3 Differences Between Design and Art


I’ve studied and practiced design for about six years now, and throughout the course of my young career, I’ve often heard these comments when sharing my work with others: “you’re so artsy” or “it’s so pretty” or “what a work of art.” While these are certainly nice compliments—believe it or not—I usually find myself disagreeing with them.

I don’t consider myself to be an artist. I consider myself to be a designer, and here are three reasons why there is a distinct difference between the two.

1. Art is beautiful, expressive, and imaginative. Design is strategic and functional.

This might be why when it comes to making crafts that I see on Pinterest, I often fail miserably, even though I feel like I should have an advantage as a designer. Throughout my years of schooling, I was never trained to create beautiful crafts. I was trained to design strategic and functional pieces. And because of this, I like being involved with the entire process of a project—from identifying the business problem to conducting user research to designing to testing outcomes—I like to understand as much as I can in order to produce the best possible outcome for the user.

However, don’t get me wrong, even though design shouldn’t necessarily be beautiful or expressive, the final product should still look good. But, if the design process is strategicand involved design principles and user research from the start, the aesthetically-pleasing component of the project should already exist since it was user-focused the entire time.

2. Art is a subjective expression of the artist’s talent. Design is an objective solution to a user’s problem.

While artists love to hear how talented they are, I am much more interested to hear that my work helped solve a business problem. This speaks more to the skill that I’ve learned and developed over the years instead of referencing a talent—something that often comes naturally to someone.

This might be why the phrase “I don’t like it” is the worst possible feedback a client can provide a designer. Designers want constructive and objective feedback. And because of this, I don’t care if the client “doesn’t like it.” I care if the work solves the user’s problem. It’s important for both the designer and the client to remember that design work is for the user, not necessarily the subjective client. A more helpful statement would be “based on my understanding of our user, I think this would be a better solution.” Now you’ve got my attention. And better yet, we’re both focused on the real goal of the project.

And this goes for designers, too. Instead of voicing subjective opinions when pitching my design work, I take my opinion out of it and talk about the solution that my design brings to the table. The client doesn’t care about my feelings about the design piece. The client cares about how the piece is going to solve a business problem and drive revenue. So, if you’re the client and you ask a designer why he/she chose a certain color or typeface, and you receive a “because I like it” answer, I give you full permission to challenge this response and ask for something smarter.

3. Art can be interpreted differently across different audiences. Design should be consistently interpreted by different users.

Design is about strategic principles—such as hierarchy, white space, repetition with variation, and typographic grids—and the goal of a design project is to communicate a consistent message and accomplish a specific task. Art, on the other hand, speaks differently to many people with no real end “task” in mind. You could look at a piece of art for an hour and have more questions than answers. Design answers your questions.

While designing to accomplish a specific task may sound straight-forward, there is a gray area between a design’s intention and interpretation. Intention can be based on assumptions about the user—and this is okay to start here—but the validation of the assumptions will take this from an intention to a consistent interpretation. Intention can also be based on the user’s context, and this can vary the ending interpretation if users have varying contexts. A good designer understands the differences between these terms and applies this research to the end piece so it’s more consistent for multiple users.

How to remember the differences between art and design:

So, clients and designers—before discussing your next design project, here are some points to remember:

  • Understand the intended strategy and function of the design before speaking
  • Check your opinion at the door. Provide objective feedback instead
  • Focus on the user, the business problem, and the solution