Design essays

Art and Design: What’s the Big Difference?

From time to time, you hear people refer to art and to design interchangeably, as if they were synonyms. Or they use the term “art” to add a bit of glory to design work. Most of the time this happens in casual conversation, but it does tend to confuse the two terms unnecessarily because, basically, they aren’t the same. What is the difference between art and design? Are they closely related just because they use a lot of the same techniques and appeal to the same aesthetic sense? Or are they essentially different?

Well, art and design are different. The differences between art and design lie not so much in how they look as in what they do: They have different purposes, they are made differently, they are judged by different criteria, and they have different audiences.


In a 1974 interview, Milton Glaser noted that whereas a design must convey a given body of information, the “essential function” of art is to “intensify one’s perception of reality.” Sometimes, he said, these functions coincide, as in a medieval stained glass window, but in modern times they have diverged.

Design is utilitarian in a way that art is not. Design is the how of a thing: how to order the parts, how to serve the client’s interests, how to convey the information. Art, on the other hand, is its own end. It isn’t utilitarian. It subordinates ordinary usefulness to its own purposes. It doesn’t concern itself with description the way illustration does, nor with the desires of the buyer as does fashion, nor the tastes of the public as does style

We have already accepted this model in both its parts–it’s settled law. Since the Renaissance, artists have aspired to the status of philosophers. And beginning the mid-1800s, many artists chose to stand apart from worldly life in order to critique it, to forsake the programs of patrons in order to set their own programs, to discard the public moral code to promote a different code. Although many artists claim to address their art to the world, their method has been to take from the world only on their terms and give back as they see fit. This is definitely not the way of design, which considers the world’s purpose first and fits the work to that end.

How they are made

If the ends of art and design are different, so too are the means of getting there. Most of us think, correctly, of the artist standing before the blank canvas, pondering the beginning and the end of the painting all at once. The artist usually has an end in mind–something as mundane as a portrait or landscape, or as grand as the outrage of Picasso’s Guernica or the vastness of Christo’s Running Fence. But at the outset, all the options are available without precondition.

On the other hand, the designer typically begins with more than a blank canvas or lump of clay from which anything may emerge. Many of the components may already exist, such as the text, photographs, production formats, and even the basic colors. The designer consults the client on the end use, the audience, the size and scale, and other factors. The designer’s role is to envision how these various aspects should come together in a tangible thing and to bring aesthetic sensibility, taste, and technical skills to bear on the production of the job. To put it bluntly, the designer arranges the ingredients.

Artists generally have assumed that the work is a product of their mind and spirit first, and only secondarily serves the intent of the commission (to edify, to stimulate, to delight, or simply to decorate). A notable example is the 1884 commission of a memorial sculpture, The Burghers of Calais, for which Rodin made a striking group of six austere figures. But when the city fathers saw it, they rejected it: to them it was ugly, indecorous, unceremonial, and insulting to their notion of a heroic civic monument. Rodin had conceived it with his artistic genius, but they refused it out of hand because it appalled their sense of honor.

Making judgments

In 1820, Keats wrote, ” ‘Beauty is truth,truth beauty’—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Older still is the motto, “Ars longa, vita brevis.” Art strives to achieve beauty, which is truth, which is a noble thing more enduring that life itself. At least, that’s the party line. In this century art has emphasized moral purpose, visionary truthfulness, and inward-looking integrity. Art is judged in terms of beauty and truth, of insight and revelation, of almost prophetic clairvoyance—when it isn’t being judged as text, subtexts, and social constructs. Utility doesn’t fit this mindset. Practical success is not the hallmark of art, as the example of Van Gogh attests.

Design is judged another way: “Beauty is as beauty does.” If it doesn’t get the job done, the design is considered not good, or worse, not successful. Does the design serve the product? Does it accomplish an end—does it sell, inform, persuade, direct, or entertain? Typically, lack of success in these ways (often described statistically or quantitatively) is considered a defect in the design. Ultimately, a design must fulfill its primary job of packaging or illustration or instruction, and no amount of aesthetic glamour will substitute for its failure to do so.

