Monday, February 7, 2011

What Graphic Designers REALLY Do (and it's not art)

I often encounter confusion among clients new to buying graphic design about what it is they should expect from me and the work they’re buying. Sometimes all they have is a vague notion that they’re going to get little pictures about what they sell, and that these pictures should be attractive so people will look at them. They tend to associate this process with art, and may think that design and art are the same thing. This is understandable since both art and design are visual in nature. But their functions are completely different.
When asked some years ago what the difference was, Milton Glaser (an icon of contemporary design) said something like this: the function of art is to intensify one’s perception of reality and create new languages of meaning. But the function of design is to communicate, and for that we must use known symbols.
Pretty deep (although not an exact quote). I read this at a time when I needed an Ah-Ha moment in my work, and Mr. Glaser came through. Coming from a fine art academic background, I had been trying to suss out how the two disciplines are related. I now had my answer. It has helped me understand the difference between artistic goals and design goals, and that I will be both a better artist and a better designer by always being clear about which is which and not confusing them.
This understanding has also kept me from becoming one of those dreaded stereotypes of the commercial art world: prima donna designers who disregard their clients’ ideas, insist they know best, and work in the vacuum of their own ego. To them I say: listening to your client is not a sell-out. It’s the only way you can create effective work. Work that is not effective is a failure, no matter how cool it is.
Here are some other designers’ takes on the difference between art and design:
Creative without strategy is called ‘art’. Creative with strategy is called ‘advertising’. – Jeff Richards
It is no secret that the real world in which the designer functions is not the world of art, but the world of buying and selling. – Paul Rand
Clients are the difference between design and art. — Michael Bierut
Here’s my take: it is the job of graphic design to combine words and pictures to create an image that will inspire a particular behavior. Specifically, I am supposed to create communications that will motivate people to behave in ways that benefit my clients. Usually that means “Buy our stuff.” It can also mean “Buy into our social cause” or “Vote for us.” What designers REALLY do is nothing more nor less than behavior modification. Designers are all closet Skinnerian psychologists.
I have found that sharing this viewpoint with clients is clarifying for them as well. It helps clients understand what they are really buying, and gives them a benchmark for evaluating its usefulness. This in turn helps me do better work because they are able to give me better direction. This is where design really differentiates from art: design is all about communication. Design puts aesthetic expression at the service of the client, not the creator. And when good communication exists between clients and designers, the communication between clients and their markets will be much more successful. For my clients, that’s the whole point.

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