Anne Quito | Essays

Design ≠ Art

Milton Glaser, Art Is Whatever, School of Visual Arts, 1996.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is an essay by design writer Anne Quito, profiling Milton Glaser, who died last week on his ninety-first birthday. In honor of Glaser's remarkable design legacy, we will be publishing a number of Quito's essays. This is the third. You can find the first two here.

Design is not art. It’s a distinction understood by practicing designers, but it still eludes many. In an October 29, 2016 talk at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, the 87-year-old graphic design legend Milton Glaser gave the best definition of the practice of design.

“Design is the process of going from an existing condition to a preferred one,” said the 2010 National Medal of Arts recipient. “Observe that there’s no relationship to art.”

This confusion is not just a matter of semantics. In businesses, schools, offices, even newspapers, design is often associated with the art department. That’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the aim of design. When art and design are confused, the designers’ domain becomes limited to style and appearance.

In truth, good designers are primarily problem solvers. They seek to understand the purpose, audience, technical parameters, and strategic nuances of an assignment before reaching for their Moleskine sketchpads or going to town in Photoshop. Next time you work with a designer, start with an overview of your goals, before diving into a discussion about colors, fonts or materials.

The confusion stems in part from the fact that some designers are excellent at drawing, like Glaser. But for designers, drawing—or thumbnail sketching—is a way of thinking. It’s a way to plan and visualize creative solutions for a logo, a poster, a chair, a website, or a room’s interiors,  just as a mathematician works out equations on a blackboard. While the tools of artists and designers look similar—pens, styluses, Adobe creative tools, color swatches—their methods, training and potential are vastly different.

“It’s good to understand that design has a purpose and art has another purpose,” said Glaser. Art’s power is mysterious and cannot be quantified, he explained, while design’s efficacy is measured by how well it delivers on a clients’ goal. ”As you get older you get clearer about that distinction about design and art.”

Glaser, along with his fellow panelists, design critic Ralph Caplan and architect Beverly Willis, are featured in the new book about octogenarian design legends, Twenty Over Eighty: Conversations on a Lifetime in Architecture and Design.

This article was originally published in 2016 in Quartz. It is reprinted with permission of the author and the publisher.

Anne Quito is a journalist and design critic based in New York City. A staff reporter at Quartz, her coverage underscores the design angle of politics and business news. She is the first recipient of the Steven Heller Prize for Cultural Commentary. Anne wrote Mag Men: Fifty Years of Making Magazines, (Columbia University Press, December 2019) a new book about the glory days of magazine design as told by Walter Bernard and Milton Glaser. She graduated from Georgetown University with a master’s degree in Visual Culture in 2009 and is an alumna of the School of Visual Arts Design Criticism MFA where she wrote a thesis on the nation branding of the world's newest nation, South Sudan.

Jobs | December 02