Design and art

In high school I wanted to become someone who draws comics or cartoons for a living. I wasn’t too concerned with whether my images would be considered art, entertainment or something else. I just wanted to draw funny things.

My parents weren’t really against that. But they were curious about my arts teacher’s view on this. So for the parents evening they signed up for a meeting with him. Apparently confounded by parents who wanted to talk to an arts teacher, he tried to get out of the appointment, saying he wasn’t available because of ‘work’. They negotiated and ended up having a phone call.

The phone call that changed my life

In this call my arts teacher explained that there’s a very different profession that also requires drawing skills. Design! He asked my mother, did you know that the new Porsche Boxter was designed by someone from our country? My mother thought it was a ridiculous question—’What is a Porsche Boxter?!’ To my mother’s mild annoyance, he talked on and on about electronics and other products. Never really talking about his student.

Hearing my mother’s summary I was very excited; gadgets, drawing and making a living can be combined! I only had a vague idea of what design could be, and had never realized that design was everywhere. And that everything from Industrial Design looked really cool compared to other engineering studies.

So I shadowed an Industrial Design student for a day at the Delft University of Technology. I was lucky, because she happened to have the weekly four-hour product sketching class that day. They used alcohol markers in a style between comic and realistic. And they used the brand of which I’d already bought a bunch. The were actually teaching how to use my favorite thing professionally! Sign me up!

Eventually I learned that drawing is just a small part of design. And that bad drawings can (often) be compensated with other skills. I also learned that design serves a completely different purpose than art. Over the years, I increasingly felt a need to make these differences clear to stakeholders on my projects. I cringed when clients called our work ‘art’. I rejected the notion of me having anything to do with art.

Sometimes I’m a bit scared that recommendation algorithms radicalize people to extreme viewpoints. But that same mechanism can work in a good way! After a long time of barely doing any drawing for drawing’s sake, YouTube pulled me into the marker drawing tutorials. Every day for over a month, I’ve been doing my favorite thing again: drawing with ink and markers! I’m telling you this, because after years of pretending that art and design are unrelated, I found that actually, there’s a lot I learned in design that I could apply to making art.

What do you mean with design and art anyway?

One of my most read post of all time is [What is design?]. There I already touch on the differences between design and art:

A design is a plan to make something new for people, that they perceive as beneficial.

I also wrote that art “is a creation of which the main purpose is to convey an emotion”. Since then, I realized that some artists create neither for practice nor for publishing. An extreme example is Vivian Maier, who did amazing street photography but never even developed many of her negatives. Franz Kafka wrote his friend that after his death his novel The Castle (Das Schloß) should never be published. One could argue that it would have been easier for Kafka to throw out his draft instead of writing his friend. So maybe he did want at least his friend to read it.

Now there can be individual quirks or practical reasons for the creation of self-serving art. Artists may be too shy to publish their work. They may fear to be cast out by their communities for spreading subversive ideas. Whatever the reason are, it’s fair to assume that at least some artists produce art only for their own use.

With that, I want to adjust my previous definition of art. How about this:

Art is a creation which main purpose is to capture emotion.

By replacing ‘to convey’ with ‘to capture’, it allows for many scenarios the artist has in mind with the work.

I also changed ‘an emotion’ to the indefinite ‘emotion’. Art, especially performance art, is often about multiple emotions. These feelings usually add up to a mood or vibe that’s more than the sum of the individual parts.

Capturing and conveying emotions

Capturing and conveying emotions are a common activity for designers too. Designers may not always do it consciously though (that’s why there are books like Don Norman’s Emotional Design). But every time we consider the looks of something, or the way a part of the product behaves, we consider how our users may feel about that.

Experience design

If there’s such a thing as experience design, that should be close to art. Although my job title has been ‘experience designer’ for years, I’m not convinced anyone can actually design an experience.

Let’s say we’ve designed a transit ticket app. One of our users is in a hurry. They have a bad connection and are afraid to arrive late to a job interview. Only one day later, they’re going to a party with their friends (celebrating the new contract) and at a restaurant, they get their tickets before leaving to the bus stop. Identical user flows, identical user, but a completely different experience. Can we even design an experience?

We can try to design user experiences. But we can’t affect users’ basic emotional states (fearful, angry, inspired, satisfied) and when all we can (somewhat) control is a product, the term UX seems very aspirational.

