Tim Rich : Art of functional design

There will always be links between advertising, art and design, but Tim Rich believes that some boundaries between the disciplines should never be crossed

A few years back advertising commercials director Tony Kaye and two agency creatives tried to get their Venus in Furs spot for Goodyear (or was it Pirelli?) into the Tate Gallery’s collection. The film, they claimed, transcended its commercial function and justified inclusion as a work of art. The Tate demurred, Kaye picketed the gallery and lively press coverage was enjoyed by all.

This spat created tension in adland. Traditionalists were embarrassed by the pretension; others energised by the issues. As ever, perspicacity could be found in the grey area between the two camps. In reality, art and advertising remained separate and fixed in their constellation, what had changed was the self-confidence of the latter. Some ad people became so high on the industry’s growing social and cultural influence, and its obsession with its own ‘creativity’, that they had mentally dropped the word commercial from the term ‘commercial artist’.

The rapid increase in, and demand for, creative specialists hastened the death of this term. Where once was a commercial artist, suddenly there were art directors, copywriters, creative directors, typographers, graphic designers, planners, brand consultants, Web designers, engagement managers, imagineers and creative business holisticians.

The burgeoning design industry needed more precise job titles, but in playing fast and loose with conventional terms many designers lost sight of the differences between themselves and other trades and professions. While some claimed the most interesting fringes of contemporary graphic design and art were merging, others urged design consultancies to offer management consultancy services.

Advertising seems less interested in art these days, maybe due to so much contemporary art being hypnotised by the seductive and (worryingly) omnipresent language of commercial creativity. Many in the design world still hark after elevation to the gallery, however. It is a common fantasy that a creatively remarkable design work can transcend its origins and become art. I have two problems with this. One, it can’t. Two, believing creative excellence makes a work worthy of promotion to another realm misses the purpose of and devalues design.

Whether design can be art is a more complex question than whether advertising can. Neither design nor art are, by definition, promotional; advertising is. It’s tempting to say the difference between design and art is that the former is created on behalf of a client and the latter on behalf of the artist, but it doesn’t quite separate the two. What if a designer self-funds a poster to address a social issue?

For me, the difference between contemporary art and design lies in the relationship between form, function and audience. In art, form (expression) is free to take priority over function (effectiveness), and the artist is prioritised over the audience. In design, function has priority over form, and the audience is more important than the designer. This remains true even with a design work considered aesthetically or sensually beautiful – its beauty is redundant if it doesn’t achieve its functional objective.

Take the example of the self-funded designer – they are not constrained by the client, but they are by the need to communicate rather than simply express. A work of art has none of these constraints – it is what it is, regardless of how it is received. These contrasting positions with regard to effectiveness are why the world generally pays artists respect and designers money.

I take these tentative steps into the dangerous, labyrinthine design-art debate as a preface to a simple desire. I’d like to see the next generation of designers recognise the difference between design and art, banish the notion that design should aspire to be art, and celebrate the huge value of excellent design. Those driven by a desire to create art are free to do so, whenever they’re not designing.

Drawing a line between design and art is healthy for a design community to do. It lets us measure what we do against something other than the spurious, vague notion of ‘creativity’ that exists in most groups. Form, style and expression are vital, but can only be judged in relation to function. We’re here to inspire people to act in a certain way, and we should measure our success according to that, not just the pleasure evoked by the combination of design elements we employ. So design is a means to an end, art is an end in itself. The greatest question facing a designer is to what ends do you want to go?

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