Your Designers Are Not Artists (And You Need to Stop Thinking of Them That Way)

Introduction

As the founder of a digital marketing agency, I‘ve worked with hundreds of designers and clients over the years. And I‘ve noticed a persistent misconception that many people seem to have: they think of designers as artists.

While designers are certainly creative professionals with artistic skills, it‘s a mistake to view them primarily through that lens. Designers and artists actually have very different roles, goals, and ways of working. Understanding this distinction is critical for anyone who wants to get the best results when collaborating with designers.

In this post, I‘ll break down the key differences between designers and artists, explain why it matters, and share tips for more effective partnerships with designers. By the end, you‘ll see why treating your designers like artists can seriously sabotage your projects and how to tap into their true potential as creative problem-solvers. Let‘s dive in.

Designers solve problems; artists express themselves

The most fundamental difference between designers and artists is the ultimate purpose of their work. Artists are mainly focused on self-expression – evoking emotions, sharing ideas, or provoking thought through their art. They have a message or feeling they want to convey, and their success is measured by how effectively they do that.

Designers, on the other hand, are focused on solving problems for others. A designer‘s job is to understand the needs of users and create solutions that address those needs in an effective, intuitive, and aesthetically pleasing way. As renowned designer Frank Chimero put it: "People ignore design that ignores people."

While artists primarily want people to connect with their work on an emotional level, designers want people to be able to use their designs easily and accomplish their goals. Aesthetics are important in design, but they are ultimately in service of functionality and usability.

Consider some telling statistics:

  • According to a study by TopTal, 88% of online shoppers won‘t return to a website after a bad user experience.
  • Research by Stanford University found that 75% of users make judgments about a company‘s credibility based on visual design alone.
  • A report by Forrester shows that every $1 invested in UX design yields $100 in return – an ROI of 9,900%.

These findings underscore that design is not just about making things look good, but enabling users to achieve their objectives. Form must follow function.

Here‘s an example to further illustrate the difference between art and design:

Imagine an artist and a designer both creating a chair. The artist might create a chair sculpture that makes a bold statement about the nature of consumerism. It‘s visually striking and thought-provoking, but not necessarily designed to be sat on comfortably.

The designer, however, would focus on creating a chair that is sturdy, ergonomic, and aesthetically compatible with its intended environment. Every detail – materials, dimensions, form factor, etc. – would be carefully considered to produce the best possible seating experience for users.

That‘s the crux of it: artists aim for creative self-expression; designers aim to solve real-world problems as effectively as possible for the people who will use their designs. Both involve creativity, but the end goals are fundamentally different.

Why does this distinction matter?

Far too often, I see business stakeholders treat designers more like artists. They make vague requests to "be creative" or "wow us," focusing on surface-level visual aspects while neglecting to provide concrete details about project objectives, intended users, or business requirements.

This puts designers in a compromised position. To do their jobs well, they need clear information about the problems they are solving for. Treating designers like artists, rather than strategic problem-solvers, sets both parties up for confusion and disappointment.

When a designer asks probing questions about project goals and parameters, they aren‘t being pedantic – they are trying to gather the key information needed to craft an effective solution. Just as you wouldn‘t expect an architect to design a house without knowing its intended location, occupants, and functional requirements, you can‘t expect a designer to devise an optimal design without robust knowledge of the use case and success criteria.

Moreover, when stakeholders view designers as artists, they tend to assess their work through a subjective lens of personal taste and aesthetic sensibilities. But design should be evaluated based on how well it meets user needs and business objectives, not the stylistic preferences of individual stakeholders.

As the influential designer Dieter Rams asserted in his tenth principle of good design: "Good design is as little design as possible." Designers may make products and experiences look great, but that‘s in service of making them work great.

Consider these eye-opening findings on the business impact of design:

  • A study by the Design Management Institute found that design-driven companies outperformed the S&P 500 by 219% over a 10-year period.

  • According to a report by McKinsey, companies with top-quartile McKinsey Design Index scores outperformed industry-benchmark growth by as much as two to one.

  • Research by InVision shows that companies with high design maturity are more likely to see cost savings, revenue gains, productivity gains, speed to market, and brand perception benefits.

