The Relationship between Art and Design

When it comes to the relationship between art and design, it can be hard to distinguish where one ends and the other begins. Often the terms are used interchangeably, as certain design work is art. But there are distinctions as well. Visual art would not necessarily be considered a form of design, just as F+W Media, HOW‘s parent company, separates HOW and Print magazines from The Artist’s Magazine and Southwest Art Magazine.

So all things considered, how much should art influence design? If you ask Marc Hohmann, branding expert and partner at global design and brand firm Lippincott, the answer is a lot. The high-profile designer, whose client list includes Dell, Sunglass Hut, City of London and more, posits that modern art is an important resource for design inspiration. Read on to find out why.

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Art as a Compass for Design

by Marc Hohmann

Throughout my career, I’ve always urged designers to spend more time looking at modern art for inspiration; however, I still see plenty of “best of” books on logos, typography, graphic systems, patterns and information graphics in the office, hardly any of which mention the important visual artists that are shaping our cultural landscape. When I ask fresh-out-of-design-school professionals about current artists such as Conrad Shawcross, Jan De Cock or Xavier Veilhan, I get blank stares and a shrug, but their knowledge of who designed what logo or which firm branded what airline and the measure of its success or failure is endless. To me there is a profound disconnect.

I personally stopped looking at any graphic output from my fellow graphic design colleagues a long time ago. It all started in the late ’90s when designers seemed to be copying other graphic work or trying to be clever or futuristic just for the sake of it. Around that time, I became more interested in cross-discipline connections: I discovered how many postwar composers and graphic and industrial designers were influenced by the minimalism of the ’60s and ’70s and how, in return, these composers and designers were influenced by the architects of the previous decade and so on. This is a reoccurring net of links that weaves within every century and decade—from romanticism to expressionism to modernism to today. I discovered with excitement that much of the work in these movements was void of self-serving cleverness, but it was all in favor of successfully reflecting the world we live in. I started seeing my field of graphic design as the second step rather than the first.

Our visual intuition (and that includes everyone: “us” as in designers, business strategists, clients and anyone who is exposed to a commercial artifact) is shaped by our time and the culture we live in. For me, art has always been the voice that our culture speaks in our time—the indicator of how we are thinking and how our society manifests itself, from thought to philosophy to attitude. Successful works of art embody our cultural state in their form and message. Successful design serves a purpose and needs to be committed to function to fill in a specific need. By that definition, it lacks the larger universal statement art can make. Art does not need to be functional, just expressive.

As designers, we should not forget that the work we create will be judged by an audience that was already shaped by culture and more or less popular art(ifacts). They react to our work from within the bubble of culture based on a TV show they saw, a play they went to, a song they suddenly started to like or a conversation they had with their spouse. In the last 10 years, technology has added an onslaught of cultural depth to the design medium. We can witness the attempts to sum all this up by going to a gallery or leafing through Artforum.

We need to be careful not to design for designers, but for all people, and we owe it to our clients to do so. This means we need to objectively step outside society and understand how culture manifests itself. That’s when art comes in. In the past, many great graphic designers understood this—Max Bill, Jan Tschichold, Paul Rand, etc. If we make the mistake of bringing ideas into the same pool that we look to for inspiration, we will lose touch.

In a similar vein, great artists understand the power of design to get the message across. This comes via a visual punch and, in some cases, an almost strategic approach in the likes of Andy Warhol, Donald Judd, Joseph Beuys, and recently Christopher Wool and Sterling Ruby. There are artists who are great architects and understand more about space than most architects do. Here, Frank Stella, Richard Serra and Dan Flavin come to mind.

It is important to include the art world as a dominant resource to shape ideas for logos, structures, graphic design systems, relations of forms, etc. If we arrive to use or borrow a meaningful gesture or concept, we are using a purpose (our state of time) as a tool or an ingredient for another purpose (function). After all, traditionally graphic, industrial, interior design falls into the definition of applied arts, which literally says it all.


Did modern art inspire your design for an in-house project? Submit it to the In-HOWse Design Awards & Competition. Your last chance to enter is today, so send it in right now!

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