The Designer vs. the Artist: Who’s our Uncorporate Champion?

Good designers and artists make the world less corporate in their own unique ways. Their creations inspire, provoke, and engage us, and for that I am grateful.  I aim to do the same with my work, and I like learning from people who are better at achieving my own goals than I am.

Still, the potential for making things more corporate exists for both artists and designers.  I talk a bit about how to avoid being a corporate artist here.    In this post, I’ll look at some distinctions between a designer’s mentality and an artist’s, and how they can contribute to or fight against corporate thinking.

Essentially a designer is someone who creates things with a strong consideration for the end-user’s experience. A good web designer thinks about how easy a site is to navigate and how pleasing it is to read.  A graphic designer aims to capture his audience’s attention with just the right visual elements for the represented message.   Someone who designs products pays attention to how  functional, elegant, and costly the product will be to customers.

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Gmail is my email provider of choice because of how intuitive it is to use and how elegant it is in its simplicity, but I can assure you that it was neither intuitive nor simple for the Google engineers to design.  They didn’t make an application that was easy for them to build or that gave them the best chance for self-expression. Rather they put emphasis on creating something that was easy for me to use and to customize based on my own aesthetic preferences.

Amazon.com didn’t think about what kind of return and shipping policies would be most convenient for their business managers.  They thought about what would be most convenient for their customers, and so they designed policies that allow for a 30-day exchange period, free shipping for purchases over $25, and friendly customer support.  (The one time that I had to call Amazon support was for a shipping mistake.  The mistake was my fault, but Amazon still offered to replace the item if I couldn’t get it recovered.  They corrected the shipping address so quickly that it was a non-issue.)    That’s why they get a lot of repeat business from me.

Various designers have their own styles and sensibilities, but the good ones are all still user-oriented.  Can you imagine one of Google’s or Apple’s designers getting rewarded for designing an interface that not only baffled you, but left you demoralized and unproductive for days at a time? Would it make a difference if these hypothetical designers wrote long and boring essays about what they were thinking when they created the hellacious, unusable interfaces?  Of course not, and yet there are artists out there who would consider it a professional triumph if their work had the effect on you that I described above.

Why?  Being an artist involves more emphasis on personal expression than being a designer, and the effectiveness of self-expression is sometimes evaluated based on whether it affects audiences in any observable way. Nothing wrong with that.  Artists can use their imaginations to paint pictures or tell stories that grow from their own experiences in this world.  Done honestly and with skill, that can help us better understand and appreciate our own lives.

Problems develop when artists buy into the absurdly stupid, corporate idea that they can and should express themselves in any way they wish and completely ignore how that expression will affect other people. Nero considered himself a consummate artist, using his power to gain forced acclaim for his music and staging maniacal torture  and killing procedures.  He was rumored to play his lyre and sing wildly as Rome burned, entranced perhaps by his own exquisite artistry.  ( Peter Ustinov played Nero in the 1951 film Quo Vadis, and it’s one of the best depictions of a mad, self-absorbed, and heartless artist that I’ve seen on film.)  Do you wish to be like Nero, dear artists? If not, then be so good as to think about the sentiments of others as you promote yourselves and produce your work and carry on as artists do.

A former artist friend once told me that I didn’t understand her as an artist when I asked her to be more straightforward with me.  Distorting the truth is not artistry, sweetie.  It is called being dishonest.  Sleeping around with everyone in town is not “artistic freedom.”  A more appropriate phrase for that kind of thing is “being a whore.”   (I am just as guilty of this kind of thing when I drink more than I should, influenced by the mistaken, corporate idea that artists need alcohol to produce compelling work.)  It’s a tricky thing to find the right balance between self-expression and self-restraint, but it’s worth trying.

photo from flickr.com/onkel_wart

photo from flickr.com/onkel_wart

Artists, and non-artists alike, including me, have their own vices that they struggle against, but most people don’t use their job status to justify their vices.  Artists shouldn’t get a golden get-out-of-jail-free card just because they’re artists.  They affect others in good or evil ways just like the rest of us. To believe otherwise is to perpetuate narcissistic, corporate thinking.

