Design vs. Art

First of all, it's never a question of design versus art. I just thought that title was more provocative. It's a question not of opposition but of the relationship between art and design: where and how they diverge, converge, where and how they run parallel, collide, sail on by each other.

When I first met my now ex-wife and still good friend, I was finishing my doctorate in rhetoric while she was finishing her MFA in printmaking. We both finished our degrees in 1998 just as the dot com boom exploded in the Bay Area. And, rather quickly, we both had jobs — me as a writer, she as a web designer.

We got jobs so easily as there was enormous demand created very quickly. But it was really because we had fancy degrees and, well, employers imagined that my PhD in rhetoric and her MFA in printmaking translated to the professional world.

But that, alas, is a mistake. The fact is writing about the weird shit I was writing about — Nietzsche, tropes, phenomenology, Deleuze — had very little to do with writing a snappy tagline or naming a product. To wit, my very first freelance gig was a brainstorm session at a famous branding firm to name what would become PlanetRx. I had some good ideas — "HouseCall," for instance — but I also had "Agamemnon's Pharmakon" — dot com, of course. I shit you not.

My critical writing wants to open up possibilities, ask weird questions of weird texts. My professional writing wants succinctly to create an impression and convey information. For me, moving from one to the other is easy because I like to shift registers, not because I have a doctorate. Most academics would make downright lousy copywriters. That's a not a criticism of them. On the contrary....

Watching my then-wife was incredibly interesting. As an artist, she relished the process of creation. She'd work a plate — as I said, she was a printmaker — over and over, cut it up, see what happened, fuck with it. Play was, and remains, essential to her practice.

While the design process has elements of play, it seeks to answer questions and solve problems. How do we get users from point A to point B? How does we make a chair that can become a bed? How do we convey sexy-funny-cool in a print ad?

Art, on the other hand, wants to ask questions and create problems. Art disrupts the cliché, rendering the familiar unfamiliar, a urinal in an art gallery, naked child mannequins welded together at odd angles.

Design wants to answer the question: What is this? Art wants to pose the question: What is this? 

Making the move from artist to designer (while remaining an artist), my then-wife was quite sensitive to derivation. While she looks at lots of art, she would never outright take another artist's work and incorporate it into her own, unless that were the point. Of course, there are artists who do do that. In fact, in many ways, it's what defines the (post)modern moment: Duchamp putting a mustache on the Mona Lisa or Warhol using the soup can or Marilyn. But, for both Warhol and Duchamp, they're not borrowing someone's solution to a problem and then building on it. They're taking well known things and making them unknown: making a problem of them rather than solving a problem.

So when my then-wife would begin designing a website, she'd purposefully avoid looking at other sites. If she saw something great another designer was doing, she'd steer away. But design, as she would learn, is the collective solving of problems. If one designer has a nifty solution to, say, handle the display of images on the web, it's another designer's duty to use that solution. There is something very beautiful about this: designers working together to make life better, more comfortable, more elegant. Nevertheless, what's essential to design remains anathema to art.

Design always has a purpose. Usually, it works at the behest of capital: Make me a website, a chair, a computer mouse, a car seat, says capital. And the designer gets to work. Sometimes, a designer works for himself to create a new way to sit, browse the web, store information. In this case, the designer may not be indentured to capital but he still works with purpose.

Art never has a purpose. Or, if it does, it's what Kant calls purposeful purposelessness.  Which is to say, it doesn't have a pre-known end point. Francis Bacon would smear his canvas with a sponge or broom to see what would happen. Jackson Pollock dripped paint on a canvas strewn on the floor, letting matters fall where they might. William Burroughs not only cut up his writing, he used a shotgun to make his paintings. The point being: they all may have a purpose but that purpose is open ended play.

We could say that Warhol's Factory was art with a purpose working at the behest of capital. But that was his whole point: a Factory that produced familiar objects rendered unfamiliar. It was the production of the uncanny. The Factory was not solely a means; it, in and of itself, was art intent on jamming notions of art and product as it was a party palace as much as an art studio.

Designers and artists no doubt share certain skills — an understanding of composition and color, for instance. And what's strange is that the designer may not know much about manufacturing whereas the artist is always the manufacturer. That is, a design is not yet a thing; it is the outline of a thing, the possibility of a thing, the instructions for a thing. Art, meanwhile, makes things — even if that thing is a performance.

