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Chapter 68: Is Graphic Design Art?

There has been an insidious and ongoing controversy in some art circles about the difference between graphic design and fine art. Some have questioned if graphic design is art? In fact, in many cultures having artistic merits are among the most important criteria for assessing the validity of a potent and powerful design. It appears that for French, German, Italian, Japanese, Persian, Polish, Russian, and Spanish designers posing such a question would sound rather bizarre.

In a 1974 interview, the American graphic designer, Milton Glaser stated that in contrast to design that must convey a given body of information, the "essential function" of art is to "intensify one's perception of reality." Of course, he allowed for the possibility that sometimes, these functions coincide, as in a medieval stained glass window, but he maintained that in modern times they have diverged. This statement appears to crystallize the essence of the argument in the Anglo-Saxon art circles. The British designer John O’Nolan in an article for Web Designer’s Depot have articulated this view into five seemingly ad hoc axioms, these are: ·

  • Good Art Inspires. Good Design Motivates. 
  • Good Art is Interpreted. Good Design is Understood. 
  • Good Art is a Taste. Good Design is an Opinion. 
  • Good Art is a Talent. Good Design is a Skill. 
  • Good Art Sends a Different Message to Everyone.Good Design Sends the Same Message to Everyone.
Let us examine these axioms: 

Good Art Inspires. Good Design Motivates.

O’Nolan argues that perhaps the most fundamental difference between art and design is their purposes. He claims that typically, the process of creating a work of art starts with nothing, a blank canvas. This is, of course, not true. Think for instance of Picasso’s Guernica. For three months, he was searching for inspiration for that mural. Many of Spain's most eminent artists, colleagues and representatives of the democratic government asked him to paint a protest mural. On May 1st, 1937, when the news of Hitler's practice bombing of the little Basque village in northern Spain and the massacre of its population reached him in Paris, Picasso had found his inspiration for motivating the humanity against this barbaric act. Picasso also portrayed prostitutes and their children at the women's prison of Saint-Lazare in Paris, idealizing their humanity. Of course, like any good design "a good painting" as Picasso has stated:
“is not thought out and settled in advance. While it is being done, it changes as one's thoughts change. And when it's finished, it goes on changing, according to the state of mind of whoever is looking at it."
It is interesting that the celebrated designer and architect Frank Gehry has described exactly the same process about his own work:
Every day is a new thing. I approach each project with a new insecurity almost like the first project that I ever did . I get the sweats. I go in, start working, not sure where I’m going. If I knew where I was going, I wouldn't do it. If I can predict it or plan it, I discard it.
More specifically, he talks of his source of inspiration:
And when I got to Autun in, in mid France, the Romanesque church, it was like Nirvana I was, it was my eureka, here was Gislebertu's sculpture, the medieval sculptor and these very strong spaces and the decoration was tough and I could relate to it, and I just fell into the hall and started looking at all those churches and looking at the sculpture, and before I knew it I was studying the art of the time, the music of the time, the like I want to do, and I was totally captivated by that and I think underlying my work is a big chunk of inspiration from that.

Francisco Goya, The Third of May 1808  


Vincent van Gogh, The potato eaters

Edgar Degas, L'absinthe, 1876

Agony, 1912 by Egon Schiele

The Feast of Pure Reason, Jack Levine, 1937

O’Nolan asserts that a “work of art stems from a view or opinion or feeling that the artist holds within him or herself.” According to him artists “create the art to share that feeling with others, to allow the viewers to relate to it, learn from it or be inspired by it.” By contrast, he argues designers “always have a fixed starting point.” For him it appears that starting point is the purpose of the work, which “is almost always to motivate the audience to do something: buy a product, use a service, visit a location, learn certain information.” Well, as we saw, art also tries to motivate its audience, and good design does not have a fixed starting point.

Of course, there are numerous other examples. One example I’m thinking of is Goya‘s commemoration of Spain's uprising against the French regime in his two paintings:The Second of May 1808 and The Third of May 1808(both at Museo del Prado). Here he depicts a brutal scene in Madrid's Puerta del Sol, where Spaniards fought against French-led soldiers on horseback, and the execution of captured Spaniards on the Príncipe Pío. I am also thinking of Van Gogh's potato eaters, which informs us about the reason people in his painting eat potatoes is because poverty does not leave them a choice. I am thinking of Degas’ L'Absinthe, in which the artist acts like a reporter informs us of a particular scene, with his female subject looking flustered, her shoulders hunched forward, her clothing and hat look shabby, her feet apart drinking absinthe, which was particularly frowned upon in France and later prohibited because of it's hallucinogenic, addicting qualities. Degas emphasizes her disheveled appearance with his pallet of brown and umber tones. Beside the woman sits an equally miserable male companion, completely disconnected from her, not communicating in any way, wallowing in his meaningless life a truly lost soul.

And then there are of course expressionist artists like Schiele,and social realists like Jack Levine. For instance, Agony, one of Schiele's paintings, depicts spiritual interchanges between a godlike entity and an acolyte. This is to preach unabashedly, like some of his other works, his belief that artists are spiritually enlightened beings who are called upon to share their noble vision with the more uncultivated masses.Levine's painting The Feast of Pure Reason which depicted a capitalist, a policeman, and a politician in a conspiratorial discussion. Virtually, everybody understand the artists motive of criticizing the unholy alliance between cops, politicians, and criminals. In fact, it was this understanding that caused MOMA’s Trustees to debate fiercely before admitting it among their collections. 

Good Art Is Interpreted. Good Design Is Understood.

Moulin Rouge: La Goulue by Toulouse-Lautrec This four-color artistic design featuring La Goulue, a well-known cancan dancer with her partner was an advertisement for Moulin Rouge. It is both subject of interpretation and understanding.

According to O’Nolan’s second axiom although an artist sets out to convey a viewpoint or emotion, that viewpoint or emotion has not a single meaning. He argues that “art connects with people in different ways, because it’s interpreted differently”. He offers the smiling Mona Lisa as his main evidence. The Da Vinci’s masterpiece has been interpreted differently by different people. O’Nolan asserts that “design is the very opposite. Many will say that if a design can be “interpreted” at all, it has failed in its purpose.” Of course, as we have seen in the above examples, unlike Mona Lisa’s smile, not all works of art are mysterious. Guernica and other masterpieces in the previous examples are not enigmatic and have a core prominent message. Furthermore, as we have seen in the previous chapters, a good design follows a visual grammar. It provides the observer with some rules to interpret its message, but they cannot totally eliminate the need for interpretation.

In fact, as philosophers would argue, every communication will only be transmitted through interpretation. Clearly, when you are reading this text you are interpreting it in your own way, every word is interpreted according to your cultural and socio-economical background and this is why various readers’ understanding of what I am writing is different.

June-Louis, Nike sportswear, with the post-illustrative effects by Camille and Julien.

El Patio magazine, Marina Gerosa

Vanity Fair, Jean Carlu, 1930

Poster for the Reitberg Museum of Zurich, Ernst Keller

Porsche ad.

Freshlife – Start a fresh life.

It is true that, as O’Nolan maintains, “the fundamental purpose of design is to communicate a message and motivate the viewer to do something.” But a design’s task is not to brainwash its audience and is not to be dishonest and thus your design is bound to communicate a message other than the one you intended, and your viewer can go and do something based on that other message, and that is perfectly all right. O’Nolan’s verdict that if this happens then the design has not met its requirement is wrong. With a good piece of design, the designer shares a personal experience with its viewers - it can’t be an exact message to be understood by the viewer. If there were an exact message it would be more efficient to write or record that message for the viewer to read.

A good designer understands that the viewer interprets and understands a message in a matrix of various dimensions; aesthetically, culturally, ethically, economically, and so on. A good design tries to communicate in all such dimensions. For example, consider the work of June-Louis, who was part of an ad campaign focused on Beijing’s thriving street basketball scene, and photographed local Beijing street basketball players, as well as the source backgrounds of a basketball court, Shanghai’s Forbidden City, and The Great Wall. His portrayal of young athletes wearing unique pieces by young Chinese fashion designers that fuse Chinese imperial gowns with Nike sportswear, together with the post-illustrative effects done by a French couple, Camille and Julien, is subject to a variety of wide and deep interpretations, and this makes it both a good design and a good art. 

