Should designers call themselves artists?

Miss Tiffany's picture

Aren't we visual communicators?

If we take the definition of artist, "a person whose creative work shows sensitivity and imagination", then yes I would say I'm an artist. But isn't it kind of loaded to use the term artist? Should communication come before art? I suppose you could say "communications artist" but that sounds loaded too. I would think that "sensitivity and imagination" is assumed of all people that are creative and part of the problem, err I mean reason, of why they persued a career in the creative world. I suppose this is my knee-jerk reaction to someone who says, "noooo, I am an artiste!"

dezcom's picture

If you call yourself a Sanitation Engineer or simply a Garbage Collector, you still take out the trash. There is art and craft to every profession--a rose by any other name....
I prefer to call myself "The Designer Formerly Known as Artist" :-)

pablohoney77's picture

didn't you answer your own question with the question itself? if you're a designer, why call yourself anything else? i think that the term designer captures the meaning of "problem solver" better than artist does without losing the notion of creativity and imagination.

but then again... words are just words and really have no other meaning than what we attach to them, so you could call yourself anything you wanted and (to you) it will mean precicely what you want it to mean. (sorry had to get my decon theories in there) :^D

John Hudson's picture

Aren't we visual communicators?

In application, that is often a very bogus term, since much of what graphic designers do is not communicative at all; it is at most evocative and even then tends toward the hopeful rather than the proveable: one hopes that the choice of colour and arrangement of elements suggests something to the viewer that will evoke the desired response. This is not communication. Communication is the transfer of an idea from one mind to another, measurable by the accuracy of the transmission. Despite the barrage of visual imagery in our society, the vast majority of communication is still linguistic, either verbal or literary. The only true 'visual communicators' are people who work with information design systems, which codify mental concepts using symbolic equivalents.

kris's picture

I was called a graphic artist the other day, by an older gentleman. I thought it was rather nice, and quite accurate.

rs_donsata's picture

A couple of weeks ago a client said that our work is like a Picasso's painting, "some may consider it a great master piece of art and some may consider it crap" and this really annoyed me. I had to control myself from replying him because I din

kosmo's picture

I like the old term Commercial Artist.
It is an accurate reflection of our profession.


dezcom's picture

>measurable by the accuracy of the transmission<
Communication occurs whether it is measurable or not. Just because it is easier to measure word transmissions does not mean they communicate any more effectively than visual transmissions. As humans, we tend to give greater value to things we can easily measure. We call this data so it sounds oh so scientific. We don't want to point out the shortcomings of the human race so we ignore things we have no data for. One day when we are smart enough to figure out how to measure more abstract things, they will suddenly become valuable. Until then we just focus on only the data we have been smart enough to collect. Was it as easy to measure the communication that took place in the nonverbal video of the Rodney King incident? Not easy to measure. Was there visual communication taking place? You dag gum betcha.

hrant's picture

You should call yourself what you feel you are - and that's the most you can do.

Nothing exists in a pure state - so nobody is totally an artist or totally anything. That said, it's highly useful -and necessary- to consider concepts as being pure. For example pure Art is when you create something motivated only by the need to express yourself - which of course never actually happens. But there is some Art in any act of design. The key thing though is that -for the act to cross a certain threshold into Design- this need to express has to be an unintended, or at least an undirected, force, emanating inescapably from your human-ness, sort of in spite of yourself. For example, if you make an upright Italic simply because you've "always wanted to", or if you believe that design comes from the urge to create, then you're being mostly an Artist; mostly selfish. Design comes more from a desire to serve.

> we tend to give greater value to things we can easily measure.

Very true. Especially in the West.
"If you can't count it, it doesn't count."
Totally bogus, duh.


steve_p's picture

>>If I say I am an artist, or if someone else says I am, then I am.

...and if someone says you're an accountant, or a gazelle, or a cornflake?

grid's picture

I hate labels, as they so often do not represent the true nature of the individual. But if I have to wear one, then I

edeverett's picture

'art' or 'Art'?

The difference is really one of intent and tradition. I'm sure we all know what the difference is. When I make a painting, even a digital one, it is Art (or fine art (it doesn't have to be good to qualify)), the making of a fine peice of design is an art. If your the making of your designs is an art then you are a good designer, if your paintings hang in a gallery you are an artist.


>"There is no grammar of visual imagery, there is no syntax, there are no rules of morphology: there is nothing in it that makes language language."

I have to disagree with you. Of course it all depends on the definition of the word language, but assuming it means something along the lines of a system of comunication that is agreed upon by the group of people that use it, then images certainly have a linguistic properties, with a full grammer and syntax.

