Q. Can you be an artist and a graphic designer?

A. In a word, yes.

Andy Warhol's Marilyn 1967

Andy Warhol, Marilyn, 1967

Graphic design is art, and visual art relies on the same foundation principles that graphic designers use to organize information. The fiscal difference, no, that’s not the right word after all, let’s try it again. The difference between a visual artist and a graphic designer is that the artist, unless commissioned or highly recognized in the art world (thereby placing a fiscally significant demand on output), creates work because she is self-motivated. The work is made as part of a self-maintained practice and results, hopefully, in gallery exhibits or some other form of public sharing. The designer nearly always works for her client; and relies on the client relationship as one that provides inspiration for some (or all) projects. The artist, however, may envision the art market, a curator, or a cultural institution as a “client.” And the graphic designer may create work inspired by reflection, curiosity, or research, without the push or pull of a client.

Ryan McGinness, installation view, 2005

Ryan McGinness, installation view, 2005

There are many variations on this theme. For instance, there are designers who create work for themselves. There are artists who create work in the interest of pleasing the art market. There are artists who work for clients and there are designers who do not.

Shepard Fairey, Obey Giant, 1993

Shepard Fairey, Obey Giant, 1993

This is a tricky question because it implies a semantic agreement about what it means to be an artist and the role of a graphic designer. The boundaries between these identities do not have to be so boldly drawn, even if your medium of choice is vector graphics.

Geoff McFetbridge in a Western State documentary

Geoff McFetbridge in a Western State documentary

I just viewed Geoff McFetbridge in a documentary series called Western State. In it, he said,

The art shows are tricky because they’re totally graphic design, but I don’t want them to be graphics shows, I want them to be art shows.

McFetbridge’s distinction between the graphic design and art that he creates is that the art comes from a personal point of departure or inspiration.

Alternatively, Andy Warhol is perhaps one of most well known commercial illustrators-turned-artist. His inspiration was firmly grounded in the commercial arena.

David Byrne, Coffee Cup Bike Rack, 2008

David Byrne, Coffee Cup Bike Rack, 2008

David Byrne is best known as a musician, particularly for his work as co-founder of the band Talking Heads (1976-88). If you don’t own it, you should listen to Talking Heads: 77 or More Songs About Buildings and Food. The musician/artist/designer is also accomplished in the film industry. He starred in and choreographed much of Jonathan Demme’s 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense and shortly thereafter created his own masterpiece True Stories. I can’t recommend this enough – I don’t own more than 20 DVDs and this is in my collection. Beyond film and music, the avid bicycle rider has recently worked with the NYC Department of Transportation to design and create bike racks for the city. The bike racks seem more like a commissioned art project than a design job.

One final opinion – stop making sense of the two genres as distinct entities and pursue your work without categorical restrictions.

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