Design (and advertising) is not art

A common source of frustration I often see among Creatives, and especially more junior Designers and Art Directors, is in confusing the work they do for clients with Art. It’s an easy error. After all, the process of creating visuals and ideas for brands shares many of the same craft skills and aesthetic aspirations with creating art, but there is an extremely important difference: work in service of a client’s business goals has to answer to an entirely different set of criteria than work created to satisfy an internally motived expressive need.

The first criterion is that graphic design functions to communicate an overt text: “Stop!”, “15% off,” “Cease fire in Gaza,” “your life will be complete when you buy this,” etc. Art can also communicate an overt message, but doesn’t need to.

Picasso's Guernica

The second, and probably more important difference, is that the agenda of the designer is subordinate to the agenda of the client. (It’s true that commissioned art projects, including portraits and the like fall into this category, but I would argue that the artist engaged in a commission would do well think of him or herself as a kind of designer for the purposes of the project). Conversely, if the project is self-initiated, I would argue that the work is probably Art, even if the practitioner is known as a designer¬† (Sagmeister’s sabbatical projects come to mind).


This isn’t to say that design can’t be artistic, or that art can’t employ the grammar of design, but that they are initiated differently, serve different masters and ultimately mean different things.

2 thoughts on “Design (and advertising) is not art

  1. This is an interesting issue, but not as simple as it appears. There’s a long and illustrious history of works of art created for patrons– arguably, most of art history is populated with masterworks created for “clients”, notably the wealthy and the church. Is the Sistine Chapel design, and not art, because it was commissioned by the pope?
    You can actually argue that all art is decoration, something that people use to decorate their private or public spaces, and advertising is a similar kind of “sponsored” decoration.
    But what makes art different is the subject matter, the theme and the statements embedded within it. As you say, the overt text, but also the subtext as well.
    Advertisements are a kind of art– the same tools, techniques and methods are used in creating advertising as they are in creating art– what’s different is the message.

    • Thanks Matt. Good points all around.

      What I was trying to get at is more around intent and context from the producer of the work’s perspective. While an advertisement could indeed have artistic merit, the fact that it exists for reasons entirely other than expression is, to me, the difference. Please note that I’m not ascribing a value judgement on the one or the other. The flip side argument around the meaning of commissioned art (such as the Sistine Chapel ceiling) clearly complicates things from a “what is the meaning of it all” perspective, but I would argue that it’s largely irrelevant to your typical agency Art Director or Copywriter.

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