The upshot? Design is not just about aesthetics; it‘s a key driver of business performance. Treating designers like artists, rather than strategic partners, is not only creatively frustrating for them – it‘s detrimental to the bottom line.

Tips for collaborating with designers

Now that we‘ve established why viewing designers as artists can be problematic, let‘s get tactical. How can non-designers work most effectively with designers? Here are some tips:

  1. Provide comprehensive project briefs. The more context you can give about the problem space, users, and success metrics, the better equipped designers will be to deliver impactful solutions. Aim to answer the "who, what, when, where, why, and how" as thoroughly as possible upfront.

  2. Frame feedback around objectives rather than opinions. Saying "I don‘t like the color scheme" is much less actionable than "The color palette seems disconnected from our brand attributes and may not resonate with our target user base." Ground feedback in concrete rationale to enable purposeful iteration.

  3. Respect designers‘ problem-solving expertise. You hired designers to think critically and connect the dots, so give them space to do that. Micromanaging or prescribing specific design decisions precludes the innovative thinking they bring to the table. Have a dialogue, but resist the urge to art direct.

  4. Consolidate and prioritize stakeholder input. Expecting designers to reconcile conflicting feedback from a dozen stakeholders is a recipe for a muddled end product. Appoint a lead to gather, synthesize, and stack-rank input before sharing with the design team. Speaking with a unified voice prevents churn and rework.

  5. Build in time for exploration and refinement. Iteration is fundamental to the design process, so plan accordingly. Expecting fully baked solutions right out of the gate is unrealistic. Give designers time to explore concepts, test assumptions, learn, and polish. The more breathing room, the better the final outcome.

Bonus tip: Share user feedback and business impact with designers. Designers want to know that their work is having a positive effect on users and the company. Keep them apprised of relevant user testing insights, product metrics, and testimonials. The more they can see the fruits of their labor, the more invested they will be.

Designers: own your role as problem-solvers

To my fellow designers, I know it can be frustrating when stakeholders treat us as extensions of the art department. But getting indignant or precious about our work rarely improves the dynamic. In my experience, proactively shaping perceptions is far more effective than reactively challenging them.

We have to take responsibility for communicating the strategic value we bring to the table. In kick-off meetings and design reviews, confidently steer the conversation toward users and objectives. Ask probing questions to surface underlying needs. When presenting work, articulate the rationale behind the design decisions.

Push back diplomatically but firmly when asked to "jazz it up" without a clear "why" or "for whom." Politely explain that you‘d be happy to explore a more ornate visual direction if it aligns with the brief, but that the current recommendation is based on the project goals and UX best practices.

Most importantly, consistently frame your role as a problem-solving partner, not an artistic resource. Building credibility and commanding respect requires walking the walk of a strategic contributor.

Beyond project work, proactively share relevant articles, case studies, and talks that highlight the business value of UX and product design. Increasing design literacy and appreciation among cross-functional peers helps elevate the entire organization‘s design maturity.

In many ways, the misconception of designers as artists is a branding problem of our own making. By assertively and persistently focusing on our strategic impact over our artistic output, we can shift the narrative. Let‘s proudly wear the mantle of creative problem-solvers and continually showcase our worth.

Conclusion

The notion of designers as artists is a pervasive but pernicious one. While designers utilize artistic skills, their fundamental role is different. Designers are problem-solvers who wield creativity as a means to a functional end, not as an end unto itself.

For those who collaborate with designers, recognizing this distinction is paramount to success. Provide robust problem context, focus feedback on objectives vs. opinions, respect their expertise, consolidate input, and build in iteration cycles. This will set designers up to deliver their best work.

Designers, for our part, must actively advocate for our strategic value. Steer discussions toward user needs and business goals. Pushback on reductive requests to "make it pretty." Celebrate objective-driven design wins. The more we behave like strategic partners, the more we‘ll be treated like them.

When designers and stakeholders are aligned on what design is really about – creative problem-solving in service of user and business outcomes – everyone wins. Misunderstandings fade, results improve, and true partnership flourishes. Designers aren‘t artists, and that‘s by design.