Design is not Art


While design and art do share many overlapping qualities, they are two fundamentally different disciplines. They are informed through two different sets of data, they are created through two different processes, and they perform two different functions. More than anything, these distinctions demonstrate that design decisions cannot be based purely on intuition, opinion, or ego. Humble design is good design.

In a recent episode of the UX and Growth Podcast, we discussed Design Machines & The Death of Creativity in Web Design. At the 22:27 mark in the episode, I disagreed with the idea that design is a personal form of creative expression by stating that "design is not art" and that most assertions to the contrary are the result of an immature and fundamental misunderstanding of design. After the episode was released, one of our listeners sent a really thoughtful email asking for more insight on the topic of design vs. art, and it sparked a nice conversation between all of us. Here's an excerpt from the email:

One thing that struck me was the viewpoint that “design is not creative.” That’s at odds with how I have always seen design. I do agree that Art stands alone as a creative expression independent of purpose. That said, though design may have a purpose, can it also not be creative? I’m not wedded to this view, and I think you know more about design than I do, so I am interested in how you came to this conclusion.

This brings up a few great points worth discussing. But before I do that, I want to point out that I specifically said that design is not about creative expression, with the key word being expression. That is to say, design is not art. That does not mean, however, that art has a monopoly on creativity. Rather, the distinction lies within the role that creativity plays in design and art. At the same time, however, many designers fail to see this distinction. Conveniently, this very behavior points directly to the core of the design vs. art issue: a lack of understanding for the differing origins, processes, and purposes that design and art serve.

Fundamental Differences

Despite the common misconception that design and art are one in the same, there are actually colossal gaps between the two disciplines and they can all be very easily identified through a quick, critical comparison of both practices. We can break down the foremost differences as follows:

Different Purposes

Art is about personal expression. As such, it has intrinsic and independent value. The purpose and value of art is fully contained within the art itself. This is not the case with design. Design is about use. Its value is dependent on external factors, namely the purpose that it serves and the user that it serves that purpose for. In this sense, design is contextual and its value depends on the context of its use.

Art is about provocation. It makes you think. It challenges norms for the sake of challenging norms. It sparks emotion, creates controversy, and expresses identity. It generates friction, for better or worse. Design is about alleviation. It offers you the opportunity to think less. It is completely ambiguous in that it never creates controversy; it merely performs its impartial function. It addresses existing challenges, improves efficiency, and serves utility. It reduces friction, for better or worse.

Art is about exploration. It leaps into the abyss, blindly and courageously exploring new subject matter, artistic styles, and statements. It is whimsical. Design is about observation and iteration. It observes solutions that have worked well in the past and incrementally improves them. It reapplies and repurposes tried-and-true inventions. It builds upon itself with selective innovations. It is calculated.

Art is about appreciation. It gives the viewer something to admire, ponder, or despise. The best art is that which comes from deep within the artist; it is a reflection of its creator. Design is about function. It aids the user in completing a task or navigating a system. The best design is that which comes from a deep understanding of the user; it is a reflection of its audience.

Different Data Sources

Because art is a form of personal expression, it can come solely from the artist. As an artist, your sole source of data and inspiration can be yourself. Your own personal expression. However, because design is about use, it must be derived from the purpose that it serves and the user that it serves that purpose for. As a designer, your work must be informed by multiple sources of data, which are almost always outside of yourself.

As the processes and data sources that we use to inform our designs continue to mature, the practice of design is becoming increasingly more objective, despite the fact that it has been classically regarded as subjective. When a design is introduced to users, we can measure its performance and objectively conclude whether or not it’s a good design. This is not the case with art, as one observer may love a piece of art while another may despise it. Art always has and always will be subjective.

Different Roles of Creativity

Creativity plays significantly different roles in design and art. Good design is not creative simply for the sake of being creative. It is creative for the sake of serving a purpose or solving a problem. Art, on the other hand, can be creative simply for the sake of being creative, because that is precisely the value that it provides. Designers shouldn’t be proud of a design just because it is creative or different. They should be proud of it because, through creativity, they were able to build a design that better solves a problem or serves a purpose. Artists, however, are fully within their right to be proud of a piece of art simply because it is creative or different. This is because that is precisely the value that art provides. It exists within itself.

