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Why Designers Are Not Artists

I’ve always had a visceral reaction to the word, “beautiful.” It’s so subjective. What’s beautiful to one person will almost certainly be atrocious to someone else. To me this is the major difference between artists and designers. The artist designs for himself and can afford to make judgments based on his own sense of aesthetics.

Designers, on the other hand, need to be much more versatile. They need to understand what “beauty” means to the people they’re designing for and how to adapt their designs to appeal to others, not to themselves.

Subjective Beauty

Great art is in the eye of the beholder, but is great design?

A recent Co.Design post by Mark Dziersk of Lunar Design makes the point that designers should be inspired by art, and I agree with him.

I think the difficulty is in encouraging designers, once they realize all the constraints and limitations that come along with industrial design, to avoid becoming jaded. Schools should play a bigger part in this by discouraging ego-driven design projects in favor of a more pragmatic paradigm.

I believe that making a difference, calling attention to important issues, and playing a bigger role as a change agent is much more achievable once designers get over the fact that they’re not artists.

How It Starts: Art Versus Design

Typically designers start their careers with aspirations to be “star designers” and then settle into the more realistic existence of a workaday industrial designer. This was my trajectory. I went through design school when Philippe Starck was getting really popular, and my whole design education was spent following his evolution and hoping that one day I would be able to produce such iconic designs as his Juicy Salif or Hot Bertaa kettle. Of course neither is very functional, and since then I’ve come to realize that his designs are for status seekers or for people who want to make a conceptual statement about the value of design.

Philippe Starck Juicy Salif

Starck has said that his Juicy Salif lemon squeezer is “meant to start conversations, not squeeze lemons.”

Early in my career, I defaulted to saying I was an artist because it was easier for people to understand than “industrial designer,” which is not as widely understood as painter, car mechanic, or doctor. This came with its share of stress and challenges — i.e., my parents questioning why I would want to become an artist. (“Artists can’t make a living!”). My in-laws told my soon-to-be-wife they would be happier if she married an engineer, because she was unlikely to have a future with an artist. She would have had a different future, certainly, because it turned out the commercial approach to design is much more fulfilling and more impactful than the artistic one!

Design critic Alice Rawsthorn writes about the difference in her Frieze magazine review of Marcel Wanders’ exhibition at the Stedelijk in Amsterdam. Wanders, she writes, uses design as “principally a styling tool,” an approach she considers weak when compared to examples of a more commercial approach to design. She traces the beginning of this commercial approach to IBM’s much-quoted 1970s motto, “Design is good business.” She points to Charles and Ray Eames’ educational films for IBM and to Dieter Rams’s electronic products for Braun as classic examples of “good business” design that “enhanced millions of people’s lives.” Other examples that come to mind are the OXO Good Grips products and Joseph Joseph’s kitchen tools.

“Good business” design, clockwise from top left: the Eames’ educational films for IBM, Dieter Rams for Braun, Joseph Joseph kitchen tools, and OXO Good Grips.

The Evolution of the Industrial Designer

Stage 1: The Designer-Artist Dream

Still, many newly matriculated industrial designers have this dream of being a designer-artist. This is largely because the designer-artists among us get the bulk of attention — for every ninety-nine designers who evolve into user-centered “good business” designers, there is one star designer whose work is largely ego-centered. That one star designer sets expectations for the rest of us.

Stage 2: Rational Overcomes Personal

As you start to become involved in user research, you realize you’re designing for others (as opposed to designing for yourself, as many schools teach). Once you’ve developed a few user personas, the artist urge goes away — you’re discovering the value and the challenge of designing for the masses (or a certain cohort of the masses). You realize people expect different things and respond emotionally to things in different ways.

Stage 3: Form Follows Brand

As you mature as a designer, matters of branding and marketing begin to enter your work. You’re tasked with communicating brand values, an added level of complexity that forces even more distance between you and the “artist” persona you once identified with so strongly. Sure, you’re coming up everyday with creative solutions, but “creative” is a whole different beast than “artistic.”

Evolution of the Designer Psyche

Designers disagree about which side is more evolved in the evolution of the designer psyche: the designer-artist or the designer-designer.

In parallel, as you become more knowledgeable about manufacturing techniques, you factor those constraints into the grand puzzle. Industrial design can be complex when you have all these constraints to consider — and with globalization and emerging technology, it is only becoming more complex. Maybe you’re dipping into interaction design and beginning to consider evolving into a hybrid designer.

Stage 4: Advanced State of Being

One day you wake up and your work is ego-free — you’re not about pushing your personal brand onto people. You’re finding novel ways to tie products to their audiences. Congratulations, you’re an industrial designer, who skillfully accesses rational (and, yes – creative) thinking to touch people’s emotions and change their lives. Now go to a museum and admire the real art. While your eyes are open, note the works of everyday design that make your museum visit and your days more enjoyable — the elegant wayfinding system that guides you; the efficient air dryers in the restroom; the way the museum-going experience is enhanced by its mobile app —  they’re all around you.