Art and Design: Spot the Difference

Art and Design: Spot the Difference

What is the difference between art and design – these days, is there a difference? It is an ongoing discussion, and is a philosophical point as opposed to a scientific issue.

There are some very black and white areas in the distinctions between the two disciplines, but also some very gray areas. In this article I will be pointing out the clear-cut differences, and addressing the undefined points.

Art Design


The Cambridge Dictionary gives the following definitions for art, design, artist and designer:

Art Design Definitions

These definitions would indicate that design is a skill that can be taught and learnt, whereas art is a talent that a person is born with – of course, the development of that talent can be taught, but it has to actually be there in the first place.

To create art is to have an idea and transfer it through whatever media onto whatever substrate to achieve something that people will enjoy looking at, discussing, and best of all, buying.

Design is somewhat different in that it is usually created for a much more specific purpose and within a set of guidelines, with a previously agreed payment.

However, where the two disciplines merge in this instance is that they must both be aesthetically pleasing, and both aim to be ‘a talking point’ and recognized in their field.

Definitely One or the Other

A portrait painted in oils on canvas, or a watercolor landscape work – they are definitely art and can never be confused with or considered to be design.

A motorway traveling through many major and minor towns and cities is clearly design and no artistic flair is involved in designing it, especially nowadays with the help of CAD software.

Is it Art or Design?

Gray areas between what is art and what is design appear everywhere. For instance, Escher was a graphic designer, and his illusions were created with the help of mathematics and physics – but they were also art, they definitely were a talking point, they were an idea transferred onto a substrate and they were good to look at. However, a lot of design went into them and strict guidelines were adhered to:

Esher’s Relativity
Image Credit: Wikipedia

In the ‘Digital Art Era’ that we are currently living, is there really a difference between art and design? Well, of course there is – but the two disciplines sit much closer together these days through the use of modern software.

The Aims of Art and Design

Art aims to inspire, maybe put a point or an emotion across to the audience, but the audience does not necessarily have to share the artist’s viewpoint on the piece – a piece of art could mean one thing to one person and something completely different to another, but neither of those understandings of the art may be what the artist had in mind.

Cloudy Sky
Image Credit: Alexwild

Design, on the other hand, aims to get across a particular message that everyone understands from the same point of view. Good design conveys a precise and understood message that the entire audience grasps easily, and whatever may be up for discussion regarding the design, the message being conveyed should not be in question.

Beer in the Tree O
Image Credit: Creativeawards

Followers of Fashion

Current trends affect both art and design.

An artist is often influenced by the ‘popular style’ and will create art according to the trend, although they don’t have to, but as we meander through such styles as Renaissance, Pre-Raphaelites, Impressionism, Art Deco, Cubism and Surrealism – to name but a few, the trends, means and methods of creating art changes according to the times. Of course, classic art endures and probably always will.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

Designers need to follow trends as it is often the ‘popular style’ that is required by the client – most companies employing a designer like their message to be conveyed ‘in mode’, trying to appeal to a wider audience, and we can see the changes are influenced by the means available to produce the designs and the methods of ‘getting it out’ to the viewing audience. For instance, adverts for both television and magazines at one time had to be produced to be effective in black and white as color wasn’t available. Nowadays black and white is used by choice, normally for impact – to stand out from the crowd. But as with art, classic design remains popular throughout.

Image Credit: Scumah

A Talking Point

Arguably, there is a desire, tiny or huge, in everybody to be ‘artistic’.

Maybe it is correct to say that to be a designer a person needs ‘artistic flair’, however, to be an artist no design skills are necessary – but would that be true? Doesn’t an artist have to ‘design’ the composition of the piece of work?

There is one word I can think of that applies to both artist and designer, and that is imagination – there are others that will at times apply to artists or designers, or both, such as inspired, dedicated, insightful. Maybe you can suggest other qualities or requirements of and in a person that will make them a great artist or designer, or will apply to both?

It seems to me that you can talk yourself round in circles trying to answer the simple question! It clearly doesn’t have a ‘yes or no’ answer – it is, in itself, a talking point, just as any piece of art or design aims to be!

Other Opinions

There has been relative little published on the internet on this subject, however, here are a few articles that make good reading:

We would love to hear your thoughts on the difference between art and design or between an artist and a designer – if, indeed, you think there is a significant difference.

