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Craft vs. Art

Is graphic design a craft or is it art?

gauguinThe distinction between “art” and “craft” is a huge topic – and has been endlessly argued – but I’m thinking in particular about graphic design here, and more specifically, commercial graphic design: Is the work that designers, illustrators, photographers, and art directors create for Web and print craft, or is it art?

I’ve worked in many art departments, and with dozens of talented graphic designers. In my experience, some designers can cross over into a mindset where they begin to look upon their work as art – not as craft-work in support of a story or promotion. This leads to friction (to put it mildly) between the designer and the editor and/or marketing person when modifications are requested. The designer has created something personal and is reluctant or unwilling to modify it to fit an outside requirement. I’ve witnessed this scenario time and again, and to be honest, have found myself in the position of “protecting” my design from outside input, even when somewhere down inside I recognize that it has strayed from the task at hand – to support the story or promotion.

It’s easy to get into such a bind when we have worked so hard to develop our craft and hone our skills; of course we take pride in our work. Designers tend to be passionate; we strive for originality and, once in a while, create something that we recognize as quite special. It can be a very difficult thing to alter that new creation for what may appear to be the whim of another member of the editorial or marketing team. But that willingness to bend is key to a successful final product, and in my opinion that’s just what a story presentation or promotion is: a product. Once we add elements such as advertising and issues of brand, the work becomes part of a larger picture and must be compromised – at least as far as defining it as art is concerned.

Art cannot exist without craft, but craft can exist without necessarily being art. My personal rule of thumb is to remind myself that my graphic design work is just a part of an overall presentation picture. It is an element of support – not a personal artistic statement in and of itself. I have my artistic outlets outside of commercial graphic design, and I try to keep them free of any consideration save my personal expression. That for me is the defining difference between art and craft. If I have to make changes to my work for any other reason than my personal taste, it ceases to be art.

That said, there is much craft that is artistic. Whether an arrangement of existing music or an interpretation of a story into a brilliant illustration – art can burst from the work of a great crafts-person. It’s a wonderful feeling to create an artful design that supports its function. But as long as I remind myself that my commercial design is being created for a purpose other than self-expression, I am less pained by making revisions in order to more closely support the goal of the project as a whole. This outlook has allowed me to experience many successful collaborations with editors and marketers. Everyone is happy, the goal is met, and the craft has succeeded in its task.

Many archeologists tell us that cave paintings were most likely created with a purpose other than personal expression – either to commemorate a successful hunt or perhaps to decorate a shaman’s lair. If that’s true, I don’t see any difference from this and the craft of commercial design. It’s likely that the shaman requested changes – “move this here, change that color”, and that the artist had to deal with feelings of frustration. Yet many of these paintings are undeniably beautiful works of art. The cave artist got the job done in an artful way.

So – it’s demonstrated to us that it’s possible to create artful craft, and perhaps it’s important to always strive for that goal. But as commercial artists, I believe that it is key to take pride in being an excellent crafts-person, and at the same time be willing to modify our work to support the presentation. Perhaps even more important, we should have a separate and private world for our personal art, a place where changes are made only to satisfy our personal expression. This is, after all, why we became artists in the first place – and without this core fire to weld craft with art, craft is only product.

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