How Art Informs Design

As my own background in fine arts will confirm, the term “artist” does not always mean a mustachioed man with a paintbrush just as much as a “graphic designer” doesn’t spend all her time fiddling with expensive computer programs. Graphic design pieces often start as hand-drawn sketches. The designs might turn digital only at the end of the process, and sometimes the designer never even touches a computer.

So then what is graphic design anyway, and how does it relate to art?

There Are Some Differences…

Before I dig into the connections between these two fields, let’s look at what distinguishes them from one another. Designer and blogger Will Gibbons writes about 6 differences. I highly recommend reading his full blog post, but I’ll introduce a couple of his points now.

The “end product” is the first point of division. Art ends with the artist’s finished piece and that is the only piece meant for anyone’s eyes but the artist’s. On the other hand, a designer might use sketches, mock-ups, and more to communicate with other people on the production team. The person who sketches the first layouts might not even be involved in the final stages of a website’s development.

Another factor that distinguishes art and design is, as Gibbons puts it, “how problems are solved.” Art typically exists to express the artist’s personal idea or vision, whereas design is made to solve a client’s problem. This idea relates to another definition that I read back in school (and sadly can’t properly attribute now): “Art asks questions. Design answers them.” When you see a giant clothespin pinching the ground you might wonder “Why is that giant clothespin there? How does it relate to my life?” When you have wet clothing and ask yourself “How can I hang this to dry?” you find a clothespin. One is art, the other design.

But They’re Not That Different!

Now that we understand the difference between art and design, let’s check out some components that they share. Take a look through any college textbook on art and you’ll learn that there are elements of design and there are principles of design.

The elements are color, form, line, shape, space, texture, and value. (Don’t worry, I won’t quiz you later.) These 7 elements are the components of any piece of art or design. Certain pieces might rely more heavily on line and color rather than texture and form, but you will find most or all of these elements in basically anything visual. They’re in everything you created as a toddler with crayons and in every piece hanging on the walls of the High Museum of Art in Midtown Atlanta.

The principles of design are balance, emphasis, movement, pattern, repetition, proportion, rhythm, variety, and unity. Principles are how all of the elements are brought together into a cohesive piece. If you are interested in studying design, I recommend learning more about the 9 principles of design, but I’ll move on for now.

Why mention the elements and principles of design (which, by the way, I have also seen referred to as the elements and principles of art)? A basic understanding of how art is made benefits any piece of visual organization. Whether you are a graphic designer like me or if you’re only interested in updating the About page on your website, taking the 7 elements and 9 principles of design into account can change how you think about your creation process.

Let’s Get Together, yeah, yeah, yeah

Thanks to my fine art education, I am aware of the elements and principles of design every time that I put together an infographic or rearrange a webpage. I keep in mind a limited color palette and often use simple shapes. I arrange the composition to achieve balance by offsetting the emphasis in one corner with more weight in the opposite corner. Movement, pattern, repetition, and rhythm in a piece can all create interest and bring in the viewer’s focus. All the while, including interesting textures often add life and depth to a piece of design.

You get the idea.

With the ever-increasing plethora of free, downloadable tools, anyone can create a piece of design. The challenge is making it effective. Does it meet its purpose? Does it stand out from the crowd? As designer Milton Glaser, famous for the “I Love New York” campaign and Bob Dylan poster, wrote in a 2014 article for the American Institute of Graphic Arts, “The purpose of Design is to accomplish an objective task. The purpose of Art is to help the mind understand what is real. Every once in a while, if we’re lucky and persistent, we stumble onto a solution that embodies both desires.” Strive for more than just getting your content on the internet. Be heard. Speak change.

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