Carol is a blogger and Photoshop enthusiast. She enjoys surfing the net in search of outstanding art, design and photography, and enjoys nothing better than sharing her discoveries through article writing.


  1. / Reply

    Is this a respond to The Differences between Art and Design in Webdesignerdepot? Nice reading when see lot more points! Cheer!

  2. / Reply

    I believe that one must have both qualities (artist and designer) to succeed. You’re born an artist and taught to be a designer.

    I loved this article thanks

  3. / Reply

    Very nice article! A nice read, and truly makes you think of the clear differences between art and design. Hope to see more on this topic! All the Best!

  4. / Reply

    Design follows a set structure and has tangible outcomes and specifications. Webdesignerdepot has some great wallpapers that i think sum it up very well

    • Adams,
    • April 30, 2010
    / Reply

    I really don’t see the point in trying to understand the distinction between art and design, because there will always be overlap. Just enjoy what you like and don’t put yourself out with the rest. Art, for me anyway, is any attempt at communication which does not try to convey specific fact. If a piece of design work is intended to make you feel a certain way about a product (like bottles hanging from a tree implying freshness), then that’s art. It’s not necessarily _good_ art, but really, how can anyone set up a universal distinction between good and bad? A painting hanging in an expensive gallery doesn’t imply that the painting is good art.

    I don’t like people trying to, or even thinking, that they can draw lines through these things, because it really is up to each person to decide for him or herself. “Art” is a heavily loaded word as it seems to imply things like “skill” or “talent” which themselve are quite meaningless, and have nothing to do with how a person can feel about the work in question. Someone once said that everyone is an artist, and I agree very strongly with that. “Art” is something that happens between someone who creates, and someone who experiences. There is nothing more to it, at all.

    “Of course, classic art endures and probably always will” : this is pretty ironic, because classical art is in many ways the epitome of design. Many classical artists were obsessed with accurately representing the world around them, and there was a lot of overlap between art, natural science and maths. Back then art was used the way we use photography today.

  5. / Reply

    It always strikes me as odd when people use an Impressionist painting as an example of “classic.” They certainly weren’t classic at the time they were painted. They were a shocking departure from the everyday. They worked because they weren’t classic. I’m also a little perturbed by your statement that “relative little” has been published on the Internet on the subject. A quick Google search found several articles, research papers, a blog devoted to the topic, and even info from the AIGA. It’s a very common topic.

    1. / Reply

      Sharon – I think you have maybe misunderstood the use of the Monet Impressionist painting – it is showing the ‘trend’ of the time, not classic art. ‘Relatively little’ would perhaps have been better expressed by ‘comparatively little’. Many thanks for your comments.

  6. / Reply

    good art is well designed; good design is artfully done

  7. / Reply

    Nice things. So much closely information. Thanks for sharing.

  8. nicely written! Such brilliant posts are generally archived by me

  9. / Reply

    Definitely we should know the difference between art and design if we want to do in the field of Graphics Design. I am glad to know that difference by this tutorial. Thanks..

  10. / Reply

    Nice inspiring post on art and design. i don’t think any good design can be made without art so always art usually overlap design. Very nice article to understand art and design. Thanks for share this wonderful post. :)

  11. / Reply

    Nice inspiring post on art and design.Definitely we should know the difference between art and design if we want to do in the field of Graphics Design. I am glad to know that difference by this tutorial. Thanks..

    • Tour,
    • October 16, 2010
    / Reply

    nice article with nice picture combination …

  12. A nice read and truly makes you think of the clear differences between art and design. Hope to see more on this topic!

  13. / Reply

    In a single word, this is very nice posting.
    thanks to share….

  14. / Reply

    Now i know the difference between art and design by this tutorial.

  15. / Reply

    Thanks for this sharing, I am really glad to know difference between art and design by this tutorial.

    • hasan,
    • September 19, 2012
    / Reply

    nice post and thanks to share…

  16. / Reply

    Thanks for share this wonderful post. It’s really nice & great.

  17. / Reply

    Great post. I appreciate you for sharing

    • Habib,
    • September 7, 2013
    / Reply

    Excellent post and thanks for share…

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