So far I’ve come down harder on artists, but designers too can err on the side of corporateness.  Just like the chaff  that surrounds the wheat, there are ugly and hard-to-use things out there, trying to drown out the well-designed stuff.   Sometimes it’s because a designer tried to imitate stylish fads instead of discovering what works for the task at hand.  Or maybe it is a matter of designing with an emphasis on low cost over quality.  Or perhaps someone just lacked the drive to put in the work needed to get polished results.

Those are all definitely corporate conditions, but most designers would not consider the above examples to be definitive characteristics of good design.  We sometimes hold up our artists to different standards, though.  Our museum curators, after all, put up literal pieces of shit on display and celebrate the artistic accomplishment, the glorious self-expression involved.

Still, good artists offer unique points-of-view that come from the deepest parts of their souls. They can illuminate problems, encourage us to dream and marvel at the world we inhabit,  help us to understand and appreciate each other, and illuminate the hidden inner, demons inside of us.  Designers sometimes approach that territory, but they don’t dig as deep.

A movie made by a bunch of designers runs the risk of becoming shallow eye-candy driven by what designers think people want to see and not on drama that resonates with greater truth.  Not wanting to displease his intended users, a designer too may be less inclined to introduce ugliness or dissonance to make a greater point, and yet it is hard to get a complete sense of our lives without taking into account the ugly and the dissonant.

Obviously deliberate ugliness is very different from ugliness due to half-hearted or incompetent design work.  It is also worth pointing out that an artist is more prone to overuse dissonance or ugliness by overemphasizing the value of any kind of self-expression, no matter how depressing or misanthropic it may be.   Still, the complete absence of dissonance or at least a healthy acknowledgment of reality’s constraints is an obvious characteristic of all things corporate.   Now you know why those corporate training videos full of false smiles and exaggerated enthusiasm are so awful and hard to watch.

What the world needs is more designer artists, creators who care about the recipients of their work and the effect it has on them, but who also create by refining their own abilities for self-expression  instead of relying only on trends and templates.  I will try to be that kind of creator.  Will you?

If you’re up for the challenge, then we can make the world a less corporate place together.

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3 Responses to “The Designer vs. the Artist: Who’s our Uncorporate Champion?”


  1. 1 asexualmystique December 30, 2008 at 8:49 pm

    This one and the last one make such a cute couple.

    The nature of art and giving…is art intrinsically selfish and selfless? Is the answer determined by its content? Or its presentation? I’m thinking about it.

  2. 2 travis January 2, 2009 at 12:31 pm

    one might argue that the point of art is to provoke a strong reaction– to make the viewer THINK or FEEL. and if an artist creates a work which is at first shocking or baffling, then he has been successful in that.
    the problem in discussing ‘ugliness’ in art is that ugliness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. true art is, in its very nature, subjective.

  3. 3 Nick Savides January 2, 2009 at 11:35 pm

    Hey Travis and Ben,
    Thanks for your comments.

    My goal with this post is not to define what is and is not art, but I do wish to question some of the assumptions that we make about the artist who creates without regard for whether his work helps or harms his society.

    Someone could put up a video on YouTube that involves torturing an animal. This would effect a feeling of revulsion in me and perhaps amusement in others, but the mere act of provocation would not be enough for me to consider the video a work of art. Hitler’s book Mein Kampf sparks thought, but it is full of false and harmful sentiments, so I don’t consider it to be art either.

    To me and to much of the thinkers of Western civilization, art has to convey truth that transcends the time and place of its creation. Tolstoy conveys similar ideas, much more eloquently stated, in his book, What is Art . (If you click on the link you can read the book through Google’s Book Search. I highly recommend it.)

    You can define art as you wish, although your definition could potentially go against the collective wisdom from hundreds of years, but all I ask is that you at least consider the well-being of your audiences as you create. If your work will not make the world better somehow, then be hesitant to share it with us. A good designer would do as much.


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