Posted on

Are Designers Masochists?

I like to say the difference between art and design is restriction.

Designers shy away from calling themselves artists because it somehow has a negative connotation. “Artist” gives people a mental image of a smelly man in a beret madly splashing paint on easels. But technically designers are artists. I don’t want to get into the whole “what is art” thing. Let’s just say everything is art. Anything that someone makes and then says “this is art” is art. Including taking a dump in a bucket, okay? (I know how you think.)

Essentially, fine art doesn’t have restrictions unless they are self-imposed. I know you can argue against this, such as art created for a client or public art made for a city.

Could this look anymore phallic? Yes, by adding balls on the bottom.
Speaking of dumps

But basically, fine art does not have to have a main goal or even idea. It can just be.

This idea scary for designers. Counterintuitively, it seems the more restrictions, the easier it is to design interesting work. You can only use two colors? Sweet! The book needs to be 3″ x 5″? Awesome! In the words of John Cougar Mellencamp, it “hurts so good.”

I once wrote a report on Walemar Swierzy and the Polish poster. He was a graphic designer in the late ’60’s, early 70’s in Communist Poland.

“Midnight Cowboy” Polish movie poster

In an interview he said that the downfall of Communism had a terrible impact on poster art. Since under Communist rule he couldn’t use violent or sexual shock value, he had to rely on his strong portraiture and fine art background to catch the viewer’s eye. He bridged that gap between fine art and graphic design because back then of course, many artists were graphic designers.

Yes, it is only recently that graphic designers actually starting calling themselves graphic designers. Graphic design was only really a thing starting in the 1900’s, not that anyone called it that. This was when color images could finally be cheaply and accurately reproduced.

Mucha’s advertisement for Job cigarette rolling papers
Toulouse Lautrec’s ad for the Moulin Rouge

Yes, Toulouse was a graphic designer. Artists were commissioned to make advertisements for products, shows, and events– the normal media for graphic design today. Graphic design was how artists paid their bills, and they weren’t always happy about it either. Like James Harvey. Harvey was an abstract expressionist in the mid ’60’s, when abstract expressionism was not in style anymore. His day job was, among others, designing the Brillo box packaging. So imagine his surprise when he walked into a not-yet-famous Andy Warhol exhibit and saw his own design on display.

Andy Warhol with Brillo Box installation

Hundreds of oversized Brillo boxes filled the space. But while Warhol was fascinated by commercial art (or graphic design), Harvey was disillusioned with it. This is understandable since his agency would say things to him like, “But couldn’t you give us something that looks more like Tide? Make it look like Tide, but make it different—but make it look like Tide.” I mean how many times have graphic designers heard that? So Harvey could not care less for his Brillo box design, or that Warhol was essentially ripping it off, or even for pop art in general. Andy Warhol made people question if fine art could be mass produced. Which means could graphic design be art? And yes, obviously it could. He didn’t even touch many of his own pieces. I mean he even called his studio “The Factory.” Here is that great Print Magazine article about said Brillo Box installation.

The fine art and commercial world is an incestuous relationship.

Did you know that Dali designed the Chupa Chups lollipop logo? I know, crazy right?

But now, people like to create that distinction between designer and artist.

I used to think that graphic designers were less creative than fine artists since they needed these restrictions to thrive on. Why can’t we just make cool shit up from our brains? But now I don’t think it’s a matter of one group being more creative than the other. People just think differently.

My point is that I am tired of artists and designers creating a bigger separation between themselves than necessary. That goes for all art disciplines. When we allow overlap is when things really get interesting.

One thought on “Are Designers Masochists?

  1. Nice examples! Yes, we like the rules so that it’s more delicious when you break them or find a clever loop hole.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *