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  • Michael Brady

Art and Design: What’s the Big Difference?

Updated: Feb 23, 2023

Auguste Rodin, The Burghers of Calais, bronze, 1884–1889.

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 in 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 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 to 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, computer 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. Photograph of The Burghers of Calais from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

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