ARTICLE // What is the Difference Between Art & Design?

This is a question that I’ve been asking myself for nearly a decade. I’ve had many discussions with fellow artists and designers trying to break down the intricacies of both concepts and the answers have never left me satisfied. That is, until I was writing an artist statement and out of my mind came the words:


“design is art with a job to do.”


This threw my brain train onto a new set of tracks and I started being able to get a glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel.

The first thing to realize when trying to define art and design is the difference between design-the action and design-the outcome. Nearly anything can be designed – including art. It’s a conscious process of decision-making to create an end result. Design plans out elements like colour, materials, and dimensions etc. But when debating art vs. design, the ‘design’ being referred to is the identifying noun rather than the action. It’s a way of describing what something is and includes much more than simply the design process.

Let’s break it down into 3 categories: Process, Creation & Results.


 The Process 

Art Process: The artistic process is often organic and individual to each person. Design can and often does play a role, but usually more as a general guideline or tactical inspiration. An artist can adapt their original art process as needed to suit their vision as a piece comes together. They don’t have to work within confines dictated by the initial design process.

Design Process: The design process is often more calculated than the artistic one with more rules and restrictions set in place from the start. A designer considers things like functionality, messaging, size, and format along with any external influences that are applied to them - like branding. Although initial concepts may stem from an organic idea process, they’re designed and distilled before they become the final design.


 The Creation 

Art Creation: In general, art is created to capture a moment, convey a meaning, or evoke emotion. Its goal embodies an ask rather than a tell. Even statement art pieces, which often have the intention of conveying a deeper message, are still created to appeal to the viewers’ inner thoughts and feelings rather than drive a specific external action.

Design Creation: Design is created with an external purpose in mind; often to convey a message, provoke a response, or complete a function. This purpose influences each element of its creation, not just its visual appeal. As one of Murphy’s Laws says: “If it’s stupid and it works, it’s not stupid.” Many great design works are never noticed, appreciated, or thought about, but complete their purpose flawlessly.


 The Results 

Art Results: The end result of art is an experience. Whether that experience is a subtle appreciation, an insight into new perspective or point of view, or an intense emotional affair, art is a self contained conversation. Although its influence may ultimately impact a persons’ understanding, unless paired with external messaging or design, it rarely expects an action to be made.

Design Results: While the intended results of a design can be anything from achieving recognition to provoking an action, a design’s overall desired result is to produce an outcome. Since design exists for a purpose, its end goal is to have that purpose fulfilled. At its core, design is an action / reaction delivery system that can be implemented in an infinite number of ways.


Even with these differences there are plenty of times where the line between art and design blur. Each can have elements of the other and even be mixed and combined. Think of a beautiful and intricately carved wooden chair. It serves a function: it gives you a place to sit. But its carvings don’t help you to sit on it any better. It’s both a piece of art and design. 

 All-in-all, the debate between ‘what is art’ and ‘what is design’ will likely continue as creativity is expressed in new and innovative ways and the boundary between evoking emotion and provoking an action are repeatedly being pushed.