Art vs Design in the City of Glass
By Heather Stoutenburg
Heather Stoutenburg is a writer and content strategist who lives, works, and pets dogs in East Vancouver.
While it seems clear-cut to almost anyone you ask, it's not so easy to find agreement on just what separates art from design. As Heather finds, one's opinion is as much a matter of personal experience and values as it is discipline.
For Japanese calligrapher Kisyuu, the line that divides art and design might be the Pacific Ocean. Born and raised in Japan, Kisyuu has studied calligraphy since the age of seven. But it was her move to Canada that brought with it a new artistic freedom.
“In Japan, everyone reads Japanese,” she said. “Here, the majority of people can’t read what I’m writing. So I get to be more creative and find other ways to express myself through my work.”
In Kisyuu’s case, that translates to bold brush strokes, ink splatters and flourishes that bear little resemblance to the two-thousand-year-old classical calligraphy discipline. Her final pieces are dreamy, ethereal explorations of language and colour.
“I consider myself an artist,” Kisyuu explained, “But because calligraphy is a written language, how people view [my work] depends whether I’m in Japan or Canada.
Within the art and design community (or communities, depending on your definition) the debate is a perennial one. There are a few points of agreement – design is generally understood as something that solves a problem; art poses a question. Art is open to interpretation, while good design certainly shouldn’t be. Design also has an intended target audience, and (at least in the case of design disciplines with professional bodies, like architecture) an obligation to that audience’s safety and wellbeing. Art has no obligation to anyone.
“Expression” is another word that comes up a lot in the debate. Kisyuu referred to art as a “tool of self-expression,” describing design instead as something that solves a problem.
Overlap and Friction
In a voicemail left on Vancouver Design Week’s call-in line, design professional and Creative Community Activist Mark Busse said the same. “There are artists who design, and designers who create art, but art is about expression and dialogue while design is about service.”
Chatting at a Mount Pleasant coffee shop, Nathan Lee largely agreed. “Design is utilitarian in nature; art is an expression.” But as both a public artist and a landscape designer at Hapa Collaborative, Nathan believes there are more similarities between art and design than there are differences. “The goals may be different but the process is very similar. Both start with a concept; both talk about materials and form. All of these things serve as bridges between the two.”
Perhaps due to his multidisciplinary background, Nathan is an advocate for breaking down barriers – not just between art and design, but within their sub-disciplines.
“I’d love to see art and design as a fluid back and forth, where you don’t have to define yourself as one or the other. You can be both. That’s maybe a bit flowery,” he laughed, “but it’s what I’d like to think we can achieve.”
Not everyone is convinced fluidity is something to aspire to. Nathan’s colleague Shelley Long, a fellow landscape designer and adjunct professor at UBC, disagreed. “I don’t think of myself as an artist and I think it’s important that boundaries are clear – so you know where your skills lie and how you can contribute.”
Many designers agree. As legendary graphic designer Milton Glaser told a rapt crowd at the Guggenheim in October, “Design has nothing to do with art.”
One’s opinions on art and design and the line that divides are heavily shaped by personal experience. Language, culture and geography all contribute to the nuanced ways we view both disciplines – which means we’re bound to disagree.
But Shelley, Nathan, Mark, and Kisyuu did find common ground on one thing: there’s room in Vancouver for both disciplines to grow. “We need to value both [the art and design communities] more, and celebrate art and design in the way we build our cities and neighbourhoods,” Mark emphasized in his voicemail.
Kisyuu expressed a similar sentiment. “Everyone makes art, but where are the companies that want to hire artists? Where are the people who are interested in art?”
It’s a valid question that circled back to familiar subjects for any Vancouverite: affordability and real estate. Both Shelley and Nathan expressed reservations about gentrification and its impact on art space, and the concentration of design decision making power in the hands of Vancouver’s real estate developers.
But with new projects, events and communities forming – the new Emily Carr campus; a potential new Vancouver Art Gallery; Vancouver Design Week; the Urbanarium – there’s cautious optimism for the future of Vancouver’s art and design scenes. “We’re working in an interesting time in this city,” Shelley conceded. Nathan agreed. “When we look back in 50 years we’ll either say ‘that was the beginning of something special,’ or ‘that could have been something special.’”