Taking line drawings as an example. What does the line represent? In simple line drawings, it is commonly agreed (it's grammer) that a line represents an edge or division. This is arbitrary, it is a social construct.

Conventions of perspective are another grammer of imagery. From full on renaisance three point perpsectives, to cubism, to simple drop shadow. They are all grammers necessary to show how objects ought to be arranged by our mind when we percieve the image. Perhaps analagous to word order in a sentance.

I would go on to argue that nearly all qualities of images are subject to conventions such as these. Even in photographs. Even the use areas of light or dark colours to show shadows and highlights. This is essentialy linguistic, in that they need to be agreed before being understood.

Abstract painting is intersting in this respect, but I would say subject to the same rules. Abrstact Expressionism seems to me to have been built on a fraud, at least as far as its emotional content is concerned.


ps. I hope that makes sense. I wrote my dissertation on this, but am several thousand kilometers from my books at the moment. I've been a lurker for a while on these forums and have learnt a lot, but now I've decided to jump in...

edeverett's picture

While i'm at it...

John>"Language remains the only remotely reliable and translatable (another key aspect of language) medium to convey an idea from one mind to another"

Surely it is that words are the only reliable means of transmitting a verbal idea, images are the only reliable means of transmitting a visual idea.

If i had to convey what i was seeing through my window, or an idea for a new letter form, i would use a photo or a sketch respectively, not words.


Nick Shinn's picture

>...and if someone says you're an accountant, or a gazelle, or a cornflake?

Yes. The meaning of words depends on the circumstances of their use. There are no absolutes, it's all negotiation.

steve_p's picture

>>Yes. The meaning of words depends on the circumstances of their use. There are no absolutes, it's all negotiation.

Nick, I tend to think that bank notes are much like breakfast cereals. Under these circumstances, can I have Beaufort for 175 cornflakes, instead of $175?

Nick Shinn's picture

Steve, I'm quite prepared to exchange font licenses for items of value other than money, but your paltry breakfast cereal offer is, quite frankly, an insult. Now, for a case of Jordan's finest organic muesli...

steve_p's picture

An insult?

How do you work that out?

pablohoney77's picture

more decon:

like visual symbols, words are just signs that make reference to things and ideas without actually being connected to them in any way beyond the connections that we give to them. If you called me a gazelle, i'd hafta laugh, i'm not that fast; if you called me a cornflake i may be offended because i can be a bit flighty... one of the greatest features of symbols is that they don't mean "exactly" anything. there is a certain amount of "play" where a symbol can be more literal or more figurative.

Words can be just as arbitrary as visual symbols. In a class on lanugage and culture the story was told of a fire that was started in a factory that all began when a sign was misread that said "Empty Gas Drums". Knowing the outcome, i'm sure you know what that meant, but those at the factory understood an entirely different meaning.

John, i think it's humorous that you're championing language as a superior communicator of ideas in a thread that is basically an argument between the meaning of (verbal) terms.

I am fascinated by verbal language. I believe there's good reason to call the study of it language arts. i think it's beautiful to be able to choose words as an artist would choose her pallette to convey different shades of meaning, but in the end it is the reader who decides what the text means, no matter what the author intended it to mean.

that's why i think making a distinction between "designer," "artist," "communicator," etc. is bunk. to me. these terms overlap but have slightly different meaning, but you could choose any one and i think i would get the general understanding of what you are trying to convey - so call yourself what you want.

eolson's picture

How about: information repair specialist?

timd's picture

In that any communication I undertake as a designer is not my message, but that of another, I am not an artist. Because I try to do a good, careful job I am an artisan.

In support of visual communication and as an example, Goya and Picasso, in their pictures of Spain at war, have made a more direct lasting communication than text and it doesn't need translation.

As no man is born an artist, so no man is born an angler.
Izaak Walton 1593-1683: The Compleat Angler (1653)


charles ellertson's picture

Once, long ago, I made a pop-off remark in a philosophy seminar that something was a very boring distinction. What followed was a 45-minute discussion about whether any distinction could be boring . . .

Having said that, maybe a designer has to distinguish between what they call themselves (government grants, etc.) and how they think of themselves. In the world of graphic design, all I really know is books. Sadly, many of the terrible interior designs for books come from graphic designers being

hrant's picture

> 'visual language' ... is spectacularly unreliable.

But "formal" language is simply less so; the difference is not qualitative.
Anyway, it seems the disagreement here is largely terminological.

> Language, on the other hand, allows us to describe experience,
> and so to set contexts of understanding and response.

But it can't really communicate emotion either.
In any case it's all in our respective heads.

