Question of the Week #12

This week Chris Riesner asks, “When branding and promoting yourself, how much separation should be placed between your commercial design and fine art endeavors? Do you know of any prestigious designers that are also contributing to the art world (or vice versa)?”

Immediately I recall that, when asked if design was art, Charles Eames replied, “No. But if it is good enough it may later be judged as art.” This is a wise position, but Chris’ question is about how to make that judgement contemporaneously and for oneself. The following examples may help frame that determination:

 Designers are creative people. Many (though not all, as Michael Bierut freely admits in the video I linked to in answer to our previous question) express that creativity outside of their daily practice. For some, like James Victore, the division between their personal art and their professional design is fuzzy. Victore’s work is visceral, incisive, and personal. He creates client-initated campaigns and identities and self-initiated art projects in much the same style and with signature emotional urgency. The expressiveness of his work has also garnered commissions that straddle the void many designers leave between ‘design’ and ‘art.” His work is in the collection of the MoMA, and has been exhibited in galleries internationally.

James Victore Commission for The New York Times

It was while working on the new Citi identity that Paula Scher began painting typographic maps. The project was solved early and proceeded to be arduous and creatively unfulfilling and she used her painting as a way to satisfy a creative thirst. You can hear Paula tell that story in her own words in this recent Ted Talk (Citi comes in at the 17:30 mark, but watch the whole thing, it’s terrific). She now has a dual career as a designer and an artist—each of which is necessary for the health and wisdom of the other. As she says in an October, 2011 interview with The Atlantic, “The painting began as an antidote to design,” she says. “Design happens quickly on a computer and the painting is laborious. Design is social. Painting is isolating. Design has a purpose. Art has no purpose. I can’t imagine one without the other.”

Jeremy Mende

Jeremy Mende's installation at the Headlands Institute. Image ©2012 Cesar Rubio Photography

Jeremy Mende has recently been exploring non-client-driven work through residencies in Rome and The Headlands Institute. Though he identifies himself as a designer through his work, teaching affiliations and practice, a recent interview with him on The Huffington Post labels him more comfortably as an ‘artist.’

The success of Brian Singer’s 1,000 Journals project encouraged him to continue pursuing art projects outside of his regular design practice. Though an excellent designer, it is his art that has garnered him more attention an notoriety.

Stefan Bucher, designer of the brilliant 826 LA Echo Park Travel Mart, is probably best known for his creative side project, The Daily Monster. It started out as a passion/weird obsession, and grew to become a phenomenon. It’s now a book and a series of animations for PBS’s The Electric Company.

MINE™: Everything is OK. Photo © J. Astra Brinkmann

In my own practice I frequently find that their are ideas that I/we want to explore that aren’t supported by our client work. These investigations sometimes result in provocative objects, products and experiences, some of which are more comfortably defined as ‘art.’ Perhaps most notably, our Everything is OK project began as simple design experiment but quickly seated itself in the world of art. It has been included in gallery exhibitions in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, been the subject of an installation for the San Francisco Arts Commission, and included in a show at the Hiroshima Museum of Contemporary Art. At the same time, it has received recognition from design institutions such as AIGA, The Cooper Hewitt, the Museum of Craft and Design, Taipei Design Week and the Brno Design Biennial. It’s one of those rare projects that feels equally comfortable being labelled ‘art ‘ as it does ‘design.’

As provocative, esoteric and non-functional as it appears, Everything is OK has surprising appeal to even our most conservative clients, often being cited as one of the reasons new clients chose to work with us.

Christopher Simmons

Christopher Simmons: ream of lightly-altered and photocopied Shepard Fairey Posters.

Shepard Fairey is a designer best know for his art.

There are many, many more.

So, to the distinction one should make between commercial design and fine art pursuits, that’s a highly individual question. The examples above (and these are just the immediate few that come to mind) are of accomplished designers who have managed to use their artistic talents in ways that support or compliment their design work. Some, like James, make little distinction between the two. Others, like Paula, need them to be opposing forces.

Many will advise (and I usually do also) that including personal work in a portfolio weakens it. This is usually good advice because it’s usually true. But it’s also usually true that the personal work just isn’t that good (and if it is, but your design isn’t stellar, then you run the risk of being seen as an artist who just happens to want to design). The more nuanced guidance I’d offer when considering whether or how to include fine art in your portfolio or as part of your ‘personal branding’ is this: consider the role it has in your creative life. How does it inform your design? How does it define you as a person? As a creator? As a citizen? In each of the cases above, the designers have consciously resolved the relationship of their art to their design. Once you’re able to do that you’ll have a clearer sense of how and where (and if) to locate it in your portfolio.