Sometimes designers can control more of a user’s environment than just a single product. Lighting, sounds, smell, temperature and humidity can sometimes suffice to temporarily change the mental state of a user who’s open to that.

But even then, a designer’s job still is not to convey emotions for the purpose of self-expression. It’s to serve their users (by solving their problem) and client (by designing something that supports their mission).

Craft

Many designers and artists are crafts people. They create (often visual) things to explain their ideas to coworkers, bosses and test participants. I believe that this is why we can debate endlessly about definitions of art, kitsch, entertainment and design. After all, an audience can’t tell for sure what the creator’s intention was.

And maybe that’s not just ignorance on the part of the audience. Often a creator’s motivation is just the activity of creating itself. Sometimes meaning, purpose and intentions come only when a piece is finished.

Practice

Crafts require practice: doing one thing over and over again to get closer to the best possible version of that thing. Practice can be exciting or frustrating. But for many, practice is a flow activity in which you become one with that what you do. Creative skills are special in that it can also feel like you become one with your creation.

Design and arts crafts have enough in common, that designers can become better by practicing arts and artists can get better by doing design work. That last part is obvious with many artists making a living off commercial illustration and graphic design work.

As I mentioned, I recently picked up my beloved markers again. Just to practice drawing. A lot of what I know about color and contrast in UI design was informed by arts. Things like avoiding pure black, the ways shadows work, how colors blend. But still, I was delighted to discover how I could apply things I learned for design purposes to drawing. Improving visual hierarchy, creating color pallets and that sometimes you need to mix colors differently to make them look the same in another context.

Happy accidents

Sometimes, sort of by accident, something great comes out of practice. At the time of creation, the artist’s main intention may have been to practice their craft, but sometimes things get better than what was intended. When a practice sketch perfectly captures the emotion the artist wanted to capture, it can become art.

Design requires combining skills and often take many stages to reach completion. So design practice can be anything from trying design software features, doodling, improv theater (for presentation and interviewing skills) to blogging. But these skills separately rarely make a whole design. Because of that, it’s not common for designers practicing their craft to accidentally create a design. So unless we make a big project out of it, practicing design crafts is very close to practicing arts crafts.

Reserving time for practice

As a designer I can learn artists, when it comes to practice. No one expects a musician to show up to concerts without practice and perform at their best. During practice artists pay extra attention to the hard parts (that high note, the drum solo, that one facial expression). Over and over again. But for successful designers it’s not uncommon to jump from project to project. Without breaks in between. No practice for those designers! Some design agencies have solved that problem by letting designers do wildly creative projects for business development.

I’m not sure what the perfect mix of practice and productive design work should be. But I do know that practice is essential even for those who already master their craft. Practice allows for experiments, variation and optimization. If all you get to do is performing for those who pay you, you’re unlikely going to risk failure and do something new.

Creativity

Pop music and product design have in common that they always aim to find a balance between the familiar and the new. By definition pop songs have a lot in common with each other: 4/4 time, common combinations of verses and choruses, a limited number of instruments, a duration of about 2 to 10 minutes and the use of contemporary sounds. Artists often play with these conventions, but if all these conditionals are false, it’s probably not pop music anymore.

Balancing familiarity with originality

Product design also relies heavily on looking familiar. Occasionally a new category-defining product becomes successful (That roofed scooter (BMW C1), Tinder’s cards and AirPods come to mind). But even these are variations on familiar themes. You could launch a completely new online service, but when you do that with a completely unfamiliar UI, it’s probably going to confuse people. On the other hand, even when designing the dullest corporate IT solution, a designer is expected to do more than slapping some Material components on a page.

‘Boring’ is rarely used as a brand value. With products being brand expressions, there’s always the search for solving some things in a new way. If there’s no problem to solve and the design should have the same properties as an existing product, I don’t think there’s any design left to do. Only some engineering. So just like the pop music producer wants their sounds to be fresh, designers are always looking for new ways to present familiar objects.

Inspiration

Finding those new ways to present familiar things requires inspiration. Some lay people think that designers must have some magical source of that. The reality is that most of the time we’re just identifying and solving problems, grinding on the design details and preparing presentations. Because of that, it’s easy to forget that inspiration is in fact important to designers too! But where an artist needs inspiration to start a project, a designer needs inspiration to solve problems that have already been identified. A designer needs inspiration to make the familiar look special again. Without making it too strange.

