The Difference Between Visual Art and Graphic Design

The fine line that separates visual art and graphic design is something that’s been debated for a very long time. While both artists and designers compose visuals and have a shared toolkit and knowledge base, there’s a distinct difference between the two. Pinpointing exactly what the difference is, that’s where things gets tricky.

Many designers would consider themselves to be artists, yet few artists would class themselves as designers. So how can the distinction be made? In this article we’ll take a quick look at the defining characteristics of the two crafts and consider the motivation and intention of art and design as a starting point.

In the Beginning…

I believe that one of the clearest differences between art and design is to be found in the first sparks of creativity. Broadly speaking, art and design come from very different starting points.

Design work usually stems from the need or desire to communicate a pre-existing message. A strapline, a logo or a call to action. A work of art, on the other hand, is the expression of a completely new idea. It’s the process of breathing life into something private and personal to create an emotional bond between the artist and their audience.

Inspiration v. Motivation

Another way of looking at this could be intent. If it’s true that a designer’s objective is to communicate a pre-existing message, then you could say that they are working with the primary intention of motivating action in their audience.

An artist will usually be aiming to inspire a feeling. This feeling may then lead to action, just as a designer can go on to generate emotional responses from their audience. It’s more a question of priority. I suppose you could call it a chicken and egg situation.

Lost in Translation

While most designers aim for their work to be immediate and clearly understood by their audience, an artist will work for a less obvious connection. As art can be interpreted very differently by the viewer it rarely has just one meaning. Think about the myriad of different opinions on Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Is it a smile of pleasure? Is it a grimace? Or is it neither?

[Image Source]

It all depends on the experience and opinions brought by the person who gazes upon it. Whereas if design is interpreted in a different way to what the designer intended, you can pretty safely say that it’s failed in what it was intended to achieve.

Design is a Skill, Art is a God-Given Gift

Let’s think about this in terms of personal style. Some designers like Saul Bass or Peter Saville have built names for themselves by developing a unique personal style. Yet for most designers versatility is the key to success.

Design is a skill that is taught and developed. And while many designers have been blessed with a natural eye for the craft, it isn’t quite the same as being born with an innate ability for sculpting, oil painting or installation-based expression.

A Question of Taste

Opinion and taste are two very different ways of judging visual composition. When Damien Hirst preserved a shark in formaldehyde for his seminal work The Immortal, he divided public opinion. And it was considered to be a question of taste.

Taste is usually used when we’re talking in reference to people’s likes and dislikes. Whether or not The Immortal was a genuine piece of art was a matter of opinion to be debated. While design naturally involves an element of personal taste, it’s not the main criteria it’s judged on.

Good design can still be successful without being to the personal taste of the creator or the beholder. If it accomplishes its brief it is good design and that boils down to opinion of fact, not personal preference.

Where does design end and art begin? Attempting to pigeon-hole visual communication into categories is complex, and ultimately impossible. Art and beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And that’s one of the most, if not the most, wonderful and fascinating facets of these mediums.

If you’re a designer are you also an artist? Could an artist create anything without a keen eye for design? The debate continues…


  • PixieSlasher

    What about religious art though? It’s done for a specific purpose, it’s supposed to be pretty clear. Setting aside the masters – such as Michelangelo – classic iconography (I’m not sure what it’s called), for instance, is taught, as there are certain rules that need to be abided. I’m not sure about purely religious works being controversial though, as the only examples I can think of were of more secular nature, albeit depicting a religious theme

  • Nessa

    I don’t believe art ends somewhere to leave space for design. I think Art is about sharing ideas and let people interpret and experience by themselves, while Design just takes this one step forward and in the cases where it’s well done, it delivers a message. No such a things as it gets till here and stops and then we have design! It’s not as simple.

  • wow! awesome post!

  • Sarah Jocson

    When it comes to graphic design, I think simplicity always remains to be one of the most attractive and most beautiful.

  • Michael Meininger

    Actually, the greatest artist in the world were graphic artist. The vast majority of Renaissance artist were paid and commissioned by nobles, royalty and the Church. So Leonardo, Michelangelo, Titan, etc were all Graphic Artist. A fine artist on the other hand paints from their “inner self” and wears silly glasses or dated mustaches.

  • I would say nowadays that Art is about questions whilst Design is about answers :)

  • Милица А.

