The breakup of art and design


Art and design haven’t been getting on for quite a while, but has their relationship finally hit the rocks?

On September 18 at 6pm GMT the most awaited software of 2013, iOS7, was released. Amongst a sleuth of functionality change, this version of iOS is probably best known for its flat, colourful visual style and the more unified approach to the UI design. More than ever, the visual look and feel of the native UI and that of third party apps are more visually cohesive, meaning a better overall experience for the user. More cohesion, less individualism.

This visual step, and similar steps for Android in recent months, got me thinking about the bigger question: What is the future for visual designers? And, I’m not referring to a specific trend like “flat design”, etc., but a quite different—but equally relevant—question: Have visual design and (graphic) art finally separated? As visual design moves towards a more uniform approach that harks back to the Modernist era, are visual designers now more akin to engineers than graphic artists?

Every year, more and more young design graduates are putting down their pens and cutting mats in favour of Sublime Text, Sass and Xcode. The world we’re living is a digital one, and naturally designers have evolved to innovate and design for it. However, interactive design by it’s very nature comes from a user-centric approach, the opposite of an artistic vision approach. And with young designers moving into the field of UI design, we come back to the question: In the digital age, do art and design have a any place together, or is their relationship firmly in divorce proceedings?

Can art and interactive design be combined?

Levis ALT LORES 1 Lou Reed album cover by Stefan Sagmeister

The music industry example
Of course, it’s no secret that the relationship between art and design has been hitting troubled waters over recent years. Perhaps the example we are all familiar with is the decline of the physical album sleeve due to the rise of digital music. For many decades, this was the one of the areas in which graphic design art openly their love for each other. Graphic artists such as (the recently deceased) Storm Thorgerson, Paula Scher, Vaughan Oliver, Stefan Sagmeister—to name just a few—produced seminal work bursting with individual personality and individualism. These days, this type of work often falls in the realm of an illustrator or a specific campaign from ad agencies. Sure, there are exceptions, but I'm referring to designers that design for mainstream content and communication. Is the music industry approach the road that all mainstream communications will end up?

UI design as product design
In 2013, visual designers are (generally) closer to engineers than graphic artists. The role of visual interactive designer largely that of a product designer. Given the fact the medium to which mass content is consumed is no longer static, design needs to approached from a user-centric perspective; first deciding upon the user's needs, then responding directly to this problem with their solution. Tools like product vision boards, agile methods and user needs are far more important than slavishly labouring over a visual detail in Photoshop, or worrying about self-expression.

This is one of the difficulties many traditional “graphic designers” have when they first approach interactive design. Interactive design is more akin to product design or engineering, rather than graphic arts. Functionality and the user's needs come first and foremost. How it looks visually is of secondary importance. This, in particular, is something that greatly disturbs traditional graphic designers and feels akin to telling them their first born is no longer necessary and should be replaced with a messier, less predictable offspring. In the words of Chris Pontius, “stern, but fair”.

How can art and interactive design be combined?
While art within design is not quite as in vogue as it once was, this does not mean that the creative thinking and lessons learned from this pairing should be forgotten. However, attempts at mixing art and interaction design often involve heavily laden HTML 5 websites with “experimental” navigations (in a world where experimental = fucking unusable), parallax scrolling and enough Javascript to fill a public library. And most often they fail in a glorious fashion. When it comes to interaction design, functionality is always the most important consideration, which makes the task of combining art and interaction design even more problematic. Who needs a giant picture of a pizza, just show me the damn menu and give me directions to the restaurant.

Is there a middle ground, where interaction design can have real merit as a piece of art in the same way as a Paula Scher poster, or a Sagmeister book. Is it possible? Can the individuality of art find a place in the field interaction design? Of course it can; In the digital age just about everything is possible. But—and it's a big But— we need to try harder.

Quite frankly, it is just not good enough to follow a set of visual guidelines in the name of “content-comes-first”. True creativity requires courage and imagination regardless of the situation. These traits commonplace amongst artists, and are something that designers should not lose sight of. Self expression has a lot to offer the world of interaction design.

Instead of using a specific trend like flat design, skeumorphic or whatever is trending on Dribble, try something different. Push it. Break it. Fail. Try again. If the guidelines are saying that flat design is the “best way” try drawing the whole app by hand. Agreed, success is not guaranteed—quite the contrary in fact. However, the courage to try and fail is the reason we live in the glorious age of digital in the first place. Rather than adhering to rules and guidelines, perhaps it’s time to write your own.

Of course, it is important to point out that my opinion is definitely shaped by the fact that I work in Berlin, a city that is teeming with tech start-ups, and where interactive design is very firmly approached in a manner akin to product design.