At the August Refresh DC meeting, a monthly meet-up here in the District for web folk, Corey Greeneltch gave a presentation called "From Goya to Google: Traditional Design Principles on the Web". I'm a sucker for things like this with a scent of philosophy to them. Greeneltch presented a list of core design principles and analyzed how they were at play in paired examples of fine art and contemporary web design. At the very end, he said, "And this is why..." and clicked to a slide that said simply "Art = Design".
I didn't know it right away, but we'd just been trolled.
A raucous conversation began, one that lasted for about twenty minutes. Person after person spoke up, passionately arguing for his own slant on whether art and design were the same thing or not. Most people thought they were different, though not for the same reasons; they all thought art and design were words with separate meanings, whatever they were, and the distinction between them was clearly important to people.
During the conversation, I tweeted "People got some dumbass things to say on the definitions of art vs. design." I was frustrated by how arbitrary some people's definitions seemed and at how much of the argument was about irrelevant aspects of the issue; the points Greeneltch had made during his presentation were all but forgotten. However, my frustration at the time has gradually changed into curiosity. Was it a silly argument that we had? Were we designers just a group of cats, and Greeneltch's "art = design" assertion just a giant ball of twine he'd tossed into the middle of us?
I ask this because, on the surface, few things could seem less important to one's life--even one's life as a designer or an artist--than the definition of such large and abstract concepts as art and design. My life is filled with practical decisions about colors, borders, code, and things like that. Never once, however, has someone said: "Nate, this is really important: we need you to have clearly articulated definitions of art and design before our one o'clock meeting." I've never been in a feedback huddle after an interview with a design candidate and said, "I like her, but she's way off about how art is distinct from design. I think we should keep looking."
Yet we all cared about that argument. Why?
Clearly, our private--and varied--definitions of art and design were doing something for us. If they weren't, then we wouldn't have cared. It would have been academic, remote, and dusty, not capable of inspiring the passion of those involved the way it did.
Having examined this, I would like to suggest an improvement to the debate of art versus design. I would like to propose that before anyone can argue for his personal definitions of these concepts, he must answer this question: what do you want your definition to accomplish?
Part of the reason I propose this is due to the tendency of all debates like this to get heated and then, inevitably, for some meek soul to suggest that everyone's definition is in some way true for him, and that we're all really, in a grand sense, equally correct. What could be more annoying than this partially true, friendship-saving, progress-halting assertion? Yet it's hard to blame the people who say it. They recognize that no one's really sure what the debate is supposed to accomplish, that it is at least creating bad feelings, and that it's totally unclear that anything good enough to justify bad feelings is going to come out of the conversation.
Clarity about purpose could help us with this problem. Let me attempt, then, to present a few of the arguments from that evening and explain, speculatively, what people hoped to accomplish.
Greeneltch, as I mentioned, proposed that art equals design. He meant it as a kind of conclusion of an analysis that showed concepts like proportion, scale, balance, and others at work in comparable ways in both art and web design. The purpose of this analysis, I speculate, was to unlock a large and time-honored toolbox--the accumulated artistic wisdom of the Western tradition--and make it useful for the betterment of design. For him, using the concepts he had been taught in art history classes provided ways to make his designs for web pages more beautiful, more coherent, and more powerful.
His suggestion caused immediate objection. One of the objections was, as I recall, that art was expressive of an artist's self in a way that design was not. Design, this person argued, was for a commercial purpose, whereas art was unfettered from commercial interests. There was immediate argument over whether art was in fact distanced from commerce in this way, but that's merely an example of how easy it is to get derailed by arguing about uselessly fine points of a person's argument. We can get a better grasp on the whole of this by trying to articulate, again, what this definition intends to accomplish.
This person--again, I speculate--had experiences of significant emotional content associated with expressive works of art that individuals had created at their own behest, not as part of their jobs somewhere. Artistic self-expression was deep and powerful. As Stephen Fry once put it, "art makes something inside of us quiver without knowing why" (paraphrased to the best of my recollection). This emotional content is distinct from the utilitarian goals of web sites and calls to action and certainly things like banner ads. By objecting to the equation of art and design, this person hoped to save that deep, meaningful experience of art from being tossed into the same heap as the thousand million rounded-rectangle navigation menus of the internet and punch-the-monkey Flash ads.
