Are graphic designers artists?

by | Jan 29, 2021

Many, if not most, graphic designers dislike being considered artists. I think they should reconsider what it means to be called an artist.

“We are artists. Pirates. More than cooks are we.” This is what Colette says to Linguini in a scene from Pixar’s Ratatouille. Colette describes her colleagues colorfully. Acrobats. Rebels. Gamblers. She revels in the fact that they are more than cooks. She sees them and herself as artists. And she loves it. Chefs, musicians, architects, writers, and most professions relish in the artist label. It means their work has reached masterful levels. I wonder why that is not the case for a profession as graphic design. Aren’t we artists? Pirates?

We are artists. Pirates. More than cooks are we.

As designers, we create art for business but we prefer the term design instead of art. We don’t want to be viewed as a bunch of pretty makers. We want respect. We want it from our clients, from the general public, even from our family. We want a seat at the business table and we think there’s no seat for an artist there.

These are some of the reasons we don’t want to be viewed as artists. Yet we think like artists every day. We have to deal with color, rhythm, emphasis, harmony, alignment, and contrast daily. We use these tools and others to try to touch people’s hearts. To evoke an emotion. To design a package that stands out on the shelf. To make a brochure pleasant to read. We try to make it look good.

Are there differences between a graphic designer and, say, a painter? Of course. For one, as designers, we need to solve the client’s problems. The work we do has to be functional. Using a font we see as pretty but is illegible is not good practice. There is also strategy behind everything we design. A specific audience we want to address. And yes, these are important things we need to learn to do well. Paul Rand said that visual communications of any kind should be seen as the embodiment of form and function: the integration of the beautiful and the useful. In our quest to make something useful let’s not forget to make it beautiful.

Paul Rand is one of our best advocates. He raised the design profession and we should all be thankful for it. His work has been displayed in museums. I’m also sure many of us have his work decorating our walls, as well as the work from other design masters. Their work speaks volumes. They clearly embrace their artistic side. These artists have not only sat at the business table but have a table of their own. And we all aspire to earn a seat someday. They are artists. They are pirates. They are more than designers.

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