An old question

The rising stars in the digital firmament may be taking over the world of visual communications, but Adrian Shaughnessy considers whether these pioneering designers can still claim to create real art once they have become successful

Can graphic design ever be art? It’s an old question, and to many professional designers it’s a question not worth asking. For them, design is about solving business and communications problems, and the notion of it being art is anathema to them. However, in the digital realm, the art/design divide is less clear-cut.

Digital is becoming the new powerhouse in visual communications. More advertising money is now spent on-line than in the national press, and it is predicted that smart digital groups will gradually replace traditional, slow-moving, TV-centric ad agencies as the rulers of the global ad terrain. At the same time, digital pioneers are also creating art-based work for use both in commercial and in gallery settings.

Look at the work of Hi-Res, Tomato and Daniel Brown in the UK, or the work of John Maeda and Joshua Davis in the US, and we see that the line between design and art is starting to disappear.

When Tomato designer Jason Kedgley isn’t working for clients such as Nokia, Sony and The Economist, he is creating digital prints for sale by Eyestorm, the on-line art pioneer. Looking at Tomato, it’s hard to see the difference between the group’s commercial work and its art-based projects.

When Brown was chosen as the Design Museum’s Designer of the Year in 2004 it wasn’t for his problem-solving expertise. As the museum states on its website, ‘Like many Web designers, Daniel Brown discovered the medium – and drew his early inspiration – from the video games he played as a child. He has since sought to refine the frenzied aesthetic of those games by creating fluid, humorous images for the Web which are as emotionally expressive as music.’

Brown came to the design world’s attention in 1997 with his experimental Noodlebox website. Today, his work can be seen on his Play/Create Gallery site. Much of his current output is installation-based, but everything he does erodes the boundary between the aesthetic rush of art and the strict functionalism of design.

In 2000, Hi-Res – formed by creative director Florian Schmitt and Alexandra Jugovic – announced its arrival on the digital scene with its epic site for the movie Requiem for a Dream. Like Noodlebox, Requiem for a Dream indicated a new avenue for visual expression, but this time within a commercial setting. And yet, for many design watchers, it wasn’t clear whether they were looking at design or digital art.

‘We definitely came into digital from an art background,’ notes Schmitt, ‘and the first projects we did were most definitely created without any commercial or marketing sentiment (or knowledge). And I would say we have been able to keep this up to a certain degree, but as you grow and as projects become bigger, it becomes more difficult to stay true to this.’

To help stay close to his art roots, Schmitt has formed a Hi-Res offshoot called Nanika, in partnership with interactive designer Andreas Müller. ‘We had been working on installation projects for many years, but always described it as R&D and kept it in the drawer,’ explains Schmitt. ‘These ideas reappear as soon as we give them a structure and a name, and we are able to apply them to commercial projects. We have so far completed projects for Nokia, Sony, Herman Miller and Channel 4. We are currently working on a commission for Fuji TV, and will be exhibiting a piece at the Wired Nextfest in September.’

Does Schmitt view his group’s work as digital art? ‘Part of our time spent on research results in pieces which could ultimately be described as art,’ he notes, ‘but at the same time we’re keen to bring our work to as big an audience as possible, and, ideally, to get people to interact with it who wouldn’t normally set foot in a gallery or have any kind of exposure to digital art.’

‘There are plenty of clients who see beyond their immediate sales targets and know how to build their brand with a more artistic approach. But we don’t kid ourselves – we know we are selling cars and TVs and perfumes through our work, which ultimately makes much of it different from creating art,’ says Schmitt.

Digital may be about to become the new design orthodoxy, but it is ironic that, at the same time, digital groups are demonstrating that it is also possible to create art-based projects that make the answer to the question, ‘Can art be design?’, an unqualified ‘yes’. Well, at least a maybe.

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