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Art versus Design

Updated: Feb 11

(Originally published in the Napa Valley Register)


In recent years, I’ve been invited to speak at Sausalito Open Studio events. These events are organized differently than Napa Open Studios in that all artists work in one building instead of individual homes. Twice a year this building is opened to the public for tours, demonstrations, and meet-and-greets with the artists.


It was during my first meeting with Sue Averell, artist and founder of the Speaker Program, that I began to formulate distinctions between art and design. When Sue showed me her new “encaustic”, I had no idea that is was a hot wax painting, but I knew, as a designer, where I’d hang it in an interior space. Likewise, her motivation for dividing another painting into a triptych would be different than my motivation for making it a dining room focal point.


Tangible art is expressed through paintings, sculptures, silk screens, blown glass, mixed media, photography, weaving, and pottery to name a few. Design is expressed through architecture, interiors, landscapes, graphics, structural engineering, and industrial products. To be sure, art and design share a handful of fundamentals. For instance, the principles of unity, balance, proportion, rhythm, shape, color, function, and structure applied by architects and designers cross into the arts in various degrees depending on the artist’s intended outcome. A simple illustration of this in the art world is the triangular or pyramidal composition used by the old masters. Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, and Michelangelo’s sculpted Pieta all form a triangle with the subject’s head peaking at the top. The same composition applies in the design world - the Eiffel Tower, the United States Capitol, the Taj Mahal, practically every church, and of course the Egyptian pyramids are all based on a triangle. Whether consciously or subconsciously, these greats tapped into Euclid’s enduring brilliance.


As I wandered about Sue’s studio, I noted more differences between our disciplines. Art is something that catches your eye and draws you. Design is best seen from afar and as a total body of work. Art stands on its own. Its mere existence is its justification. Art is subjective. It is interpreted by the viewer’s own personal experiences and values. Design is objective. And, good design is universally recognized regardless of who the viewer is. Art starts with a blank canvas, metaphorically and sometimes literally. It is triggered by emotions. Some forms of art do not adhere to any rules. Design, on the other hand, almost always starts with a set of rules - specifications, floor plans, budget, and restrictions. Design usually serves a purpose or solves a problem. If done well, design, ipso facto, also becomes a piece of art.


What are some other distinctions? Chris James of Quantum Design Lab has some interesting insight: Good art inspires. Good design motivates. Good art is interpreted. Good design is understood. Good art is a talent. Good design is a skill. Good art sends a different message to everyone. Good design sends the same message to everyone.


Art versus design has been a provocative topic throughout the ages. But there are points that can be agreed. The success of each is the result of the passion and desire of the artist and the designer to create something from nothing. It stems from a lust, an urge, a need, a calling. The more creative freedom allowed, the more successful, unique and winning the achievement.


Gallery Sausalito, 28 Princess St B

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