Is a designer an artist? It’s a question that has come up in conversation pretty often over the course of my career – as it did during an outdoor happy hour one warm evening last week. My answer has generally been no, not really, not the kind of designer I am: one who works in marketing. People have usually said “but I think you are an artist”, which is lovely. It’s true, much like a “fine artist”, designers express ideas using a variety of media, creating something from nothing, and share that expression with the world. In general, I’ve said, ok, thanks and carried on, not really considering myself an artist but not knowing for sure how to explain that it’s really ok.
Last week’s conversation gave me some insight though, primarily because there was another designer there, who is also a traditional artist in his personal life. We got more deeply into the nuance of the differences between creating art for personal expression and creating designs for commercial use, and how, while there is still a process of creation, what we do for a living everyday has more in common with what we would call craft than with what the world acknowledges to be art.
This all reminded me of a quote by Louis Nizer that I found on a wall at a very cool restaurant in Atlanta called 5Church (http://5churchatlanta.com/):
“A man who works with his hands is a laborer; a man who works with his hands and his brain is a craftsman; but a man who works with his hands and his brain and his heart is an artist.”
I would add to that “A man (or woman) who works with his hands and his brain and someone else’s heart is a designer.” It is our function as designers working in marketing to build pieces that represent our clients and that create a response in their audience. In fine art, the artist is expressing their own emotions and the audience experiences that expression through their own personal filters. In contrast, a working designer needs to find a way to express their clients’ heart in a way that will have the same meaning to all members of their targeted audience, and inspire that audience’s heart so they take an action.
To do that we use our brains as well as expertise in a specialized set of tools to create a variety of things that we send out into the world and, if we’ve executed our craft well, impact each viewer to get the results our clients need. There is something very special that happens in that process of making things that work. And, it’s that process of “making” that makes me love what I do for a living. I suppose that shows up in the things I make.
So, maybe designers are artists after all. But I’m just as happy with the idea that I am dedicated to a craft.