> The claims in favour of visual communication have always been overstated.

With that I agree. I love text.


> There are people who label themselves graphic designers that have the
> misguided perception that the business is about making things

pablohoney77's picture

In Latin. Maybe.

French, actually. Ask Derrida.

grid's picture

Reading to my earlier comments back, it comes off as a rant and off topic. Never write anything when it

Chris Rugen's picture

I avoid it scrupulously. I've found that the term 'artist' carries connotations that are counter-productive, particularly in client relationships. I make a very brief, pleasant "I prefer the term 'graphic designer'. I believe it's more accurate." Then it's up to them if they want more explanation, which is a good opportunity to let them know I do more than make pretty things (not to say that's what an artist is, just how the term is perceived by many business clients).

It's everyone's choice, but there's reason the question even exists.

John Hudson's picture

I have to disagree with you. Of course it all depends on the definition of the word language, but assuming it means something along the lines of a system of comunication that is agreed upon by the group of people that use it, then images certainly have a linguistic properties, with a full grammer and syntax.

But that is a very superficial definition of language that completely ignores the seminal importance of language in cognition and self-consciousness. Language, to a very large extent, makes us what we are as human beings, while visual arts at most contribute to what we are as members of particular cultures. So, above, Bill makes some comments about associations with colour, e.g. death, marriage, but these are specific cultural associations, and make even this level of 'visual communication' increasingly problematic in multicultural societies.

John, i think it's humorous that you're championing language as a superior communicator of ideas in a thread that is basically an argument over the meaning of (verbal) terms.

That's not nearly so humourous as the idea that we might have such an argument without words, but this is what the fantasy of 'visual communication' would suggest: that I could post a graphic that would make a point, and all the rest of you would post graphics making contrary points and refining previous graphics, and that this would constitute a conversation in a sense even remotely similar to our verbal exchanges. Because communication is not limited to a one-way transmission of information from source to recipient: it is the beginning of dialogue. One-way communication is the specialty of totalitarian and other repressive regimes, which it should be noted, favour visual and emotive media -- notably film and television -- over the textual and the reasoned (books, newspapers, journals, Internet discussion groups).

One-way transmission is also, of course, the primary characteristic of television and of most advertising, which assumes an unequal relationship between the power of the seller to persuade and the inability of the consumer to resist or even question whether he actually needs the product. This is the sort situation in which 'visial communication' is effective: the manipulation of emotive response, usually ending in a credit card transaction. And this is why I do not consider it true communication, because ideas are actually anathema to the process, because ideas are generative and lead to other ideas, especially in the context of dialogue, while advertising and totalitarianism only want to put one thought in the recipient's mind: buy this, assent to this....

as8's picture

Set this.
On-line copy at :


as8's picture

__ Tiff, you are a Maximum Artist __

Yes, Tiffany is creative because she can make a baby :-)

__ i think that the term designer captures the meaning
of "problem solver. __

Cool, and cool is the opposite, to create 'problems.'
It is interesting to note that the actual Greek root
of the word 'problem,' namely, 'probalein,' means
'to throw' or 'to thrust forward.' Problems are the
very means by which God drives us forward. Without
problems, there would be no growth.

__ words are just words and really have no other meaning
than what we attach to them. __

Wynn Bullock :
"La cr

as8's picture

__ I want to believe that my work can make a real difference,
that it matters. __

I am gonna quote/edit a text by Erik Spiekermann :
Design is first and foremost an intellectual process,
and the essence of typography is communication. Contrary
to popular belief, designers are not artists. They employ
artistic methods to visualize thinking and process, but,
unlike artists, they work to solve a client's problem, not
present their own view of the world. If a design project,
however, is to be considered successful

as8's picture

__ Language remains the only remotely reliable and
translatable (another key aspect of language) medium
to convey an idea from one mind to another. __

Great! And I think Ed Everett pointed we have mind habits.

__ Consummate practitioners are aware of these cultural
idiosyncrasies, and design accordingly. __

1. Inner life. Idiosyncratic individuals are tuned in to
and sustained by their own feelings and belief systems,
whether or not others accept or understand their
particular worldview or approach to life.

2. Own world. They are self-directed and independent,
requiring few close relationships.

3. Own thing. Oblivious to convention, Idiosyncratic
individuals create interesting, unusual, often eccentric

4. Expanded reality. Open to anything, they are interested
in the occult, the extrasensory, and the supernatural.

5. Metaphysics. They are drawn to abstract and speculative

6. Outward view. Though they are inner-directed and follow
their own hearts and minds, Idiosyncratic men and womenare
keen observers of others, particularly sensitive to how
other people react to them.

