Art vs Design

A man named Abraham Maslow created the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This is portrayed in a pyramid graphic, which represents all of the human needs, and what it takes to get them. The pyramid is designed in a way that the base is necessary for any of the higher parts to be achieved. From bottom up, the pyramid is categorized into psychological needs, safety needs, social needs, esteem needs, and self-actualization. It is an interesting experiment to try to categorize art and design within Maslow’s Hierarchy. When categorizing art within Maslow’s pyramid, the only section that it fits in is the top portion that deals with self-actualization and creativity. Whereas when placing design into Maslow’s hierarchy, there doesn’t seem to be one specific section that it fits into.

Design encompasses every category within Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. When one looks back to the first ever items designed, they were all created to fulfill the base of the pyramid which dealt with survival and physical needs. In the book “The Design Way” by Nelson and Stolterman, they mention that “it is evidence of design ability, and activity, which allows an archeologist to distinguish between a species that is not quite human and one that is” (Nelson & Stolterman, 11). Design is what differentiates humans from any other form of life. It is what allowed us to adapt to and evolve within our environment. Yet, design is not simply based on survival needs, it is also used to create objects and items that relate to self-actualization. “Design is the ability to imagine that-which-does-not-yet-exist” (12), it is to create something that serves a purpose, or solves a problem.

In the book “Problems of Design”, by George Nelson, he goes into his personal definition of design, stating that “there has to be a need—or at least a possible use for [the design]” (Nelson, 8). This relates to the ideas that Nelson and Stolterman had about creating something that does not yet exist in order to solve a problem. But design is not simply creating an object in need, there is also a formulaic aspect that is common throughout most items that have been “designed”.

Craig Elimeliah, a journalist from AIGA, wrote an article on what he had concluded to be the definitions of art and design through various observations. When defining art, he mentioned that it should “convey a message or inspire an emotion”. He also stated how when compared to design, art “doesn’t have to adhere to specific rules, the artist creates their own rules”. Art is more free flowing, with less restrictions and regulations. It allows for the artists to express themselves in any form or medium that they choose. Elimeliah mentions an interesting pattern that he recognized from viewing more modern works of “art”. He noticed that “artists are following a method, a pattern or a standard that has already been established by another artist and therefore they are not creating something completely new rather following instructions laid down by a previous artist rendering that piece to be more design than art.” This is an interesting quote because it helps to establish more of what design means, but it also contradicts what he had previously stated about what art means. How can artists create something that is meant to provoke an emotion from the viewer if they are following someone else’s instructions? This technique was said to be seen in more recent artistic styles, where artists were drawing in the styles of famous artists like Picasso or Van Gogh. Just like Elimeliah said, this technique “becomes more like a paint by numbers… instead of a creation that no one has seen before”. This idea of painting in an assigned spot or following “instructions” is more representable by the definition of design. From a production standpoint, design focuses on following a set of rules or techniques that can be repeated in order to create a product.

Defining art or design is like trying to place an exact definition on religion, everyone has a different viewpoint and opinion. If someone from 6th century BC China was asked for their opinion on religion, they would obviously have a different response than someone from 15th century England. The similar comparison would happen if asked to define art or design, they would have opinionated responses based off of their culture and experience. Ken Baynes, the author of “About Designs”, talks about the internal conflict he has when trying to define design. Baynes is a designer, historian, and a teacher, and each profession seems to contradict the other. His designer side wants to “seek a narrow and operational function”, the historian “seeks for a definition that will reflect the way in which the word has actually been use during the past”, and the teacher “looks for something which will be broad enough to fit the aspirations of liberal education” (Baynes, 23). Each form of profession has their own viewpoint on design and they often conflict with one another. A document from the online Stanford University library, titled “The Definition of Art”, does not try to dive into one specific definition, but rather lists off a set of “uncontroversial facts” about art. These facts mainly have to do with the cultural and historical features within art. Fact like, “entities (artifacts or performances) [are] endowed by their makers with a significant degree of aesthetic interest, often surpassing that of most everyday objects, exist in virtually every known human culture” (Adajian). Despite the intellectual wording used, this fact is extremely rudimentary, simply stating that various cultures all create “art” which looks better than common objects. These sources have similar points in common, establishing how both art and design are linked with culture, and that in order to find similarities throughout history, they have to be looked at from a very broad viewpoint.

Many of the projects that have been done in Forms class can be related to these definitions of both art and design. Many of the assignments, specifically Geoforms, involved creating a jig in order to use the machines effectively and efficiently. This technique is similar to the definitions of design in the sense that it invokes this formulaic process that demands a specific amount of steps in order to create the product. But these steps are easily repeatable and can be done in a way that creates a near replica of the first object. Other assignments, like Rectilinear Compositions, involve a more free-thinking, creative process, that does not have any specific instructions. These pieces were not created to serve a function, but rather to invoke an emotion.

Both art and design have been continuously evolving over the course of history, and the boundaries are constantly being pushed. Placing a definition on something that is always changing is quite difficult, but using common facts like the one stated above can help create a general distinction between art and design. Like in Maslow’s hierarchy, design can be used for both survival needs, as well as self-fulfilling needs, where are art is generally used to satisfy self-actualization needs. In one of the most basic, generalized distinctions, design is formulaic with a functional purpose, while art is more spontaneous and emotional.

Sources Cited:

Adajian, Thomas. “The Definition of Art.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.   Stanford University, 2012. Web. 03 Dec. 2014.

Elimeliah, Craig A. “Art Vs. Design.” AIGA. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Dec. 2014.

Baynes, Ken. About Design. London: Design Council Publications, 1976. Print.

Nelson, George. Problems of Design. New York: Whitney Publications, 1957. Print.

Nelson, Harold G., and Erik Stolterman. The Design Way: Intentional Change in an           Unpredictable World. Cambridge, Massachusestts: MIT, 2012. Print.


Art vs Design




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