I’ve often been struck by the two worlds of art and design and how they relate to one another.

Both artists and designers create visual compositions using a shared knowledge base. However, the divide between these two creative disciplines could not be greater.

To ellaborate my point, several years back I found myself dining with friends in a swanky greek restaurant, somewhere near Clerkenwell in East London.

A few tables away from us dressed in immaculate 3-piece tweed suits and deep in conversation with a woman whom I would later get to know as an influential New York gallery owner, were Gilbert and George.

I’m a massive fan of the pair’s anti-elitist, graphic-styled artworks and so as the Mezés, Retsina and Ouzo took a heady hold, I felt duty bound to wander over and say hello. To my amazement they invited me to sit with them and help share in the rest of their table’s libations.

Although the memory of the encounter and the confabulation has grown somewhat hazy over time, I remember George (at the end of my time at their table) saying as I got up to walk back to mine “Remind me – what is it that you do?” in those rather peculiar, clipped vowels of his. “I’m a Graphic Designer” came my proud and pissed retort. “Oh” he said rather disdainfully and then spouted forth rather loudly, “A prostitute of art for commercial gain”. I smiled gracefully, said my thank you’s for their time and wine, and if a little crestfallen at his obvious gibe, scuttled back to my pals.

On the odd occasion I’ve recounted this story, it always makes me question the schism between these most related of fields.

It is a fact that most of the designers (commercial artist) I know, myself included, consider themselves artists, but few artists (if at all) consider themselves designers.

A notable, famous exception to this would be Andy Warhol who began his career in magazine illustration and advertising as a commercial artist. As we all now can attest, he went on to became a leading figure in the visual art movement known as pop art.

Perhaps the most fundamental difference between art and design is purpose. A work of art starts at zero – a blank canvas – nothingness. The art’s creation originates from a reaction or feeling that the artist holds within. It is through a specific medium of choice that he or she expresses that visual opinion for others to share in. It follows that a successful work of art can create a strong emotional bond between artist, viewer and gallery audience.

In contrast, when a designer or ‘commercial artist’ sets out to create a new piece, we almost always have a fixed starting point, message, image, idea or action. Designers have to communicate in order to motivate and engage an audience into buying a product, using a service, visiting a location, learning something new or even logging on!

Almost all of us commercial artists are straitjacketed in this process by brand colours, typefaces, photography and templates laid-out before us in those big brand tomes of the do’s and the dont’s which, and let’s be brutally frank here, relegate most of our creativity to that of painting by numbers.

So if the big divide between art and design is purpose, they could be rationalised thus:
Great art could be characterized as sending a different message to everyone.
Where as:
Great design could be characterized by sending the same message to everyone.

There is a very long, rich history of those advertising and graphic design folk that have crossed over from servicing the all important client to service themselves at the high altar of, well, high art. In recent times I’m thinking primarily of two that spring to mind – Peter Saville and Jonathan Ellery. Both are design heroes with rich canons of graphic design work, eager to allign themselves with the contemporary art brigade. In my humble opinion though, their work resonates stronger in their chosen fields as designers rather than artists. That said, conversley I’ve never witnessed a logo by Lowry, brochure by Bacon or typeface by Titian.

In conclusion dear reader, I am very happy and content to carry on designing books, logos, advertisements, posters, and other displays to promote the sale of products, services, or ideas in return for an honest buck or two from a willing client. My weekends are then free to lock myself away at the bottom of my garden and throw as much paint at a big white canvas as I see fit, in the vain attempt to rid the arty prostitute within!

John Fairley
1st July 2014

Gilbert and George

Gilbert and George

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