Good Art Is a Taste. Good Design Is an Opinion.

Lora Lamm: Posters  for the department store "La Rinascente", circa 1959

Micheal Tersieff, A modern Dada poster for adance camp

O’Nolan argues that “Art is judged by opinion, and opinion is governed by taste,” and he refers to Tracey Emin’s piece “My Bed”, which was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1999 that can be regarded by some as “the height of artistic expression” and others as “an insult to the medium”. As I argued in chapter 43, in the last century a transitory fad swept the art world of the US and the UK, promoted mainly by the Gallery Tate of London and the Turner prize which were really some kind of publicity stunt. As the art historian Danto explicated at the time, an art-object was no longer distinguishable from a non-art object, as long as the artist who had chosen to exhibit a non-art object had a theory to take "it up into the world of art." In fact, this clumsy made non-art objects opened the door for people to argue that good art is a matter of taste and cannot be judged by a refined sense of aesthetics, and a degree of intellectual prowess that can be used to formulate an educated opinion.

I am not arguing, as Roger Scruton does that “This official uglification of our world is the work of the ivory-towered elites of the liberal classes - people who have little sympathy for how the rest of us live and who, with their mania for modernising, are happy to rip up beliefs that have stood the test of time for millennia.” My argument is simple: a non-art object is nothing more than non-art. And by the same token, a non-art design is also non-art. 

Good Art Is a Talent. Good Design Is a Skill.

Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), World Congress for General Disarmament and Peace , 1962 

O’Nolan argues that “the true value of an artist is in the talent (or natural ability) they are born with (…) good artists certainly have skill, but artistic skill without talent is, arguably, worthless.” Design, in contrast, he maintains: “is really a skill that is taught and learned". I am not sure of the logical base of this assertion. I do not agree with him that that “You do not have to be a great artist to be a great designer” unless we are lowering the bar so low that the producers of non-artistic designs can be regarded as great designers. Think of the "display device" industrial designer Jony Ive had designed for a computer with a flat-screen which was perhaps a good design but could not satisfy the artistic sensivity of Steve Jobs. However, it became a “great design” for the iMac, 2002, when he accompanied Jobs to his home, to Palo Alto, Calif., and was inspired by sunflowers Jobs’ wife had planted in their beautiful garden behind their house. As Isaacson relays:
"They were walking around, and they just looked at the sunflowers and how there's a certain essence of the sunflower, and how it floats above the plant — and that became that iMac."

Good Art Sends a Different Message to Everyone. Good Design Sends the Same Message to Everyone.

As O’Nolan himself has admit this axiom really falls under the second one about interpretation and understanding, I agree and thus I am not spending any words on it. As Charles Eames, one of the most influential designer of the mid-twentieth century, has stated ‘design is an expression of purpose. It may (if it is good enough) later be judged as art.’ Artists have never seen any borders between art and design, between ‘free’ and ‘applied’ creation, and have always been obsessed with elevating industrial design to an art form. Even in the height of the last century's fad of admitting non-art objects into the domain of art artists like Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles and Ray Eames, Isamu Noguchi,Frank Gehry, and others distanced themselves from functional based design and the artificially imposed commodification, and were creating unique artistic objects imbued with aesthetic sensitivity.

Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright
The house in southwestern Pennsylvania, was designed for Edgar Kaufmann. It hangs over a waterfall using the architectural device known as the cantilever. Wright described his architectural style as "organic"--in harmony with nature.
Consistency in grammar is therefore the property- solely - of a well-developed artist-architect. Without that property of the artist-architect not much can be done about your abode as a work of art. (Wright, The Natural House, 1954, pp. 182-183)

The Charles and Ray Eames loveseat is the last piece of furniture produced by the Eames Office, which completed the design after Charles Eames died in 1978.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Charles Eames grew up in America's industrial heartland. As a young man he worked for engineers and manufacturers, anticipating his lifelong interest in mechanics and the complex working of things. Ray Kaiser, born in Sacramento, California, demonstrated her fascination with the abstract qualities of ordinary objects early on. She spent her formative years in the orbit of New York's modern art movements and participated in the first wave of American-born abstract artists.

