Injecting Work With Personality… Or Not

I’ve been thinking about a lot of things related to making art and design lately, mainly because I have been doing a great deal of both. I see the two as very different entities and while they occasionally occupy the same creative space or project or thoughts, they are not the same thing.

Defining either term (art, design) is subjective. tells me that art is “human effort to imitate, supplement, alter, or counteract the work of nature” and/or “the conscious production or arrangement of sounds, colors, forms, movements, or other elements in a manner that affects the sense of beauty.” Unfortunately for clarity’s sake, those definitions raise even more questions. For example, what then is beauty and how do we define it? (And so on and so forth.) Design is defined as “to conceive or fashion in the mind; invent” and/or “to formulate a plan for.”

And already, despite the definitive muddiness and personal interpretation of each term, the simple fact that there are differences is becoming appparent. Look no further than the language and terminology we use when we discuss them (either academically or at a cocktail party.) Art conjures up nature, beauty, vast human effort, romanticism, feeling, mystery, etc. Design is more about thought, form, structure, planning, etc. 

I tend, in conversations, to describe design as solving problems. Sometimes that is visual. Sometimes it is structural. Sometimes it is more intangiable and idea-based (think brand positioning and related marketing theories.) But at its most base level, there is a problem that needs a solution and that solution must be arrived at through a process of architecting a way to make it work. When I talk about art, I quickly begin talking in terms of “making pretty things,” “I don’t know why, I just wanted to create something,” and “creative impulses.” I’m not solving anyone’s problem, I’m just responding to the desire TO MAKE.

So if all that was the set-up, the punchline is: How do the two co-exist in my everyday life? How much of the artistic tendency needs to work its way into designing? How does being a designer influence and interact with making art? Can these things be separated? Does the one make me better at the other and vice versa? (I’d answer a solid “sometimes yes, sometimes no” to that one.) More questions than answers, as always.

In this Hillman Curtis Artist Series video on David Carson, he discusses how, earlier in his career, he was labeled self-indulgent. He goes on to say he WANTS to be self-indulgent, more subjective, more personal. He values these things. These aren’t terms we’re familiar with in relation to being a designer. (And while some would argue over the purity of Carson’s typography-bending work and whether it’s design at all, for the sake of argument, we’ll keep referring to him as a designer.)

Contrast Carson and his comments with Nashville photographer (and good friend) David Bean. David is an amazing photographer with a design background and he makes it very clear that his services are there to serve the client. His bio reads “David tailors the composition and style of every shoot to flatter and reflect the subject he is shooting. He’s proud to make every shoot about the subject and not about ‘him.'” I think that’s a brilliant mission statement for a photographer, even if I’m equally drawn to photographers with a distinct style. I don’t feel like those things must be mutually exclusive.

In fact, I’m almost 100% positive that both Carson and Bean are exactly where they need to be in terms of understanding why they do what they do and how they should go about getting it done. As a young artist (and even younger designer in terms of experience) I’m wrestling with these seemingly opposing points of view – with the tension of them. I wonder if I overanalyze this stuff too much. I wonder if I make too big a deal of the separation of design and art. I wonder if I’ll end up trapped in one, unable to do the other as much as I want to. (Irrational fear.) I wonder if I’ll ever reach a nice balance point in an environment that values both; or if that kind of environment is too much to ask for.

I wonder. More questions than answers, as always.