What is Design? (Part 1)

There are so many articles and blog posts out there on this subject that it’s hard to know where to begin, but most of these articles bypass some fairly major points that I’d like to discuss. I’m going to do this in a three part series focusing on some of the major gaps I commonly see among graphic designers.

First, this is not just for the beginner. Whether you have years of experience in graphic design or are just beginning to cultivate a desire to become a graphic designer, these fundamentals are for you.

Second, this is not going to be some GREAT REVEAL. No design article floating around on the web is going to uncover a great mystery that will turn you into a highly competitive or award-winning designer. I’m afraid the solution to that remains, and always will be, hard work and experience.

Third, I’m assuming you have at least some experience with design, and understand the functions of design elements such as line, shape, and form. If you want a fresher on the fundamental elements of design, I recommend this video as a great starting point, and then many hours of practice and observation.

The Basics: Fundamentals of Design

After years of teaching design to students, working with freelancers, and engaging with other designers I sense an almost universal blind spot regarding the nature of design itself. In this first address, I want to talk about a personal peeve, and one that I think has inhibited designers for a generation or more:

Design Is Not Art

This is a controversial statement, but it really shouldn’t be. Design includes aesthetics, there is no question. There’s no principle that suggests art cannot be a part of design. But design and art are fundamentally different. Until a designer understands this, their focus is always going to be on making things pretty and judging the success of a project based primarily on its artistic expression.

The difference comes down to purpose. Art can exist for its own sake; an artist can sit down and draw, paint, construct, compose just for the sake of doing so or for self-gratification, and bystanders will be moved by it. Its origin and goals are emotive. Art makes people feel.

Some will say the purpose of art is to make people think, but that is simply not true. Meditation on a theme is the byproduct of a feeling evoked by a particular work. It has been said that true art speaks to the soul, that its message is different depending on the viewer. That is the antithesis of design.

Design can’t exist in a vacuum. Design has a relationship with the people engaged with it, and it’s reciprocal. It isn’t meant to be seen or felt. What you SEE when you look at a design is not the design, but a gestalt, the sum of its components, and the initial response is often emotional, which is why so many (understandably) confuse it with art.

In short, art is SUBJECTIVE while design is OBJECTIVE.

OK Then, What IS The Purpose of Design?

The core purpose of design is to alter the status of a person or a thing in the simplest, subtlest way possible.

Put another way, your goal as a graphic designer is to influence a person’s choices with as few factors as possible in an environment where they have MANY similar choices and a very short time frame in which to make them.

This is basically true in system design, when you’re looking for an ergonomic solution that will make the human interface more efficient. It’s true in product design when you’re trying to improve on something people have years of familiarity with. It’s also true, probably most true, in graphic design, when your end game is convincing the observer to buy something, side with a particular agenda, exit the encounter with a changed or enhanced worldview, or even just leave them with a positive experience that reinforces a client brand.

Aesthetics remains one of the highest priorities of good design because it acts as a lubricant for the encounter. When you engage with a visually pleasing design, your brain releases neurotransmitters that create feelings of happiness, relaxation, and anticipation. You are put into a state that will make you automatically more receptive to the designer’s influence.

Design includes art, but it’s also equal parts psychology and anthropology. It navigates human nature, both intrinsic and cultural. Design is best thought of as an active verb, a process. It encompasses emotion, function, social dynamics, economics, and more.

Design is intentional. As a Graphic Designer, everything you do has a clear and deliberate purpose. Even if you don’t know why the placement of a design element looks right, you do it anyway based on your own past experience, crafted by others with perhaps a clearer understanding… and you’re gambling that everyone who engages with your design has had similar encounters, and will respond to yours in a similar way.

Graphic Design as Art

I submit that the idea that GRAPHIC DESIGN can be art “in and of itself” is based on a false premise. Using graphic design techniques to create an artistic work doesn’t make it a product of design – it’s still simply art. That doesn’t in any way invalidate the end product. There are some very talented artists that use principles of design to create, and I admire many of them. But their purpose and goals are those of an artist, not a designer.

Conversely, a work of art CAN be a product of design even without using the skills of a graphic designer. If it is deliberately created to lead or persuade the observer, whether it is honest and straightforward, a form of marketing, or a means of propaganda, then I would certainly acknowledge the design that went into it.

This subject can be discussed infinitely, however I don’t have infinite space or time, so I’ll ask you to simply consider the role of the graphic designer carefully. Artists can, of course, be graphic designers, but graphic designers don’t necessarily have to be artists. Great design truly is a gestalt, and the aesthetic is just one of many facets. Design is sometimes lovely, sometimes simply practical, but always on purpose.