Andy Warhol was an artist. Van Gogh was an artist. My friend Burke Jam is most certainly an artist. Despite the fact that I make things, and sometimes earn money from doing so, I don't necessarily consider myself an artist.

When I think about it, the term designer (albeit too vague) or maker of things (just plain awkward) seem more appropriate to describe what I do.

I'm not trying to be a snob about it, or diminish my work, or claim membership to the growing wave of DIY hipsters knitting sweaters for their fixie bikes. I am, however, suggesting that there is a fundamental difference between an artist and a designer. It may be a case of tomato/tomahto, but still... I find it interesting.

An artist might perform her craft because she has something to say, as a form of personal expression or exploration, or cathartic release. An artist may be trying to challenge something - an idea, a societal norm, an expectation - or celebrate something. Good art takes us out of our comfort zone, makes us think, or look, or listen, or stop. 

I recognize that sometimes art is just made to be pretty, but even then it conveys a feeling. The artist starts with something tender/beautiful/compelling/confusing and makes her art as a way to put that something into the world.

I've been wondering if a designer does exactly the inverse. This, perhaps, is why I can relate to that title more readily. A designer is a problem solver, a maker, a form-to-fit-the-function kind of thinker.

A designer builds himself a set of stairs, and climbs up, step upon step, until he arrives at his desired outcome. An artist finds herself a set of stairs, stands at the top on a windy day under a dramatic sky and releases ideas into the air so that they take shape on their way down to earth.

Now I'm not suggesting that the design process is always a reliably linear one, or that designers never have a message or feeling to convey. Nor am I pretending that art is always made with a message in mind. The world of art and design is a nuanced and complicated one, and people spend years studying, debating, and discussing the field. I'm not trying to sum it up here, or suggest anything profound or groundbreaking.

For me, I'm content to be building my stairs, step by step, and every once in a while take a break to launch an armful of ideas into the wind.


Maria Popova (who is responsible for one of my most reliable sources of inspiration, the amazing blog BrainPickings.org) collects thoughts on the topic of art vs. design. Read her post here.

Also, check out Lisa Congdon's work. Her hand lettering and simple line drawings are stunning.

Comment