The audience

The audiences for art and design expect different things. The audience for art wants to look at the artwork or listen to the composition—perhaps to contemplate and reflect, perhaps to be transported by the power of the aesthetic experience or the scene portrayed—whereas a design’s audience wants to use the information to find their subway station or select a product.

Design may indeed arrest the attention and engage the emotions of a viewer, but at some point, as Beatrice Warde said, the goblet of design must become transparent, allowing viewers to gather the intended information, rather than to be absorbed by the designer’s layout.

Art draws attention to itself deliberately. Its very form is the means to intensify our perception. If a visitor to the Sistine Chapel marvels at the economy of the scene of God separating the light from the dark, she is responding to the Michelangelo’s conception, his artistic free creation. But if she is moved by the Last Judgment because of the profound theological truth it expresses, she is responding to the Pope’s purpose. That is, she treats it as information design, as an illustration of doctrine.


Art and design differ significantly in their use materials. Typically, the ultimate work is not made from the same materials as those used during the design process (the paste-up or, these days, the on-screen stuff) but of its manufacturing materials. A book is not actually “made” until it is manufactured from paper, ink, and binding. Another kind of design product, the digital document, doesn’t actually exist apart from its temporary manifestation on a computer, where its appearance varies from one browser or platform than on another, depending on the monitor, operating system, and color display tables. By contrast, a work of art makes a point of reveling in its materials. Certain physical qualities are seen as critically significant, such as de Kooning’s “painterliness,” Pollock’s drips, the encaustic of Johns’s Three Flags, Murray’s metal ribbons, or Schnabel’s broken plates. Size itself is important in an artwork, whether it’s a large Frankenthaler or Kiefer or a tiny Klee or Cornell, but in a way that differs from design. Perhaps it is better to distinguish between scale, that is, the perception of sheer size (even smallness) in a work of art, and production dimensions in a printed piece, which are very often a function of the budget, the kind of product, the size of press, and other external factors. (And for video, web pages, compter graphics, etc., size is a user-defined parameter.)

The difference between art and design is in the way we look at them. Design is meant to be looked away from and art to be looked at and into. Design graces our lives with the aesthetic presentation of useful and beneficial things, and art graces us with representations of things to ponder and perceive. Art and design are closely related but nonetheless separate. It is a good thing to keep them straight.

©1998 Michael Brady. First published in Critique Magazine, 1998.

What’s Important and What the Norms Support

I’ve begun to think lately of the gap between what careful designers are concerned about and what clients see or object to. For instance, working on a technical educational report, I realized the author was not very consistent in using subheads, and that led me to think of how convoluted the sequence of heads should be. Five levels, plus a sixth boldface run in? Or at most two levels below the chapter title? Or even only one level, since (a) we do not speak in subheads, and (b) the subhead serves mainly to make a clear topical break in the text. In fact, newspaper style hardly ever goes beyond one level of subhead. And going way back to the 18th and 19th centuries, there was a much smaller range of types and the distinctions in the text were made more by spacing than by size and font.

Similarly, the author of an educational report disliked the wide margins in the sample layout I prepared. She said the clichéd words, “too much white space.” IKYN. And she also didn’t like the way I used a narrow column of text next to bar graphs, pie charts, and tables.

The only force that education can have in matters of community or societal norms is the force of respect and admiration. Good grammar is what is spoken by the most admired people in the group, community, or country; high fashion is what is worn by the most admired people (not necessarily what is designed by haute couture designers); the best music, art, literature, and so on is the stuff that is made and supported by the most admired people, too. Graphic design is one of those categories: just look at the vogue for grunge type and layout styles a while back. Someone adopted it from the street or alternate club scene, and then others concurred, and finally the larger public began to accept what these admired people (the publishers and commentators of “grunge” publications) had adopted

Familiar Faces

In the late 1970s, Allan Haley wrote a series of brief fact sheets about type designs for Compugraphic Corporation. He entitled these sheets “Familiar Faces” and wrote a total of ten of them. They were assembled into one small, 20-page booklet and distributed to Compugraphic customers.

The “Familiar Faces” booklet is a very useful guide to some of the key features of various faces, and it gives illuminating background information about the provenance and development of some of these faces.