That type of inspiration can be pretty banal: it’s usually about transferring an existing idea to the domain of the design problem. Like how the idea for Velcro came from seeds clung to the inventor’s socks. Or the idea for Dyson vacuums was transferred from industrial cyclones. I’ve also seen brands that were seemingly lifted from similar companies active in another regions. But that’s typically not considered creative and can cause reputation problems long term.

So to be creative, designers need to surround themselves with ideas outside their usual work domain. Nature seems to be good inspiration for industrial designers solving a mechanical problem. Apart from being absolutely normal and fun, spending time with pop culture can be useful too. Art and entertainment are an integral part of the zeitgeist. So being closely connected to pop culture can help you make fresh looking designs. Not advocating planned obsolescence though!

Commercially positioning creators

Art is for people. People perceive things differently based on the context the things are presented in. The story behind a creation is part of that context. It doesn’t matter if we like that or not.

People are willing to paying exorbitant amounts of money for a bottle of wine. If the story about the bottle is good enough: about the vintage, the vineyard, the brand, etc. But these same people may not even be capable of discerning a white from a red wine in a blind test. It’s the story behind the wine that makes it valuable.

People don’t see things for what they are, but how they’re presented to them. The psychology behind this has been studied and described as the halo effect and other cognitive biases.

This shouldn’t be news to anyone who’s been part of the development of a successful product—without marketing (the positioning, the branding, the story telling), even the world’s greatest products don’t reach their customers. Even Muji, famous for not doing advertisement, does some great PR causing reporters to repeat the framing of the ‘no-brand brand’.

I only recently realized how awesome artists are at framing their work. Figuratively. Much of modern art isn’t about the end result, but about the story behind that result. That banana taped to the wall and the Banksy print getting shredded at the auction are just like the ceramic pebbles in our garden. Art schools even go as far as to (sidenote: Laovaan has an entertaining rant about his experiences with art school. ) to teach students to think conceptually about their work.

Just like with food and design, an artwork gets its meaning through the story behind it. But an artwork gets value through the story about the artist.

Professional persona

Branding and marketing is just as important to artists who want to make a living as it is to designers who want their products to be successful. It’s common for designers to hate on marketing people for being soulless commercial slaves of capitalism who f up everything that’s beautiful. But let’s be honest—if the marketing department acts unethically, the rest of the organization is probably not doing anything better. And just a good product doesn’t make a successful product. Success needs good design and good marketing.

You probably knew that too already. But what many designers can learn from artists is how they position themselves to clients and other stakeholders. I’m not saying everyone should brag about their accomplishments all the time. But if you’ve done some great work in the past, it’s worth mentioning that when decision makers are around. Not only to get some authority in those areas, but also for them to know in what areas you may need additional support. Just like you wouldn’t question Banksy’s street art cred, you wouldn’t rely on him being a great public speaker.

Who are the best designers you worked with? How do you know they were good? The people that come to my mind are all vocal about topics they find important. In some cases, I can’t know if they are actually really that much better than others. But they appear good at what they do. They all have a small number of topics that they bring to almost every discussion. That makes them look like experts even in these topics. They created an reputation of expertise and activism. So when one of them expresses their opinion about such a topic, to me that’s more than just any opinion.

So wear black, weird glasses, a funny hat. Maybe not all at once. Because if you look like any other office worker, your creative opinion may be perceived as relevant as anyone’s. Although that can be good too. Either way: it takes effort and time to intentionally create your professional persona. Or personal brand, if you will. Based on how I saw that work for others, I’d say give it half a year and notice how it starts to make your work easier.

Keep this to yourselves

Aesthetic decisions in art should always be based upon the artist’s opinion. And if art is created by a group of people, all of their opinions may be relevant. Design is also a group activity. But if all members of a product team believe their aesthetic preferences are relevant, they forget that the work they’re doing is not about their opinions. Because design is not self-expression.

In design, we make decisions based on what’s feasible, viable and desirable. That desirability is often a huge factor in product aesthetics—what resonates well with the target group? The user researcher on the team may have the best feeling for that. They can distill their insights as design requirements. And the product designer should have the best skills to those into something visual. Their personal opinions shouldn’t be of importance though. And neither should the opinions of others on the team be decisive.

So to the outside, I will keep pointing out the differences between design and art. But among other designers, artists and other creative people, I want to be more open. Share more and learn more!