcards so interesting was not the salutations handwritten on the cards, but the fact that the cards were handmade with original watercolors on them, artwork of roses on each. Unique and precious in their own way, all made by an old family friend back in the ’40s.

You could hardly duplicate them today, but it made me think that a touch of art goes a long way to make a big difference.

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