In the early 1980s, Agfa/Monotype acquired Compugraphic Corporation. The “Familiar Faces” booklet was not rerpinted, nor was it digitized.

However, it was expanded into a series of articles he wrote for Step-By-Step Graphics and some of those made it into a book called The ABCs of Type, which according to the author is now out of print.

Allan Haley is presently Director of Words & Letters at Monotype Imaging.

I have scanned my well-worn copy of “Familiar Faces” and, with the author’s gracious permission, published it on line as a flash animated book (click on the cover image above). If you prefer, you may download a PDF file of it.


In the development of German, the vowel sounds in some words shifted, often a back vowel moving to a front position when pronounced. Such a change of sound is referred to as umlaut (German, um – around, Laut – sound). In German, a special diacritical mark [¨] is used to represent the change of the marked vowel, as in Fuß > Füße (foot > feet). Originally, the umlaut change was indicated by inserting an e after the affected vowel, such as in Mueller (miller) or by writing a small e above the vowel. By the 16th century, this scribal practice was beginning to appear in typeset text. Here is an example of a certificate from 1799 and a detail of the small superposed e to indicate the umlaut.

Here is a detail from the main heading.

Eventually, the thicker vertical strokes of the e were reduced to the two dots of the diacritical mark we now recognize as the Germanic umlaut.

Type Art Love

A disquisition on feelings and fealty

"Two Figures in a Room," acrylic on canvas, © 1983, 60" x 33"

It’s part of a comedian’s stock in trade to joke about how routine and stale sex gets in a long-term relationship. As Jay Leno once quipped about the clamor in California about same-sex marriage, “When you’re married, it’s all the same sex.” >rim shot<

They’re funny, but those jokes do a great disservice to long-term intimacy. The more you live with and know your partner, the more you learn about your shared pleasure and the ways you care about each other. And the more you look forward both to the known—and almost failure-proof—pleasures, as well as to the new discoveries and subtleties you may have missed before or just not gotten to yet.

The Bible uses the term “know” to refer to sexual intercourse. To make love many times over many years to the same person is to know that person so much more completely than to “be acquainted” with him or her—or “to be friends with” or “to live with,” even.

Consider the situation of the new lovers: In the very beginning, it’s all high expectations wrapped in the anxiety of “what if she [he] doesn’t like that?” The solution to that problem is to resort to two or three tried-and-true, pretty much off-the-shelf, sexologist-certified gambits . . . because you know—or at least, you strongly believe—that one of those gambits won’t fail. And for the next many encounters with each other, you repeat the great success of the first time with few variations or embellishments, and some lingering trepidations. Eventually, the apprehension goes away and you find you have settled into a familiar pattern. But then, you stumble onto that other sensitive spot that you didn’t know you or she [he] had, and then two days later, another one. And then one day, the carburetor doesn’t work, and you just laugh at the goofiness of it all. And the next day comes and there’s yet another thing that’s new.

What does this have to do with type and design?

Inevitably, graphic design—especially type-centric design—will be influenced by one’s relationship with typefaces. If you’ve spent a lot of time getting to know a small group of faces, you’ll be able to put their strengths to good use. Or there might be a few new ones you might be thinking of having a fling with.

You know the old faces well, just as you know your partner of many years. And you’ve discovered along the way that there are really sexy curves in that blandest of fonts, Helvetica, or that you were surprised when you were tickled by something you had not noticed before, like the way the right descending side of the l.c. “a” in Helvetica Bold was truncated and didn’t just slew into the baseline.

I’ve found that I am comfortable working with a small cadre of very familiar faces, and then occasionally I discover a new typeface that has as much allure and social confidence as the old faces. In the illustration above, I’ve come to deeply appreciate the faces in the first four lines. And then recently, I’ve made the acquaintance of the faces in the last two lines. I’ve set two books in Fontin, I’ve used Diavolo and Titillium in several posters and Kontrapunkt as the title font for two books on engineering.