Although they advocated mass-production of architectural components, furnishings, and accessories as the ideal way to spread low-cost, high-quality modern design, Eameses tried to integrate high and low art forms.

Arts & Architecture, Cover Designed by Ray Eamese, 1944,

Fountain designed by Isamu Noguchi,

The Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) was preoccupied with search for meaning. Through a lifetime of artistic experimentation, he created sculpture, furniture and lighting designs, drawings, ceramics, architecture, landscape and set designs. He believed strongly in art and design’s social role, and he thus dedicated much of his life to creating public works such as parks, plazas, and fountains throughout the world.

Frank Gehry, Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas.
“If I knew where I was going, I wouldn’t do it. When I can predict or plan it, I don’t do it.”

Much of Gehry’s work falls within the style of Deconstructivism, which is often referred to as post-structuralist in nature for its ability to go beyond current modalities of structural definition. In architecture, its application tends to depart from modernism in its inherent criticism of culturally inherited givens such as societal goals and functional necessity. Because of this, unlike early modernist structures, Deconstructivist structures are not required to reflect specific social or universal ideas, such as speed or universality of form, and they do not reflect a belief that form follows function

Stuhlhockerbank by Yvonne Fehling and Jennie Peiz.

Stuhlhockerbank is a series of seating for public spaces that approach users and viewers in an extraordinary way. The dividing lines between different types of furniture (chair, stool, bench) are eliminated as the three types blend. The pure purposiveness these immobile constellations as pieces of furniture are enhanced by the their narrative elements as well as sensual and poetic dimensions that are subject to various interpreatations.

Pablo Reinoso, Spaghetti Bench, 2010

Michael Beitz' Picnic Table was commissioned by the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, in Omaha, Nebraska, as a permanent installation on its front loading dock, in conjunction with the Bemis Gardens exhibition and design laboratory.

Designer Gitta Gschwendtner is originally from Germany but has been living in London for over 20 years and has worked from her studio in Hackney, east London. She worked outdoors using rustic wood-crafting methods to create this bench from her Bodge series.

Haim Steinbach, Untitled, (Daybed Coffin), 1989 Holz, Mies van der Rohe Liege "Barcelona"

Folding wall by ID Modus

Lighting „Snug“ by Bina Baitel

Extract from the special gallery made ​​skating preview of the World Figure Skating and Ice Dance Championships in Tokyo - Japan 2011 (ISU World Figure Skating Championships March 21 to 27, 2011). Photos by Olivier Gerard and Brajon Vandystadt / Agency Sports Glance - (season 2010-2011)

Penrose Annual, Paul Rand, 1958
The same message to every one?!

I sum up by suggesting that there is no difference between art and design in how they look or in what they do. They have identical purposes, they are made in the same way, and must be judged by the same criteria. In fact, there has never been a clear border between product design and art. Both a true artist and a great designer typically begin with more than a blank canvas, a lump of clay, a musical instrument and so on. They have some idea of what they want to do, and how to communicate that idea to others. Both are confronted with various restrictions, financial, and other physical restrictions, size of studio, light, the media’s range of possibilities, and so on. A designer, of course, may face other restrictions, imposed by the client. Nevertheless, both must use their talent and their skills to surmount those restrictions and produce an artistically authentic object.

BRANSCH artist Jean-Louis Wolff was commissioned by Mitteschoen, a Berlin magazine, to shoot a fashion editorial entitled, “Soleil Noir,” featuring pieces by local Berlin-based designers: Thone Negron, Martin Niklas Wieser, Kaviar Gauche, NCA Berlin, Karlotta Wilde, Augustin Teboul, Kunert, Filippa K. The theme of the issue was surrealism, and Jean-Louis had the freedom to flirt with dreams and the bizarre.
The art director, Dörte Lange, asked him to suggest few possible titles for the editorial in French, and she picked “Soleil Noir”, a piece of verse from Gerard de Nerval’s “el desdichado”.

A poster designed for Bally  shoes of  Swiss by Bernard Villemot , 1982.

BALILLA 1934 Marcello Dudovich

Manifesto 2008 Vendemmia Barolo Bruno Sacchetto

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