Your humble author spoke up at the very end of the debate. I'd been looking up the etymology of the word "art" on my phone.
art (n.): c.1225, "skill as a result of learning or practice," from O.Fr. art, from L. artem, (nom. ars) "art, skill, craft," from PIE *ar-ti- (cf. Skt. rtih "manner, mode;" Gk. arti "just," artios "complete;" Armenian arnam "make," Ger. art "manner, mode"), from base *ar- "fit together, join" (see arm (1)). In M.E. usually with sense of "skill in scholarship and learning" (c.1305), especially in the seven sciences, or liberal arts (divided into the trivium -- grammar, logic, rhetoric -- and the quadrivium --arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy).This sense remains in Bachelor of Arts, etc. Meaning "human workmanship" (as opposed to nature) is from 1386. Sense of "cunning and trickery" first attested c.1600. Meaning "skill in creative arts" is first recorded 1620; esp. of painting, sculpture, etc., from 1668. Broader sense of the word remains in artless (1589). As an adj. meaning "produced with conscious artistry (as opposed to popular or folk) it is attested from 1890, possibly from infl. of Ger. kunstlied "art song" (cf. art film, 1960; art rock, c.1970). Fine arts, "those which appeal to the mind and the imagination" first recorded 1767. Art brut "art done by prisoners, lunatics, etc.," is 1955, from Fr., lit. "raw art." Expression art for art's sake (1836) translates Fr. l'art pour l'art. First record of art critic is from 1865. Arts and crafts "decorative design and handcraft" first attested in the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, founded in London, 1888.
I've put the segments I found most significant in bold. I argued that art really went back to the more basic and universal meaning of made by man, as in the word "artificial". The word "artisan" further argued for a broad understanding of the word, as "artisan" can apply to almost any tradesman doing his job in an excellent or beautiful way.
Since we're on the subject of etymologies, let's look up "design", too:
design: 1548, from L. designare "mark out, devise," from de- "out" + signare "to mark," from signum "a mark, sign." Originally in Eng. with the meaning now attached to designate (1646, from L. designatus, pp. of designare); many modern uses of design are metaphoric extensions. Designer (adj.) in the fashion sense of "prestigious" is first recorded 1966; designer drug is from 1983. Designing "scheming" is from 1671. Designated hitter introduced in American League baseball in 1973, soon giving wide figurative extension to designated.
(M. Jackson Wilkinson actually spoke before me and made a point involving some etymological details of the word "design". I make no use of his comment here only because I cannot remember it adequately to do it justice.)
The word "design", then, is at least as broad as the word art. Any of our activities that can be metaphorically related to marking or signing could be described as design. To interact with an object that has been designed is to interact with an object that bears signs on it. Personally, I love that way of thinking about a piece of clothing, for instance. It's not just something well-suited to my use: it's covered with meaningful signs, signs with meaning on many levels about the values and tastes of both me and my society.
In the light of both of these histories, I'm tempted to say that there's an argument to be made that "design" is a fancier word than art. Anything made by a human is art, one might argue. But those things that are intended to mean something, to bear signs, are designed.
But--let me stop myself. I'm a bit bored by that argument. Why? Because it doesn't do anything for me. I don't, personally, want art and design to be separated, or distinguished hierarchically. What I want, personally, is to talk about beauty.
To me, that's what's important. And I loved that Greeneltch equated art and design because beauty is something that I strive for in my commercial design work. Why be a designer, otherwise? Surely there are easier ways to make money. That's what equation does for me: it takes a stigma off work that's merely "practical" and liberates it to strive for beauty just as what we tend to call fine art does. I love good design because it doesn't ever really need to be beautiful, but when it is, it creates a kind of glow of happiness. The designer is happy, the client is happy, and the users of the website are happy. All that because beauty is there, just waiting to be grasped by a person willing to work to grab it.
After I spoke, Greeneltch joked, "I think that means I won!" and the presentation ended. But I don't think he did win: the reality was not so much about a competing set of definitions, it was about the goals behind those definitions. To my mind, none of our goals were in conflict. Only our definitions were. The verbal altercation of jostling definitions was, really, just an unintended consequence of our inability to clearly articulate our goals.
This is, I suggest, the hidden reality of many arguments. I'd like to challenge you, then: next time you're in an argument over something like this, try to take a step back. Rather than debating about exactly what's being said, ask yourself: what are the goals of the people involved? Could we make better progress by identifying them and trying to state them clearly than by arguing about definitions?
You might be surprised.