But the thingdom of art gives way to the affect of experience. The artist makes something, yes, but that thing is not what the artist makes. The artist produces percepts and affects: the artist produces experiences that belie, amplify, unground, reorient everyday experience.

Design, while remaining ethereal, is actually grounded in the material. Yes, design creates experience, too — the experience of the touch screen, of sitting in a chair, of using a fork. And these experiences are not devoid of affect as they necessarily create a feeling for the user.

But the role of affective experience in art and design is quite different. Art creates a thing in order to forge an experience that disrupts the everyday. Design creates the possibility of a thing that translates into a seamless experience of the everyday.  Some design may choose to be more present, more disruptive, less invisible than most. Nevertheless, if a design is too disruptive — the fork is too heavy, the chair won't let you sit, the website belies discovery — then it has failed as design. But, perhaps, succeeded as art.


guy keulemans said...

Hi Daniel, I've been enjoying your podcasts a lot recently, so I was excited to read this post on a topic very close to my interests. I started writing notes and it became monstrous. Maybe I am too disagreeable? but anyway here are my thoughts:

Art also works at the behest of capital too, because most artists who don't achieve material success don't achieve popular impact. They give up and go work in shitty jobs hating themselves. This is something to lament, but it makes some artists work that much harder to appeal to the market, sometimes in a way that is very calculated. That design is mostly at the behest of capital is a situation which has been mostly true since capital achieved its cultural hegemony. Contrary to common assumption, design is not and was not an invention of the industrial revolution and even if we accept that it was, it has evolved. Now more than ever is the time for design to work against capital and for other forms of political will, because capitalist-driven design has proven utterly ineffectual at addressing the hidden costs of production and consumption and their environmental contingencies. This something I will return to at the end of this comment.

I think there is an assumption that design is more constrained in its approach and methodologies than art. But design is capable of appropriating the methodologies and innovations of art and working them into a brief. Many historical movements since the late 60s have done this - the Italian Radicals and the Dutch conceptual designers (e.g Droog) are the most notable, but the most pivotal right now is the Critical design of practitioners like Dunne and Raby or Formafantasma, etc. Conversely, I think many contemporary artists are driven more by market concerns than concepts. Warhol was driven by both, but look at Damien Hirst, for example, considering the production and formulation of his spot paintings, spin paintings, that ridiculous diamond encrusted skull. Artists can also choose to adopt design methodologies, but in practice usually fail to do so adequately because they lack training in implementing methodological rigour or structure. This is why artist driven furniture, product design and architecture projects can be the worst of their kind. Its less of a problem in graphics, though I can smell the bad typography on a mid-level artist's exhibition invitation through its envelope (good galleries avoid this problem by using in-house graphic designers).

Your point that artists tend to reject copying (unless for conceptual reasons) and strive for novelty is well taken. This is why contemporary art has increasing marginalised itself away from many meaningful creative outcomes, to the point that the vast majority of contemporary art is intentionally vague and abstract in conceptual function (by this I mean the function of its conceptual, cultural, political significations i.e how does it 'work' to shape the world - maybe this is similar to the Kantian purpose you mentioned). This is unfortunate, because it lessens cultural precision. Pollack splashing paint around or Burroughs cutting up writing IS play, but its play whose purpose is to discover significance. The problem with the art world is that they have privileged the play over its discoveries, to the extent that vagueness is prized. Consider the estimation of Donald Judd's art compared to his furniture, despite, or perhaps because of, Judd being one of the few top level modernist artists that understood furniture design. His artwork is so minimal and devoid of application as to resist clear readings. However, his furniture IMHO gives form to a noble and more valuable ideology of pragmatism and minimalism which is re-iterated by their function and ergonomics. Yet, somehow his artwork remains pure in the discourse, while the influence of his furniture has become utterly debased to an extent that Ikea has become its vernacular simulacrum - but without any of its aesthetic, philosophical or technical rigour.

guy keulemans said...

