The difference between art and design

Over the years, when I’ve  shown a set design to people who are not working on the show — and sometimes even to those who are — I’ve often heard the comment, “Wow, you’re an artist.” It happened just the other day with a design for a prop. My usual response has been to say, “Thank you, but I’m a designer, not an artist.”

To which the response has very often been two raised eyebrows.

This has happened so much over the past thirty-some years that I thought I would write a post on the difference between art and design. That way, if I’m responding to a post on a chat room or an email, I can just reference it in case they’re interested. Not everyone will be, and that’s fine too.

Okay, so first let’s accept that there’s a lot of overlap between the two: some of the same skill sets and knowledge bases are used in both, and of course the semantics never end. But the biggest difference is in the end product, or, better yet, in the creator’s intention for the end product.

“Art” generally refers to a work that stands on its own and makes its own statement: it doesn’t support something else. A drawing or painting that hangs on the wall, a statue on a pedestal, a decorative item around the house, or even a movie, a play, a musical composition, a novel, or a poem. They could be great, mediocre, bad, or galaxy-class awful, but they’re art. They’re not design.

“Design,” on the other hand, generally refers to a work that solves a problem; in my case, a set solves the problem of providing an environment to help tell the story in a theatrical production. Many of us refer to it as a “design problem” and a “design solution.” To design a bridge is to create a solution to the problem of how to get people and things from one side of, say, a river, to the other side. To design a computer board, a car, a building, or a better mousetrap, are all ways of solving a problem.

Two paragraphs above I said there was lots of overlap and semantics. Sure, lots of designed works are included in art museum collections, and I’ve seen many of them. But they were still originally intended to solve a problem — they just happened to be so aesthetically pleasing, or so skillfully executed, that the directors and curators decided to include them. The Met in New York City has lots of Egyptian coffins and other artifacts on display, but many of them were originally intended to solve a problem or serve a purpose.

I also mentioned that the creator’s intention was involved, and this is where some people want to be artists and some want to be designers. I won’t go into the right-brain-left-brain argument (because, as far as I know, the theory hasn’t been proven), but it’s still a good analogy. Some people want to create things that stand on their own, and some want to create things that solve a problem. The thought process, and the creator’s personality and interests, have  a lot to do with it, even though both artists and designers may in some cases possess the same technical skills.

And they both have a place in the world.