Drawing a fine line between art and design

Last week Royal College of Art professor Daniel Weil expressed his aim to “elevate design as an art for the twentieth century”. If we can view those workaday crafts such as photography and illustration as art – and therefore as part of our cultural wealth – then why not design, is Weil’s sentiment.

Why not indeed. It wouldn’t necessarily take away from the functionality of good design for it to be viewed on a higher plane than at present. It might even derive greater credence with the public. Design shows have, after all, crept back on to the review pages of the national media – if they are covered at all – while the subject hasn’t made much impact under other media headings.

And think of all those projects of this post-recessionary period that could do with a dusting of magic to lift them out of the mundane. Whether you call that magic art, wit or inspiration is neither here nor there.

Interestingly, Weil’s comment comes in the wake of a separate debate that has been raging behind closed doors at Design and Art Direction about what to call its forthcoming Festival of Excellence.

Given the venue – the Saatchi Gallery in London – the title But is it art? seemed to a brave minority at D&AD an apt descriptor for the planned extravaganza of design and advertising. Not so, rallied the majority. What about commercial aspects such as the brief and eventually the fee?

The retort that the likes of Michelangelo worked for cash and to a brief without becoming any less of an artist cut no ice – though what modern-day designer would sniff at the prospect of a Sistene Chapel ceiling commission?

The truth is the lines cannot so easily be drawn. If Weil is pushing for art status alone, he is missing many of design’s other strengths – innovation, technology, fitness for purpose, cost-effectiveness. But that minority at D& AD also has a point. Design does have a job to do, but it is exactly those “arty” qualities of delight and emotional challenge that should set it apart from the technician’s craft. More of both approaches would seem to be the answer.

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