There are many questions in life that we are faced with that have yet to be answered. Some of those are: What came first, the chicken or the egg? Is the sky blue? And, is graphic design art? Most people have an opinion on all of these, but there remains no definitive answer. Ignoring the first two, let’s just dive into: Is graphic design art? This question has been debated for a long time. The following is a little food for thought.

What is art?

Art – specifically visual art – is difficult to define. Not simply because of its artistic nature, but also because what is deemed as art is constantly changing. And we as a society have never quite been able to make our minds up about what art really is.

In fact it wasn’t until just before the 20th century that anything other than fine art (that is, painting, sculpture and architecture) was actually considered to be art. Then came the Arts and Crafts movement, resulting in the shift to include the applied arts, decorative arts and crafts into the mix – meaning that everything from painting to interior design was termed as art.

So what is visual art today? Well Encyclopedia Britannica describes it as “a visual object or experience consciously created through an expression of skill or imagination.” But that’s a little broad, isn’t it? So let’s add the intention behind the process. Then we could include the artist’s motivation to create for the purpose of communicating a message.

What is graphic design?
Similar to art, graphic design lacks a satisfactory definition. Graphic design is also visual, has a process and a purpose. Design involves the use of various forms of visuals – illustration, photography and even “art” – combined with text to communicate a message to a specific audience. It speaks through a visual language. The purpose of graphic design is to solve visual problems. When successful, it communicates a very clear message.

Now that’s not to say that it lacks expression of skill or imagination. It is the role of the graphic designer to bring a unique visual aesthetic to any problem they solve. However, their end goal is for effective communication. The message is paramount and trumps individual creative expression.

So what’s the difference?
Both art and design have rich histories that illuminate many transformations to their standings within society. Historians have written volumes on it. And like any history, it involves a great deal of flux. Art has played a crucial role into the development of graphic design – there is no question about that. Without the leaps of great artists and art movements of the past, there would be no such thing as graphic design.

Although, it is the here and now that is the concern. Before entering into their creative careers, most graphic designers start out as artists of a sort. Through their earlier education (or individual endeavours) they’re first introduced to exploring creativity through art. That’s where it stems from and it’s a fundamental seed to what graphic designers do.

So yes, both artists and graphic designers are inspired to create, have creative processes that allow them to produce compelling visuals, and are intent on communicating a message. Although, it is the purpose behind their contributions that distinguish one from the other.

Art is subjective, while design is objective. In other words, art can be open to interpretation, whereas design requires complete clarity in order to be effective. What’s more, art involves a degree of self expression. Graphic design expresses in order to aid communication – if not, it fails to do its job. Consequently, art and design can no longer be considered the same thing.

What’s in a name?
So if graphic design and art are different, then what’s all the confusion about? Well it all boils down to a name game. And graphic design needs to be better defined. Many simply don’t understand what it is. The general public, clients, as well as the industry need more clarity.

A lack of clarity breeds a lack of respect. Graphic design – like art – has been through its ups and downs as a profession. And though it may not be art, it’s an incredible medium that takes a great deal of talent, passion and creativity to execute successfully. Now more than ever, graphic design needs to stand apart and keep hold of its status by having little room for misinterpretation on what is stands for and where it’s going.

So, where do you draw the line between art and graphic design? Or…  this there one?