    Interesting article but, as in so many others, I can’t understand the “art is a god-given gift vs design is a skill”. Painting, crafting and designing all require tons of hard work. When we see a bautiful painting it doesn’t mean it was created out of the blue, without any previous trials and errors so to say. An artist too has to put a lot of practice in mastering their skill to be able to create that magnificent piece of art that’ll inspire, move or even motivate the viewer. Just like design. Artist has to know the color theory, to use their tools, etc. How many clay potties had an artist made before he/she sculped a piece of art?

    While I must agree that some art is to be perceieved and personally interpreted, what about commissioned art (like the above mentioned Mona Lisa: we don’t know the background (who commissioned it, was the girl pregnant, is she smiling or not,…) but it is still a comissioned piece).

    Personal perception is used in the design too: remember the bird in a cigarette company commercial that flies left or right depending of your perception? is it art? Or is it design?

    Since design is a visual form of creating, should we agree that if it serves it’s purpose, it’s good even if the visual outcome doesn’t fit observer personal tastes? If that would be the case, why the well known companies and brands have visual appealing presentations (web, product design,…) instead of something that makes your eyes bleed or that is simply aesthetically ugly?

    I think the whole thing could be summed in one sentence: artists create even when they are not asked to, while designers create on demand.

  • Great article! However I cannot agree that only art is an “expression of completely new idea”. Graphic design in most cases starts from the “completely new idea”.

  • Nike

    The notion that one is born to be a visual artist is silly to me. If such were the case, why are practically all caveman paintings symbolic expressions with stick figures and 2D animal shapes, devoid of form, perspective, lighting, shadow? Were there no artists born back in that era? Symbolic imagery generally fits more in the realm of graphic design.

    I don’t really think these can be defined in terms of motivation/inspiration, “talent”, genetics. I also think this is far better viewed as a spectrum rather than black and white. For example, which one is a comic book illustrator? He does a lot of drawing, but he’s also trying to convey ideas, and he combines that with text, symbols: not everything is drawing from visual arts training. Most people would not call comic book illustrators ‘graphic designers’ per se, but I think we’re trying too hard to draw a perfect distinction.

    Visual arts tends to discourage symbolic abstractions. The training is generally geared more towards getting people to draw a real human eye rather than a symbol of one. The intent is usually to capture some form of beauty or mood that is either based on the real world or, if it delves into the abstract, a human response to the world, and with all the complexity and subtlety associated. It’s more emotional than cerebral. A visual artist would generally never use text in their work, as that is the ultimate symbolic representation of human ideas: text is far too simple, far too cerebral, far too direct.

    Graphic design is not about avoiding symbolic abstractions. To the contrary, it’s often about refining the symbolic abstraction. Clarity, not poetry, is the focus. Graphic design work is generally far more cerebral, designed to communicate thoughts and ideas about the world rather than human responses to it. It’s somewhat like the difference between writing poetry (visual arts) and prose (graphic design).

    In any case, this is all very fuzzy and blurry, but I don’t think we should even use your one-sentence summary: that would be more about fine artists vs. artists who work for a client (and either could be applying more graphic design skills or more visual arts skills or both). A graphic designer could still have that innate desire to, say, design logos or symbols even without being commissioned. A graphic artist could still be lazy and only draw when he’s being paid for it. Desire to work is not what separates a graphic designer from a visual artist, it’s more the focus on what the work is meant to convey.

    If I tried my hand at a summary, I would say a graphic designer focuses more on expressing cerebral ideas about the world and/or capturing it in a most simplistic form that can be immediately identified, while a visual artist focuses more on expressing poetic, complex, emotional kind of human responses to the world (how beautiful it is, how mysterious it is, how depressing it is, etc).

  • Spencer Griffin

    They were paid because they were accomplished artists with transcendental talent,graphic artist usually just have the skill of using software to create vapid images for some form of promotion,

  • Hesham Saeed

    I believe that Art = Creativity. An artist is someone who is capable of creating something from its primitive components, to leave a ‘favourable’ effect/impression at the viewer/listener (e.g. creating a picture from lines and colours, a song from sound pitches,,, etc.).
    Sure, art will help in making a good design, and a talented designer should have an artistic sense. However, today’s facilities (particularly designing programs) would push to the surface some designers who lack the artistic sense, all to do is to select from available varieties. They may have a good taste and sense to select a good design, but they are not creators.

    I think that a designer works like an employee .. he responds to requests from others, usually aiming at practical benefits. His artistic sense -however- will help him excel his work, offer more/better options to customer.

