“Art” versus “Design”

I spent a few minutes the other day following a series of threads about a disagreement between a website designer and a “famous” blogger. In summary: a guy paid for someone to re-design their website. Some people criticized the design, and the guy who paid said “anything that’s wrong here is my fault”. Someone sent him a
of a different way the site could have been done
, and he posted it saying “there are some good ideas here, I think we might use some”. Then the designer resigned, and some people went ballistic.

Firstly, none of us really know what went on behind the scenes between the designer and their employer. Maybe he said nasty things to her, or used all sorts of double-edged compliments. To be honest, I don’t care much about the specific incident. What I do care about is the discussion regarding the relationship between a designer (any designer, whether for a website or for a house) and the client.

Good designers have artistic vision: the client pays them to use their talent to create something better than the client alone might be able to. However, it is the client who lives with the result…and it is the client who pays the bills. So, in any client – designer relationship, in my opinion, the designer must always accept the will of the client. I don’t care how “artistic” a design might be, if it isn’t fully and entirely comfortable for the client, the designer must willingly make changes until it is.

If the designer builds something to suit themselves and just wants the client to be a bag of money to fund the effort, then they aren’t a designer- they are an artist. Or at least they think they are. Sometimes they will find a client who says “build whatever you want, I trust your vision, here’s a big bag of money”. To me, that client is either a moron, or an artistic patron- they aren’t asking for something to be created that is “for them” or “theirs”, they are asking for the designer to have fun and spend their money. That’s great, but you better get that in writing at the outset.

In reality, if you are an artist, the only way to truly remain “independent” and “fully in control” of your vision is to pay for your own work. If someone is paying you money, you really are beholden to them- what they want takes precedence even if it flies in the face of your “vision”. If you don’t like that, you walk away with a smile on your face and your artistic integrity intact…and your pockets slightly more empty.

I remember watching a home design program on TV years ago. There was a husband and wife team, and they showed all these somewhat (to me) far out home designs. During the show they were interviewed, and the topic of the client’s preferences came up. What they said more or less sent chills up and down my spine: paraphrasing, it was something like “Our clients have no input into what we design- if they don’t like the result, they obviously lack taste and shouldn’t have gone for the best to begin with”. The arrogance fairly dripped from the screen as these two prima donnas pranced about pointing out the total lack of flat wall space or how the angled walls and crushed gravel flooring in the living room echoed the shape of the hills outside. If a designer ever acted that way with me, I’d punt them so fast it would make your head spin. Its *my* house (or blog, or what have you), *my* money- your job, Mr. or Mrs. designer, is to hear my desires and apply your artistic skills to realizing it more fully, correctly, and elegantly than I could by myself.

Unfortunately, there are endless examples of ad campaigns that say nothing with great style and cost millions, houses that can’t be lived in and which make their owners uncomfortable at every turn but which win design awards and websites that present elegant vistas that speak of nothing the user cares about. This tells me that there are enough people out there willing to bow to the “designer’s vision” without speaking up for what *they* want (despite being the ones that pay the bills) to convince at least some designers that this is the way it’s meant to be.

2 thoughts on ““Art” versus “Design””

  1. Designers and artists who work on commision must defer to the taste and judgement of the client… that is the nature of taking on a commision. Of course there are various levels of interferance and control and those should be laid out in advance in the contract – yes contract. It is first and formost a business transaction. Those that forget this and do not have a properly written out contract specifying areas of control before beginning do not merit the term “profesional”

    It doesn’t matter that the client may have bad artistic judgement. It doesn’t matter that they hired the designer for their judgement… they also hire lawyers and investment counsellors for their judgement. We know what happens ( or is supposed to ) to lawyers and investors that ignore their clients wishes and do what they think is best … they look for a new job at best or spend time in jail at worst. ( I put doctors in this category as well, though many of them object. )

    On the other hand, an artist that creates a work with the intention to then sell it can do anything he or she likes. A designer that buys a house, remodels it with the intention of selling the result can do whatever they like.

  2. I agree with you completely, Chris. I might contract with a designer and say “do as you will, here’s all my money”- in which case, if I come back later I’m stuck with what they did. Now, in my opinion, if I choose at that point to knock everything down and start over, that’s my perogative- the designer really shouldn’t say a word, although I suppose they could choose to never work with me again.

    But to be honest, I’d never contract with a designer this way. And any designer that expected this kind of (what I perceive as) stupidity on my part wouldn’t be invited to work for me. The best relations I had with designers have started with that person learning a ton about me and what I want. They don’t start by telling me what I *should* want. If I have an idea, they’ll try to integrate it- I’ll listen to them, and disagree only when I have a really strong personal feeling about something. What gets designed is something that actualizes some vision I had refined and filtered by the talent of the designer.

    Like you say, if an artist/designer wants to fund their own creation, they have free will to follow their vision in its entirety. What they create is theirs to keep or sell. Alternately, they must tether and compromise their vision to the will of the person paying for the creation. I imagine that’s why there are so many starving artists 🙂

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