I Am Not An Artist

I Am Not An Artist

The most common (and not to mention, annoying) question I get from people who knew my profession is this: "since you are a graphics designer, can you draw and paint?" The answer is no, I cannot. That's because I am not an artist, I'm a designer. Even if I am able to draw, it will never be anything along the line of a painter. I doodle, I sketch but I don't paint. This frequent misconception is the reason why I decided to write this post and to explain the differences between a visual communication designer and a graphic artist, even if the two look really similar on the surface.

To those who do not practice it, visual designers are often misinterpreted as graphic artists because both of them produce art and rely heavily on visual stimulation. Both roles also produce outcomes in digital and/or print formats. Other than the similar relationship both of them have towards visualization, they were never twins. Instead, they are more like sisters. While a graphics designer can lead a double life as a graphics artist and vice versa, they tend to differ in terms of objectives, perspectives and even sources.

To better provide an example, here are the things artists and designers usually do. Keep in mind that an individual may excel in both and have a portfolio with multiple genre of artwork. Think of it as a hybrid. These are basic, general examples to give you a perspective of how visual designers differ from artists.

Inspire vs Communicate


Artists work as a form to inspire. They based their creation on feeling and theoretical foundation, an abstract. Artists convey emotion and freedom of expression into their work which may or may not lead to an action from the audience. For an artist, everything is open for a debate and nothing is tied to a brief, a story or a strict concept. An artist's work is always debatable, subjective and questionable. It is primarily to entertain and captivate the audience with visuals first, storytelling second. Think of it as a process of trying to understand the emotional connection between the artist and the artwork — you either get it or you don't. This is also why abstract art exists.


Visual designers, on the other hand, need to communicate and deliver an existing message or concept. As a given, this is also why graphic designers are alternatively labelled as visual communication designers. We don't just create stuff, we are meant to create meanings through that stuff. For example, a logo is meant to identify a brand, a layout is meant to deliver effective legibility for readers and a simple scroll is to let users know that there are more pages they can explore. In graphics design, content is everything. Designers cannot create something without first understanding the content they want their work to carry.

Individualism vs Functionality


For most artists, being able to express their feelings and have their art capture the essence of their personal individualism is very important. This is why artists are bound by freedom as a 'brief' for their art even though it was never really a 'brief' they should follow. There is also less connection between the audience, the art and the artist. For instance, my perception of Mona Lisa may differ from yours and the opinions surrounding it will be endless.


As a designer, functionality is prioritized. For a design to work, it must be both aesthetically pleasing and effective. Pretty colors or fancy layouts mean nothing if the audience fails to understand the meaning behind a product. This is especially important if a designer is creating something for a client where user's feedback is definitely an important aspect. Unlike its expressive sister, graphics design does carry several rules and principles. This, however, does not mean that graphics design or designers are bound to limitation. Designers are still allowed to experiment but it all depends on whether or not we are creating something for personal experiments or someone else.

Skill vs Talent

This is probably debatable for most but in my opinion, design is a skill that can be taught and developed while art is more of a natural born talent. Although this isn't always the case (since, for instance, skills like digital illustration can be developed), when we are talking about abstract art such as sculpting or oil painting, it's not as easy as developing an eye for good graphics design. As proofs, I have seen a few talented graphics design students who are really, really gifted when it comes to 'manual' artwork but seem to struggle when it comes to graphics design briefs. Likewise, I have a friend who is really skilled in graphics design but is unable to draw no matter how much he tried. It's the same thing for me; while I can carelessly draw things, my eyes are better for graphics design than visual art.

Versatility and Flexibility

For artists, personal style is like branding. Since artists are mostly led by expression and emotion, they are free to stick with their style. Meanwhile, for designers, versatility is almost critical.This is because once a designer has entered the professional industry, it is necessary to adapt to multiple visual style due to various types of clients. Of course, this doesn't mean that a designer shouldn't have his or her own style. What I'm saying is that a designer is supposed to grow and develop instead of constantly be on the same safety zone. Thinking outside the box is always recommended and one way to do it is to be open towards other styles.

Opinions vs Facts

In visual art, everything boils down to personal taste. Your friend may like Starry Sky more than Mona Lisa and you might think the opposite. Long story short, everything is open for discussion. On the contrary, while the term 'good design' can also be based on personal taste, there are cases where a design can be just as successful based on facts. Some facts to determine this are user's feedbacks, statistics and of course, functionality.

"Design is where science and art break even,"

— Mieke Gerritzen

To me, if I were to describe graphics design, it is a blend of both world. It's a mixture of art and science, emotion and logic, opinions and facts. Just because there is a brief, a concept and a written goal doesn't mean a design should be created solely based on requirements. It does require emotion and perspective, just that it has to be balanced with facts. The fact that graphics design is a hybrid which requires a blend of two backgrounds actually makes it more difficult than visual, fine art. Now I'm not saying fine art is easy but you know, when you're a designer, you have to balance two worlds at once and try to find the middle ground. Also, in my mind, if a design doesn't work out (in terms of functionality), it is considered art.

As I've mentioned, it is absolutely possible to blend art and design. A person does not have to be tied up to only one of them. Obviously nowadays, the line between the two blurs so much one might question whether it is art or design they are creating or seeing. Even though this is still an ongoing debate, I personally think art and design are sisters but never twins.

How about you, are you a designer as well as an artist or vice versa?