A few months ago, I stumbled across a post on Medium. Entitled “Design is a spoon,” by Robert Grazioli, the article was basically a letter to a young relative about what it means to be a designer. It was all very inspirational and well-written and humorous, and I recommend you go read it for yourself. Also, count yourself lucky to have spotted that rare animal that is a family letter in this modern age.
However, there was one element of this exchange that particularly stood out. “Design isn’t art,” Grazioli admonished his protege.
I raised my eyebrows a little, I admit. The design industry tells its inhabitants pretty much on the daily that you are, in fact, creating art. Yours is a noble calling, and you fulfill it only by cultivating the finest taste and exhibiting the subtlest nuance.
But no. Grazioli insisted that “in Art, the end result is allowed to be open for interpretation. In Design, misinterpretation should be considered a failure.”
Insert gif of exploding mind here.
How true is that?
Art is about expression — taking a concept deeply true to one person, putting it into some physical form, and setting it out in the open for someone else to acknowledge with their own truth. It’s one mind attempting to show what’s in it, and if another mind happens to agree, so much the better.
Design doesn’t exactly say, “Screw that,” but it comes close.
Designers strive for beauty, yes, but more than anything, they strive for perfect communication. Less “this is what’s in my mind,” and more “let me find out what’s in your mind.” Less “the world is a gigantic mystery,” and much, much more “let’s make sense of this damn thing already.”
If someone doesn’t understand your art, well, maybe it just didn’t speak to them. But if your design doesn’t help others make sense of the world, your design failed. Ouch, Grazioli. Ouch.
Of course, art is a huge inspiration to design. Could design exist without art? You’re welcome to try. But I argue (and I think this is Grazioli’s point) that design has much farther to go than art. It has to be aware of artistic principles, but it has to move on and perform a function.
In other words, if art is the mad scientist in awe of the mysteries of the universe, then design is the Igor in the basement making sure the generators are on.
And when the lightning bolt hits Frankenstein’s monster, you get products that are beautiful and functional, like (and I’m taking my life into my hands here, I know) the iPhone, Google’s home page, the Eiffel Tower, and my really cool bathroom faucet.
You as a designer create useful things that help people navigate the world. When the wind is right and the deadlines are fair, you may even turn them into art. But on those days when your designs feel stale and the deadline looms, stop asking yourself if what you created was innovative or beautiful.
Did you create something that made sense of the world for somebody else?
Well done, Igor. That’s art too.