7. Source: Oldham, John M., and Lois B. Morris.
The New Personality Self-Portrait: Why You Think,
Work, Love, and Act the Way You Do. Rev. ed.
New York: Bantam, 1995.

__ Men wear ties whose color, pattern, and even the style
of knot can communicate a message. __

I like that ties point to the genital area area :-)

__ one of the greatest features of symbols is that they
don't mean "exactly" anything. __

Yes, there is a risk. We can train the ratio.

__ How about: information repair specialist? __

Information cannot be designed; what can be designed are
the modes of transfer and the representations of information.

__ The world has changed with respect to book jackets. __

Very interesting.

__ Because communication is not limited to a one-way
transmission of information from source to recipient:
it is the beginning of dialogue. + because ideas are
actually anathema to the process, because ideas are
generative and lead to other ideas, especially in the
context of dialogue __


jlt's picture

I myself am simply a propagandist; I say this not just because I am a graphic designer working in marketing, but because I market politics to voters. I would never, ever debase art by calling myself an artist!

John Hudson's picture

Tiffany, using the term 'visual communicator' may help you sell your services to clients, for whom 'communication' sounds more valuable than 'making you look better': in which case, more power to you. Call yourself whatever you want if it will convince people to pay you properly to do your work, but how you think of yourself should be a matter of critical consciousness, and probably won't be reducible to a tidy label.

kris's picture

How about "typographer" or "typographic designer" ?

hrant's picture

> Bruce Mau: 'heaven is a place with no text'

That's actually sort of believable, considering my personal view of how most people seem to envision Heaven: boring as hell.


as8's picture

"Heaven is what you make & hell is what you go through."
that is a part of a rap lyric from the WuTang.
Big up to C.R.E.A.M." and "Bring the Pain" !

P'z to all the designers, artists, moms & dads out there !

rs_donsata's picture

John, I may have gone too far with my affirmation about type design, and I agree that the verbal channel has an unmatched hability to efficiently transmit with great concretion simple as well as complex and abstract information.

I guess my point is that communication isn

John Hudson's picture

I've been arguing, perhaps over-strenuously, against 'visual communication' because I think it is something that too many people take for granted without really analysing, and also because I believe language is of an order of communication many times more sophisticated, more adaptable, more generative, than anything possible in visual, non-linguistic modes. But this is in part because the kind of communication that interests me is communication of ideas, and I'm quite strict that communication, properly understood, requires a significant identity between the message broadcase and the message received, which I don't think is reliable in visual media: heck, it is often difficult enough with language, which is why most effective communication involves a two-way transmission that clarifies meaning via discourse.

There is, obviously, a common and less rigourous use of the term 'communicate' that is often applied to the impression that we get from a visual cue, such as a particular arrangement of form and colour in design, a gesture or facial expression, or, as Hector notes, the way someone is dressed. I think Erik Spiekermann is correct when he says 'We cannot not communicate', if that is understood to mean 'We cannot not create an impression'. And most graphic design is about creating impressions (often false ones, it must be said). Impressions are important: what psychologists call 'thin-slicing', rapid intuitive judgement or inductive reasoning based on very short exposure -- the proverbial first impression that is often correct -- is an important method for navigating through life. And what is characterised as 'visual communication' is an attempt to exploit this method by creating specific impressions, usually based on cultural associations. But I still don't think you can get away from two factors: 1) the necessary correlation between what is broadcast and received, which is the basic measure of successful communication -- if the impression your design creates is not the impression you intended or hoped for, is it really communication? or is it a purely unilateral action on the part of the viewer? --, and 2) the range of impressions it is possible to suggest are incredibly crude and small in number compared to the range of complex ideas that can be communicated through language. This is why the language of advertising people tends to rely on broad and vague notions -- we want this to look elegant; we want something playful; it needs to be dynamic; etc. --: because the kind of impressions one can 'communicate' visually (inspire, really) are that crude. Thinking about Erik Spiekermann's dictum again, one can say even that design primarily creates one of two impressions: 'We suck' or 'We don't suck'.

William Berkson's picture

Psychologist Karl Buehler said that there are three levels of language. First expressive-Ouch!; second communicative - run!, third descriptive - take your third left and you will see the train station.
The idea is that the later levels presume the earlier. Popper added argumentative - no, it's the fourth right, not the third, because they've moved the station entrance. Language can operate on the descriptive and argumentative levels in a much richer way than others.

