Is Graphic Design Art?

I recently came across an online discussion. The question posed was, simply, “Is graphic design art?” The answers were far from simple – and rarely concurrent. Perhaps this is because the simple question is not so simple, after all.

Oxford’s online dictionary defines art as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” Some would argue, then, that graphic design – created more to impart a message than for aesthetic value – clearly doesn’t fall into this category and, therefore, is not art.  But it’s important to remember that at the turn of the century, graphic design was called commercial art. Over the years, various “schools” of design have been formed, exercising very specific design principals and “human creative skill,” with the intent of imparting specific values or messages through the process of design. One might even argue that emotion is elicited through this thoughtful assembly of significant text and image. But that, of course, raises another question. How can design, which serves to advertise or serve commercial goals, be considered art?

The lines here aren’t clear. I believe that art can posses more than aesthetic value (indeed, some very inspiring works of art are not pleasant to look at, but cause us to question and consider deeper issues and meanings). Conversely, many graphic designs, though created to sell a product or convey a message, have artistic value. Consideration of all of this has led me to my own, very personal conclusion.

While it employs the “principals” of art, graphic design is different from art in that it requires working closely with a client to communicate a message with the intent of meeting a challenge, usually commercially or socially driven. Once that message is clearly understood, the designer’s job is to represent information to a particular audience through the combination of type and image, and attempt to call that audience to action. S/he does this through a combination of practical analysis, creative expression and technical skill. It seems, then, then the main difference between art and graphic design might be their purpose. Design typically uses emotion as a motivator – a push toward a specific goal. Art uses emotion as a means of expression. Certainly, art may inspire action through its emotional content but this is not its main purpose. As stated by Anne Freese, in her online article, Graphic Artist vs. Graphic Designer, “The purpose of Design is to solve problems; the purpose of art is to express [them].”

Whether an artist or a designer, this much seems certain; there is an art “to” design and an attention to design principals in art. The two are still very different disciplines. The joy of working as a graphic designer is the ability to employ both right and left sides of the brain – to combine creative and analytical skills to create visually appealing work that solves a problem or meets a challenge.  The results can be artistic, but the goal is typically not to create a great work of art. After a day of meeting the needs of others, clients with messages to convey, creatively and analytically… I’m also thrilled to be able to express my own thoughts and creativity through my personal art. Now where is my paintbrush?

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