Let’s return to the super car analogy that I used in the podcast episode. Nobody would ever praise a car that has no doors simply because it’s creative and breaks convention. Cars have a purpose, and without doors, drivers can’t get into them and cars thus can’t serve their purpose. At the same time, art is regularly praised simply for being creative and breaking convention. Because that’s its purpose.

Sometimes, the Lines Blur

Granted, there are exceptions to the rules that I’ve just laid out. In many ways, artists do depend on their audience, whether it be for approval, critical praise, or even sales. This is especially true when artists are commissioned for predetermined work. In some cases, artists may create art that is supposed to give the viewer an experience; an experience that you could almost say was designed for the viewer. It may even have an intended outcome or reaction. In this sense, the art is indeed more about the audience (or users) than the artist.

At the same time, design can be personal and artistic. Designers inject their own experience and creativity into their designs, much like artists do. Many designers have the ability to apply visual styling in a way that not only enhances a design’s functionality, but also provides an attractive and aesthetically pleasing experience. We don’t have to look far to find beautiful designs that contain elements of artistic inspiration. So aesthetics undoubtedly do play a role in design.

The Important Role of Aesthetics

When we start to think of things this way, it would almost seem as if design and art both contain elements of each other. And I would, without hesitation, say that they do. But in determining whether something is a product of design or a work of art, we need to first look at the process through which it was created. It is the process (and namely the 3 fundamental differences that I mentioned earlier) that set design and art apart. Since aesthetics are most commonly used to show where design and art can overlap, let’s take a look the roles that aesthetics play in design specifically. We can break this down like a math equation:

  • If a product is functional and aesthetically pleasing, it is most likely to win. (Ex: Spotify)
  • If a product is functional, but not aesthetically pleasing, it may still win. (Ex: Reddit)
  • If a product is aesthetically pleasing, but not functional, it will lose. (Ex: Ello)

You’ll notice that in design, aesthetics are entirely dependent on function. And while aesthetics can enhance a design, they are not essential to its success in the same way that function is. Similarly, aesthetics must be derived from the function of the design, else the design may run the risk of being attractive but not functional (and thus providing no real value). This paradigm doesn’t quite exist in art.

The Death of the Ego

While the differences between design and art are interesting, they aren’t the key take-away here. Rather, from my point of view, the most important learning is that ego has no place in design. Considering what you just read, that may not seem inherently obvious. But if you think about all of the design principles that I discussed and how deeply they clash with the concept of the ego, then this idea should make more sense. I would argue that ego represents one of the most prevalent and yet detrimental handicaps that a designer can acquire, and it usually happens at a shockingly early stage in one’s career.

If anything, design should be humbling. When practiced correctly, it will almost always show us that our assumptions, while generally well-founded, are usually wrong. Regardless of how much of an expert you may think you are, you simply can’t represent the collective mass that is a user base. In my personal design philosophy, I mention that humility is the most important quality that a UX Designer can possess. This essay (and the understanding that design is not art) should serve to reinforce that sentiment. As a humble designer, one should recognize the following:

  1. Designers create products that are intended to serve purposes that exist outside of themselves. The design is about the user, not the designer.
  2. In order to create a product that properly serves it’s purpose, the design must be adequately informed by outside data. Designers don’t magically create masterpieces; they collect and interpret information that empowers them to create masterpieces. Design is not a talent; it’s a skill.
  3. Designers must leverage creativity in a thoughtful way, so that the design can better serve its purpose. The design should be built with intent; there should be reason and justification behind the decisions made.

In many ways, this can be used as a litmus test when evaluating designers. If a designer seems to be making design decisions based on opinion or intuition, they aren’t practicing design; they’re practicing art. However, if a designer can regularly support their design decisions with reliable data or research, they are indeed practicing a very healthy form of design. While design and art are both equally important to society, if a designer is hired as a designer, they should be practicing design (and not art). If you’re a business leader reading this essay, I would say that’s your take-away.

So, to answer the original question, design absolutely can and should be creative. After all, designers and artists are working in inherently creative mediums. But it’s the ways in which they utilize creativity that set them apart. And in the case of design, it’s the reason why the design is creative that matters the most. Is it creative simply for the sake of being creative? Is it creative in order to exercise the designer’s desire for personal expression? Or is it creative in that performs is function extremely well? This, in essence, is what separates a terrible design from a revolutionary design. An understanding that design is not art.

I’m currently traveling and speaking about this topic