But, John, when it comes to expressive and communicative levels, the visual and aural and smell and taste can do heavy lifting. Just think of how much of a movie's success is dependent on the actor's expression and tone of voice and body language. Yes, you often can't follow the plot of a movie without subtitles of a film in a language you don't understand. But dubbing destroys so much of the impact of a film compared to the tone of voice, even when you don't understand the words. As to vision, just substitute Miss Piggy for Marilyn Monroe, and you are going to get a different film, even with the same words.

With graphic design, the non-verbal elements are very important. Part is communicating heirarchy through visual relationships, as well as other conceptual relationships through visual relationships. And of course making sure words are easily readable - not easy in small sizes. And part is emotional tone and mood through color, use of space, illustration, photography.

It seems to me that a great graphic designer adds that emotional punch as well as clarity. To carry the metaphor further, you need a screenplay, but the screenplay isn't the movie. The great graphic designer is like a great director, and can turn the words into something more powerful than words alone.

I am a writer and love language, words, books - and even letters! But I know there is more to life, and graphic design is part of that more.

John Hudson's picture

But the tea pot is visually communicating...

This simple observation goes some way to reconciling some of the ideas in this thread.

As Joe points out it is the tea pot itself that is communicating. One can say the same thing about anything else that we look at, including the products of graphic design: they can be said to communicate, and even if there is something metaphorical about this use of the term, it is close enough to a phenomenal description to be acceptable. Okay, so a thing can be said to communicate -- and since I gave the example of the Japanese tea pot, I have to admit that what it communicates goes beyond a vague impression: it is a sophisticated carrier of aesthetical values of a particular culture. And, of course, this was also my point about type design.

Even so, there remains an important difference between saying that a thing communicates something to the viewer and saying that the maker of that thing communicates with the viewer. In the latter construction, you meet all my previous criticisms of the unreliability of non-verbal communication, because it remains very uncertain that what the thing communicates to the viewer is going to share significant identity with what the maker wants to communicate. [To get theological for a moment, one could even make this observation on a grand scale: noting that what creation communicates to most human beings is not necessarily what God intended to communicate; hence the need for verbal revelation.]

So, Tiffany, I don't think you are a visual communicator, but what you design is. The relationship between what you might want to communicate and what a specific design actually communicates to a particular viewer may range from close identity to complete dissonance, over which you will only ever have very partial control.

as8's picture

__ design primarily creates one of two impressions:
'We suck' or 'We don't suck'. __

I have a wonderful black t-shirt by CTI Paper USA inc,

Frank Jonen's picture

-- this could offend everyone, so good luck -- :-)

Wor(l)ds like visual communicators, communication designers, and all that IMHO come from the same inbred * source of toffee-nosed "cultured classes" that get trained for years in universities and are completely detached from reality.

The kind that cannot live without the (or their) status quo of design, where everything has always to be set in a certain way and one cannot move from that track or else is accused to be "wrong" (whatever that means).

Anyone else had that impression or is it just me?

btw, Alessandro, thanks for saving the 'g', where would we be with out the 'g' :-)
I'd also like to refer to this one without further comments:

*) "inbred" might sound just a little too offensive so I better explain i some more. I mean it in the is context as being together only with those of the same level of knowledge and the same cultural background.</font>

as8's picture

Fhank Jou darling.

There was a little princess with a magic crown.
An evil warlock kidnapped her, locked ger in a cell, in a huge
tower and took away her sweet voice.
There was a window with bars. The princess kept smashing her head
against the bars hoping that someone would hear the sound and find
her. The crown made the most beautiful sound that anyone ever heard.
You could hear the ringing for miles. It was so beautiful, that
people wanted to grab air. They never found the princess. She never
got out of the room. But the sound she made filled everything up
with beauty.

dezcom's picture

I guess we all must suffer for beauty.


PS: I still owe you a crit on your logo

goldfishSarah's picture

In response to this quote:

"I mean, how can we expecte to be considered serious professionals as lawayers or medics if we keep calling ourselves artists. Not that I have something against art or artists, but we are talking about business."

Why not call ourselves artists AND expect to be considered professionals?

That is what organizations like AIGA do. They advocate the VALUE that Graphic Design brings to business and to life.

If we as designers continue to downplay our role in business by classifying ourselves as so many different things (multimedia designer, print designer, communication artist, information design repair-er), our potential as collaborative LEADERS in business and society will never be seen.

In their eyes we will remain pixel-pushing, color-separating, letter-spacing monkeys that will bend over backwards to work for spec. ;)

John Hudson's picture

...our potential as collaborative LEADERS in business and society will never be seen.

I'm inspired: my next business card will identify me as Typenfuhrer. :-)

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