Art vs. Design. Should we stop asking that?

The Academy of Art University in San Francisco received to John Kolko and Donald Norman –two of the most known theorists in the field of [Interaction] Design. The first question they were asked was to point out the key differences between art and design. I really do believe that making this question in this context is more than reasonable, particularly for the new students. In fact, it’s not hard to notice that trying to answer this question is a pivot in many basic discussions around design. Nevertheless, I believe this question loses its validity eventually. At both levels, research and practice.

Affinity Diagram. Photography by Sam Xia.  http://mypointofview.info/
Affinity diagram.
Photography by Sam Xia.
http://mypointofview.info/

If we consider the case of scholarly research, we can notice that as we go forward in the study of design, the latter becomes into an abstract concept, where art is just a small piece within all the lenses with which design can be studied. I’m not talking about diminishing the value of design whatsoever, but other fields like psychology, philosophy, anthropology, or communication studies can also provide foundations, tools, and methods applicable to the discipline. By being involved with scholarly research, I’ve been witness of my colleagues’ attempts to amalgamate knowledge from other fields with the field of Human-Computer Interaction Design in order to reinforce both our understanding and discussion about design in a broad sense. As Paul Rand said, “design is everywhere.” It’s a human activity, and that’s why we can find it in every [academic] field, in one way or another. Humans cannot scape from design. We design just in the moment we intentionally decide to transform reality. Thus, any design activity would occur in fields like mathematics, chemistry, physics, business, and others that we would not relate to design. The interesting game here is to discover and analyze what design is for these disciplines, and how their approaches to design can affect what we could call “designerly disciplines” like architecture, industrial design, interaction design, and so on.

On another hand, from the research that my colleagues and I conduct at Indiana University about [interaction] design practice, I’ve noticed that design professionals clearly stop paying attention about the relation of art and practice. This is somehow obvious. In the [interaction design] practice, they have to pay attention on how to success in every project,  and this discussion (about design and art) is apparently  left aside. What my colleagues and I have noticed is that practitioners actually care about knowledge that can be applicable to their everyday practice –somehow similar to what scholars do. This doesn’t mean a rupture in the relation with art. But it’s true that practitioners want to employ [design-related] knowledge that makes them more competitive.

Indiana University HCI/d students testing a prototype.  Photography by Sam Xia.  http://mypointofview.info/
Indiana University HCI/d students testing a prototype.
Photography by Sam Xia.
http://mypointofview.info/

So, we should stop discussing about the relation or differences of art and design? Obviously, the answer is no. However, we should recognize that design is more than answering this question. Since the moment we wake up, we face ourselves with designed products, designed services, designed spaces, designed information, and other designed products. Hence, design becomes and involves more than aspects of art. Design needs to consolidate as a discipline that [effectively] gathers knowledge from diverse disciplines, but that stands by itself –as it happens with other disciplines, Computer Science for instance. In this sense, [design] knowledge should be digestible so practitioners can apply or adapt it in their work contexts, in addition to straightforward ways of communicating it to non design practitioners.

I think no one is closed to design. It’s obvious that we’re exposed to a design explosion nowadays. But it’s in the moments when design is transparent (in the everyday) that design is not viewed as art but as design itself. It’s when design is recognized as it is, as another human discipline with its own knowledge set, values, tools, and methods. Education becomes critical for this mind shift. Although design is commonly taught in art schools (or related with art somehow), we should recognize that a current design discourse is quite complex –it should gather and synthesize all these efforts to expand and compact
[design-related] knowledge from scholars and practitioners respectively, and it also should find a way to permeate the mainstream easily, with the intention of reaching out the non designers. This task is not easy whatsoever. However, early stages in design pedagogy –wherever it’s carried out, either named art/design school or not– should transmit this broader perspective of design, so the students’ mindset will evolve and mature with this ideas.