  • Cassie W. Mitchell

    As a 20+ yrs exp visual artist & graphic designer (I use “graphic artist” or “artist/designer” for simplicity’s sake), Imo there’s a rather important concept missing here. It’s true that art carries messages, AND good design always has intrinsic messages too. That is, in fact, the exact purpose & power of graphic (or any other) design. It is an art, just a somewhat different kind, and both visual art and graphic design (as separated in this discussion) require both natural talent and acquired skill to be successful. It takes a sculptor’s mind to create a successful 3d printed design, just as much as it does to construct beautiful & perfectly fitted wedding dresses, many of which can easily stand as sculpture or art installation on their own. In my mind, differences between the two only exist in the eye of the beholder.

  • Roger Flerity

    Art is found in the expression of a thought or emotion that comes from one or more minds, to be experienced or consumed by others. Art is not a singularity set aside for some elite group or faction. Art is inside literature, art is inside industrial design, art is inside graphic design, art is inside decoration, architecture, interior design, ecological design and inside scientific works. To define art as an end product in and of itself is narrow minded and simplistic, and when it is applied to set aside one approach – art for arts sake alone, is the work of art snobbery, or elitism that exists in the art world to rationalize why one ugly work with no practical purpose is worth more to collectors than a product designed for the enjoyment by the masses. Artistry all comes from an innate talent, enriched and enhanced by practicing the skills necessary to deliver it from one mind to the many. That applies as much to oil painting as it does to graphic design on a Mac, as it applies to design that must survive the process of manufacturing and not be diluted or destroyed by purely practical limitations. A brilliant artist with no skills is not an artist, any more than a brilliant CAD designer with no vision is.

  • Roger Flerity

    If art is creative work in isolation and design is on demand, then everything the master painters created, as “art” under commission, like the Sistine Chapel, and thousands of other paintings and sculptures, over centuries would not be classified as art, but design? That means that every urban sculpture created under commission after jury selection, is design, not art? 70% of what Warhol did was commissioned series completed to be sold, thus would be classified as graphic design? Art is inside all design, Design is inside all art. Balance, perspective, color use, layout, layering, planning out a project from start to finish – are all design. Expression of a thought, provocation of an emotion, recall of a memory – are all forms of art. The work of manipulating digital images, painting, welding, casting, chiseling stone, cutting paper, shaping wood, blowing of glass are all craft. A work of true art is a work that is expertly crafted, using design techniques to express a thought or evoke a response (of any type) to one or more human beyond the mind(s) of the creator(s) from which the work originates. This applies as much to master paintings as it does the design of a coke bottle. Definition of art as some separate, unique, precious entity that can exist in a vacuum is just art snobbery, pursued mostly by those who have no artistic ability, who create a construct of it as a precious entity for profit – generally at the expense of those who create. Artists who pursue art without profit (starving artist stereotype) are no different to designers who do creative work for a small salary under the guise that design is not art – an interpretation that, again profits those with no ability at the expense of those who create – making the line between art and design even less real.

  • Design is
    communication. Art is self expression. Design purposefully invokes a
    response. Art reveals something inside of the artist and how they see
    the world. Where art is about the artist, design is about a message.

  • Student

    A lot of what we now consider to be ‘classic’ artworks sprung from the need to communicate for instance the Bible, or are just a wealthy family’s portrait, or some traders personal possessions enabling him to show off his wealth and prestige… that has little to do with an artist trying to communicate a feeling, i think. It was a very commercial job back in the days.

  • jwlapham

    If I may chip in with my opinion, I would say that your creativity isn’t a god given gift per say. I feel like these different skills like having a natural eye for drawing and your ability with a pencil/stencil/etc, is like different muscles of the body; the more you flex them and work them, the stronger they’ll grow. Now of course, there are different muscle groups (like the heart and brain), and some are harder to grow than others. What I propose is that creativity can be cultivated, and that eye can be grown, and a person who has trouble drawing a stick figure, with enough time, practice, and determination, can learn to draw better.

  • Steven Cook

    I would not be so quick to try avoid calling graphic designers artists. All forms of art are a gift but art also requires lots of practice and skill. Sculpting, painting, sketching, photography, architecture, all these things require skills as well as natural talent and it can be lost if you don’t keep using it. Graphic Designers may not be officially classified as artists but it does require talent not just skills to create something that people like to see.

    Although I have always appreciated artists that create something physical like a sculpture or a painting a sketch or even a musical number. Graphic Designers do require some level of artistic skill. It’s not just math and science it’s also about creating something beautiful and graphic design is a type of virtual art.

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  • Jojo

    So what would you say about my abilities. I have the ability to draw, paint, create sculptures, I am a photographer and I work with many other art mediums plus I am a graphic designer and graphic artist and I did not go to school to learn any of my skills ‘they all came from God’. Where is the thin line that defines me?