Between Art end Design

The question of art vs. design is has been raging for along time. In this article, we will look at some creative disciplines that seem to fall somewhere in the grey area between art and design and consider why they may be a mixture of both.


Several months ago, I read an article on WebDesigner Depot entitled “The Difference Between Art and Design”. It was a fascinating piece that attempted to establish a clear distinction between these two very closely related concepts. Over the past few months, the article has really stuck with me and caused me to do a lot of thinking. I would like to expand on some of those thoughts here.


The WebDesigner Depot article presents five different statements that attempt to establish a clear distinction between art and design. These are as follows:

  • Good Art Inspires. Good Design Motivates.
  • Good Art Is Interpreted. Good Design Is Understood.
  • Good Art Is a Taste. Good Design Is an Opinion.
  • Good Art Is a Talent. Good Design Is a Skill.
  • Good Art Sends a Different Message to Everyone. Good Design Sends the Same Message to Everyone.

I can’t say that I completely agree with all of these statements – especially the taste/opinion and talent/skill pairings, but the article certainly raises some interesting points. By and large, it also seems to be suggesting that art is personal and design is universal. In many ways, I think this distinction may actually hold up very well, though it may face certain challenges.

Personally, I would also add a sixth statement: Good Art Stands Alone. Good Design Supports Content. Basically, a good piece of art is able to stand on its own, and exist in its own right. A painting, a poem or a short film can all be their own, independent works. Design, however, always exists in order to support its content. A website is a means of framing information on the internet. An magazine ad presents information about a company, product or service (even if that information is very abstract, as in some more “artistic” ads).

Recently, though, I’ve been thinking a lot about how much material seems to fall somewhere along the boundaries of this distinction, possibly even in that grey, indistinct netherworld that exists between them. There are a number of different areas of expertise that seem to hover somewhere between design and art. Here are four that stick out the most in my mind.


At first glance, illustration may not seem to have any ambiguity associated with it. It’s art right? Maybe not – or at least not entirely. After all, what is an illustration other than a means of providing visual support from some other form of content? In a children’s book, the colourful illustrations that span the pages are created (or even designed) specifically to match the words (sometimes abstractly). On the covers of full-length novels, illustrations are crafted to in some way represent the story itself, either through mood or theme, or literally by portraying an actual scene.

The same is also true of illustrations that you might find in magazines, on direct mail or accompanying an entry on your favorite blog.

In a sense, these illustrations that look so much like art are actually carefully designed. A cover artist will very often be given a creative brief, just like a designer. The publisher may require a specific character, or a specific look for the illustration. These are essentially problems given to the artist, allowing them to apply their unique skill to develop a visual solution.

Even though the illustrations may look and feel like art, does the intentional focus behind it not seem to be venturing dangerously close to design?

Character Design

In this case, even the very name seems to suggest a distinct blurring of the art/design opposition. Again, the final product may actually appear to be art, since it usually involves some form of drawing or painting (traditionally or digitally). Yet we have the word “design” right in the title.

Basically, character design is design. It simply (and generally) uses techniques that we often want to reserve strictly for art. Yet, the character artist’s job is actually to help design something. They will likely be given an idea, a concept or possibly even a full description of a character. It is then left to them to bring that character to life. There are all kinds of different decisions to make, regarding body shape, costume, appearance, accessories, weapons and so on.

Take, for example, this character design by Brandon Peterson which I found on the Behance network:

Tao Feng Concept

This is a very simple and typical way to approach character design. The figure himself is featured prominently against a white background. Despite the pose, all the major physical elements are clearly present. The wide-legged, silky pants suggest a distinctly Asian influence, while the pattern and colour gives the impression of a fiery persona. This is emphasized by long hair and the red, tribal tattoo.

Contrast that against this other image, from the same gallery

Tao Feng Concept

Here we have another male character, rendered in much the same style, but for a vastly different type of character. This one appears much less fiery, though likely no less powerful. The strong blue colours are more calming than the reds of the other character. The hair – either cropped short or tied back – is much more orderly and even the tattoos are more geometric and structured.

All of this simply demonstrates the way careful and intentional decisions were made regarding the composition and key elements of the characters. The final product may look like art, but it’s also very much a form of design.

Icon Design

Of all of the disciplines that we will look at in this article, I think that icon design is probably the one that seems to be a clear cut case of “this is design”. While looking at illustration, character design and concept art, the suggestion was pretty much the same: that though these things look like art, they are also actually a form of design.

Now I want to invert that argument. The creation of icons may seem to rest firmly withing the realm of design (see my Icons and the Web series), and they are certainly a popular topic among the design community. However, is the creation of these icons not closely related to illustration?

It’s a matter of drawing pictures.

I know there’s a lot more to it than that, but if you strip everything else away, an icon is really nothing more than a tiny (and sometimes not so tiny) illustration used in any one of a range of unique contexts. Just look at this incredible icon set:

Remarkably detailed icons

These are all beautifully rendered, and are almost like works or art in their own right. The detail and all the shading is exquisite, and with the increasing size of icons these days, these types of completed projects are becoming increasingly popular, meaning that this branch of design is becoming home to many incredibly talented artists!

Concept Art


The same is true of concept art, which encompasses a much broader range of work, and can often actually include character design. In this type of work, artists imagine and conceptualize things like weaponry, creatures, vehicles and even entire worlds!

This kind of work is incredibly popular in the development of movies, comics, video games and any other media where visuals play a strong role as the primary means of communication. Here are some great examples of different types of concept art that I picked up on deviantART:

Vehicle concept art


Landscape (environment) concept

Weapons concept

Many of the same points that I made about character design also apply here too. The landscapes, vehicles and weapons are all developed in order to establish the look and feel of a unique, fictional world. Moreover, they are created to help support a particular type of content, whether that content is a film, a video game a comic book or some other medium.

As such, despite it’s obvious artistic heritage, I think that in many ways concept may also be more akin to the world of design than it is to pure art.

Wrap Up

Okay, so some types of art are more closely related to design, while some types of design seem to branch over into art – so what? Does it even matter? Yes and no. It doesn’t matter at all insofar as the individual disciplines are concerned. Illustration, character design, concept art and icon design will all continue regardless of how we may chose to classify them.

At the same time, however, I would argue that it does matter because of the ramifications that it has on the definition of design itself. At the very least, it raises a series of very interesting questions.

  • What is design?
  • How do we define it?
  • Is our definition unintentionally narrow?
  • How does the definition of design relate to the title of designer?

I’m not going to try to answer these questions now, but I encourage you to start thinking about them.

In the meantime, though, it is certainly interesting to look at that grey area that exists between the worlds of pure art and pure design, and to really consider how many disciplines may actually involve a little bit of both.

What about you? Do you call yourself a designer or an artist? I struggled with this myself and eventually settled on the term digital artist, though I’m still not completely satisfied with that! I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, or the article in general, so leave a comment!


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