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Designers Are Not Fine Artists

It can be difficult to find worth in a design career. Though designers create tangible products that can be used for a variety of purposes, design work feels frivolous at times. I have created my fair share of pamphlets and posters that get used for one day and tossed out the next. The disposability of design work is something that many designers struggle with.

However, the amount of time that our work is used for doesn’t matter. Rather, contributing to an ongoing visual dialogue is the important aspect of being a designer.

I know that I’m not a fine artist. In fact, I am learning to stop identifying as an artist at all. Though some in our industry may be upset by this, I think it is vitally important that designers begin to view themselves as problem solvers that utilize a visual vocabulary.

In many regards, being a designer is like being a scientist. When approached with a problem, scientists are tasked with finding a solution by utilizing the scientific method. This protocol ensures that the scientist reaches the right conclusion (or, in the realm of theoretical science, the best solution). It dictates that scientists must:

  1. Ask a question
  2. Research
  3. Hypothesis
  4. Experiment
  5. Record Observations/Gather Data
  6. Come to a conclusion

Though not a perfect analogy, a designer’s profession is a logical one. We ask questions (often in the form of asking a client about their vision of the piece), research the company or client extensively, hypothesize (sketch), experiment (produce rough designs and mockups), record observations (present designs to clients and hear their feedback) and conclude the process (finalize and complete the design). Certainly, no one would argue that a scientist is the same as a fine artist, so why should we debate whether or not logic-driven visual communication is comparable?

I think that it is unhealthy for young designers to compare themselves to fine artists. Doing such inevitably leads to feelings of failure and inadequacy through perceiving oneself as a sellout. It is important to acknowledge that working with clientele and producing design work for a client may not be sexy, but it is a profession that has gained immense importance in the last century.

Designers have a great responsibility to society. In our modern world, more individuals will walk through a grocery store and be surrounded by design that will walk through the halls of art museums and galleries surrounded by masterworks and modern works. This means that, in many circumstances, designers are the new architects of our visual world.

The visual vocabulary of society was once used for religious reasons, and later, philosophical reasons. Today, we find that consumerism is the driving force in developing new visual styles.

In the words of the 2000 First Things First Manifesto:

“We propose a reversal of priorities in favor of more useful, lasting and democratic forms of communication – a mindshift away from product marketing and toward the exploration and production of a new kind of meaning. The scope of debate is shrinking; it must expand. Consumerism is running uncontested; it must be challenged by other perspectives expressed, in part, through the visual languages and resources of design.”

For centuries, fine artists defined how the world looked. Today, our visual vocabulary is created by the designer. A few dozen may attend an opening at an art gallery, but hundreds of thousands will see an ad on the side of a city bus. Clothing, interior, industrial, and graphic designers are all responsible for creating value in the modern visual world. This gives immense power to designers.

We as designers must view ourselves as separate from the fine artist if we are ever going to acknowledge our immense importance to society. We must stop feeling like second-caste creatives. Our work impacts people’s lives every day. We must recognize this lest we allow our profession to be driven solely by corporate interests.

To this end, the designer’s purpose is a remarkably complex one: to shape culture. The longer it takes my fellow designers to recognize that, the longer designers will fail to take advantage of the power they have.