Design vs. Art: What’s the Difference and Does It Matter?

Design is a solution to a problem. Art is a question to a problem.
—John Maeda

Have you ever called your designer “a creative,” or asked them to just “use their imagination” when discussing new designs? Maybe you even came to them with a solution to a problem you hadn’t defined yet and asked them to make it look pretty. If any of those are true, it’s time to discuss the key differences between art and design, and why it matters to you and your company. Although art and design can look like the same thing, when you’re looking for someone to build your site with effective design, do the differences between design vs. art matter?

Art is open for interpretation

Art is subjective. Twenty people can look at a painting and give you twenty unique explanations about what it means, drawing upon their personal experiences and how the piece speaks to them.

Design is not subjective. Of course, one person may prefer the green button over the red button, but if the purpose of the button is to delete all of your photos, red would be a clearly better choice than green. There are hard facts based on data that support design choices and help inform these types of decisions, whereas artists don’t have to consider the goals of people looking at their art.

Design is more science and psychology than art. If your design has an interface flaw or doesn’t effectively solve a problem, twenty users will experience the exact same problem in the same manner. That’s because people always have a goal when they’re using a website or app; it’s nothing more than a tool to help them accomplish that goal.

Design is not created in a bubble

Art is created by one person, pouring her soul onto a canvas, drawing from wherever the imagination leads. Design has to involve other people. At the very least, a designer and a stakeholder. Design focuses on solving problems in a visual manner. That’s why when we see an infographic or sign in screen on an app, we immediately process it much differently than we would a painting or sculpture.

The very purpose of creating art is different from the purpose of design. The artist wants to express their point of view to the world, while a designer strives to connect the business goals and goals of the user in a visually pleasing and simple way.

We interact with design

Most of the time we don’t directly interact with art. We can admire it and contemplate it’s meaning, but for the most part, it’s a very passive activity. Think about how differently you would engage with a piece of art hanging in a gallery versus filling out a signup form on an app–two completely different activities with completely different goals and outcomes. This is why when designing for the web and mobile, we must constantly ask ourselves how we’re helping the user accomplish their goal, not how we’re going to make it pretty. Don’t get me wrong; interfaces can and should be attractive, but a beautiful app that’s confusing to use is far less useful than a mediocre design that’s well-planned and executed.

So now you should have a clear idea of the differences between these two ideas. They are both essential to us as humans, but we should always take care to remember these key differences between them.


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