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.