As you state, designers are able, or should be able, to find and process precedents to inform their design. I say 'should be able', because I see a worrying trend amongst young designers, influenced by artists and 'artistic' designers of overemphasising the value of novelty. Successful designers learn their way out of this hole, but may also learn to hide or deny their influences. I think this comes as a result of encroaching and increasingly parasitic copyright and intellectual property laws, which have a kind of weirdly deceptive psychological influence even when they don't apply (many forms of design have few, if any, IP protections - though there are lobbyists for them). Regardless, the correct context for human creativity is in observation, examination, emulation and improvement. Contemporary art strives to break this model to its detriment. Design more than art is the normative state of human creative production. Art, at least in its many of its most contemporary forms, is a modernist aberration of creative practice.

I think that your point about artists making and designers designing-but-not-making is not quite nuanced enough. Firstly, designers make too; prototypes, models, sometimes limited production runs. There is no reason to privilege hands on forms of making over digital forms, and likewise design cannot be limited to a mere aspect of mass production because many designers don't mass produce. But true, there is a problem with much design in that it privileges the hylomorphic model of production and individuation, a kind of enforcement of form over material, whereas artists tend to play and discover what material can do and what can emerge from it. Deleuze and Guattari's concept of machinic phylum is important in this regard.

My last point; given the role of design in the process of unrestrained production and consumption and the likely impending ecological catastrophes it will cause, it is crucial that designers discover alternate methodologies of production which are less hylomorphic and more expressive of material conditions because consumers need to be much better connected to materials, their true cost and the true conditions of their production. We really have very little idea of how things are made, such as how many types of metal and plastic are in our cars and where those metals and plastics come from, or how much water is used to manufacture a mobile phone, or how many people risk cancer from the solvents used in their manufacture. However, designers can produce such awareness, and also intervene in the capitalist systems which obscure the importance of such awareness, by using affects and percepts. You mention that artists tend to create the most disruptive affects, but if we examine the contexts in which art and design are consumed then my feeling is that because we expect art to be disruptive, it is actually not. It achieves very little because it is culturally and cognitively marginalised as 'that stuff you see on the weekend" or in the evenings on social media. Its contextualised as something outside your home, job, your field of action or domesticity. I disagree that design cannot produce disruptive affects without ruining function - that's up to the skill of the designer. More to the the point though, it is precisely because design is integrated into the processes of daily living that it has the greatest potential, and obligation, to disrupt and re-orient habituated thinking.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Thank you so much for these incredibly thoughtful, eloquent comments. Now on to the good stuff!

I believe that people believe I am disparaging design by contrasting it with art's free play. But I truly do not mean to pass any judgment, only to understand the different kinds of practice because, culturally, we tend to conflate them to the detriment of both.

Art, of course, is subject to the worst aspects of capital. But I was trying, perhaps foolishly, to separate the ideal practice of art from the reality of its economics. Art, for me, gains its cultural value in precisely being supplementary to need or capital: it is an essential excess, if you will.

I like the alienation of art from ready or general readership. This is precisely its value: that it disrupts the everyday, the useful, the familiar, the assumptions of bourgeois culture.

Design, too, has the most uncanny ability to disrupt everyday culture. In its way, design is much more powerful in this sense as it seeks actively to insinuate itself into the everyday. I think about my day and how I experience the two. Art winks at me from walls, in plazas, on screens demanding that I think otherwise, that I suspend my day, if only for a moment. Design, meanwhile, gets in my way at every turn, demanding I walk this way, click this button, turn that knob. Both inflect habit and perception but in very different ways; they enjoy a different distribution of effects.

And of course designers make things — usually much better things than artists. But design per se is not an act of making things; design hovers in a spectral space, between ideas and stuff.

I believe our two takes differ in where they look. I tried — once again, perhaps foolishly — to look at the ideal practice of design and art rather than their cultural reality. I believe you do a beautiful job here of mapping the two practices within material cultural practice. A good reading of the distinction between art and design no doubt considers both perspectives, if not more. My post is better with your comments, more thorough and thoughtful. So thanks again.

guy keulemans said...

Thanks for the kind words! You know there is a lot of discussion on the distinction between design and art in art theory, especially in regards to this thing some call "DesignArt" or "Design Art" , but to my knowledge none or little is done using Deleuze. This interests me a lot, so thanks for prompting me to think about it some more :)