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…

12 Comments

  1. Cassie W. Mitchell

    As a 20+ yrs exp visual artist & graphic designer (I use “graphic artist” or “artist/designer” for simplicity’s sake), Imo there’s a rather important concept missing here. It’s true that art carries messages, AND good design always has intrinsic messages too. That is, in fact, the exact purpose & power of graphic (or any other) design. It is an art, just a somewhat different kind, and both visual art and graphic design (as separated in this discussion) require both natural talent and acquired skill to be successful. It takes a sculptor’s mind to create a successful 3d printed design, just as much as it does to construct beautiful & perfectly fitted wedding dresses, many of which can easily stand as sculpture or art installation on their own. In my mind, differences between the two only exist in the eye of the beholder.

  2. Hesham Saeed

    I believe that Art = Creativity. An artist is someone who is capable of creating something from its primitive components, to leave a ‘favourable’ effect/impression at the viewer/listener (e.g. creating a picture from lines and colours, a song from sound pitches,,, etc.).
    Sure, art will help in making a good design, and a talented designer should have an artistic sense. However, today’s facilities (particularly designing programs) would push to the surface some designers who lack the artistic sense, all to do is to select from available varieties. They may have a good taste and sense to select a good design, but they are not creators.

    I think that a designer works like an employee .. he responds to requests from others, usually aiming at practical benefits. His artistic sense -however- will help him excel his work, offer more/better options to customer.

  3. Spencer Griffin

    They were paid because they were accomplished artists with transcendental talent,graphic artist usually just have the skill of using software to create vapid images for some form of promotion,

  4. Nike

    The notion that one is born to be a visual artist is silly to me. If such were the case, why are practically all caveman paintings symbolic expressions with stick figures and 2D animal shapes, devoid of form, perspective, lighting, shadow? Were there no artists born back in that era? Symbolic imagery generally fits more in the realm of graphic design.

    I don’t really think these can be defined in terms of motivation/inspiration, “talent”, genetics. I also think this is far better viewed as a spectrum rather than black and white. For example, which one is a comic book illustrator? He does a lot of drawing, but he’s also trying to convey ideas, and he combines that with text, symbols: not everything is drawing from visual arts training. Most people would not call comic book illustrators ‘graphic designers’ per se, but I think we’re trying too hard to draw a perfect distinction.

    Visual arts tends to discourage symbolic abstractions. The training is generally geared more towards getting people to draw a real human eye rather than a symbol of one. The intent is usually to capture some form of beauty or mood that is either based on the real world or, if it delves into the abstract, a human response to the world, and with all the complexity and subtlety associated. It’s more emotional than cerebral. A visual artist would generally never use text in their work, as that is the ultimate symbolic representation of human ideas: text is far too simple, far too cerebral, far too direct.

    Graphic design is not about avoiding symbolic abstractions. To the contrary, it’s often about refining the symbolic abstraction. Clarity, not poetry, is the focus. Graphic design work is generally far more cerebral, designed to communicate thoughts and ideas about the world rather than human responses to it. It’s somewhat like the difference between writing poetry (visual arts) and prose (graphic design).

    In any case, this is all very fuzzy and blurry, but I don’t think we should even use your one-sentence summary: that would be more about fine artists vs. artists who work for a client (and either could be applying more graphic design skills or more visual arts skills or both). A graphic designer could still have that innate desire to, say, design logos or symbols even without being commissioned. A graphic artist could still be lazy and only draw when he’s being paid for it. Desire to work is not what separates a graphic designer from a visual artist, it’s more the focus on what the work is meant to convey.

    If I tried my hand at a summary, I would say a graphic designer focuses more on expressing cerebral ideas about the world and/or capturing it in a most simplistic form that can be immediately identified, while a visual artist focuses more on expressing poetic, complex, emotional kind of human responses to the world (how beautiful it is, how mysterious it is, how depressing it is, etc).

  5. Joanna

    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”.

  6. Милица А.

    Hello!
    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.

  7. Carlos Almansa

    I would say nowadays that Art is about questions whilst Design is about answers 🙂

  8. 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.

  9. Sarah Jocson

    When it comes to graphic design, I think simplicity always remains to be one of the most attractive and most beautiful.

  10. Stacy

    wow! awesome post!

  11. 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.

  12. 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

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