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?

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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…

(2 Posts)

This was a guest post written by Claire Roper. Claire has a passion for web design.


  • 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”.