The very last face, Formal 436, I discovered about six years ago, sort of lost in a big box of fonts (one of those 400,000 clip-art offers). What a discovery! A beautiful display font from Bitstream. To be truthful, at first I wasn’t so impressed with Formal. But I tried it. I liked it! And I came back to it more and more, reliving the same process of incremental delight in discovering other ways it enchanted me. The first several times I used Formal, I went for the tried-and-true successes, which just led to its other charms.

Apollo was like that. I ran across it two decades ago, trying to find a good substitute for Palatino. Designed by Adrian Frutiger, Apollo is very similar in appearance to Palatino, but it’s distinctively different. To me it feels more like a pen-drawn font. And it has a companion set of O.S. figures and small caps.

"Man with Tulips," oil on canvas, 48" x 48", 2009

Art, like design, type, and love, also follows the same route, namely, a long relationship with a small range of images and artistic choices. All of my paintings for the last 40 years have included a small number of components: abstract shapes and fields, a human figure (usually nude), and occasionally other objects (flowers, implements). In the continual revisiting of the same themes, subjects, and models, I look for the pleasures that I know will come but I am constantly surprised by some new twist or variation that I had not come across before—the way two colors mix when brushed together, the kind of edge formed by a brushstroke, the way some part of the body or the flower curves in a way I had not paid attention to before.

And then there is the other result: I decide to put away a technique that now has lost its frisson, its ability to stir or stimulate a sufficient response. I stop using a particular color, as I sometimes stop using a favorite font (for me, Cheltenham at one point). For more on my paintings, look at Figuring Things Out elsewhere on this website.

Three logos for one client

I struggled for several years developing my logo. Initially, I came up with an open book with the acronym, MBB&GD (Michael Brady Book & Graphic Design), which I used for just a short while until I reluctantly decided that the image said “old-technology,” my business name was too narrowly limited to books, and it was just plain too long.

I shortened it to Michael Brady Design, but I was still stuck for a logo.

I couldn’t settle on any device or abstract mark, and I didn’t want to go back to some illustrative image, like the book. What was left was a monogram, and M, B, and D, or m, b, and d, weren’t the most compatible three letters. I wracked my brains and wore out the tip of more than one pen trying to make them work in some kind of symmetrical way. Nothing. I began to think that maybe using the lowercase letters might lend itself more to a solution than the capitals, which were just unsuited to each other. The M is a square letter with points, and the B and D are both letters that are round on their right sides. What could I do with that? Hence, I began to work with the small letters, and I gave up the fruitless search for a fearful symmetry and started looking for asymmetries. Then I noticed how I could use the mirror-image similarities of the b and d, offset and overlap them, and use an especially crisp typeface, De Vinne by Bitstream (a digital recreation of George Bruce’s No. 11, not connected to Theodore Low De Vinne, btw). This was the result:

I added my full business name to the upper right corner, carrying through on the overall visual theme of bare, crisp type in an asymmetrical arrangement:

The full, complete logo and mark looked good, I liked it a lot, and it worked well in many situations. But it didn’t read well at very small sizes and, because the long name hung off the right side, it was hard to use in confined spaces, like the spine of a book. Nonetheless, I kept it because, frankly, I liked it a great deal and I was particularly enamored of the clean qualities of the type design.

However, over time, I looked again for a compact logo, probably a monogram. I took a cue from the Calvin Klein logo, cK, set in Bodoni, a face widely popular in the fashion press, and first set the M and D in smaller capital letters and the B larger, in the middle of them. It had possibilities, but the letters looked like three politicians standing stiffly shoulder to shoulder for a group photograph.

Then I saw it: I overlapped the D and B, producing a cluster of interlocking arcs, almost like the windows of a Gothic cathedral. But to complete the task, I needed a face with a splayed-leg M, a B with two almost equal counters, and a D with almost straight connectors between the vertical and the arced right side, so that it when it overlapped the B, the openings would be sufficiently large. I chose a font called Corrodet Classic Caps, by Manfred Klein.

That’s the bare logomark. In the layout, I add “Michael Brady Design” after the mark, often in Fontin. But I leave open the possibility to change the font of both the monogram and the name based on the layout needs (Optima is quite good for the monogram).