| Design Basics

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I remember back when I was in art school, there were many lengthy and emotional conversations about the difference between designers and a fine artists. Was a designer an artist? What was the difference? Was it working for clients vs. working for yourself? Was it computer-driven vs. handmade? Was it because design involved manufactured typography? Did I, as a designer, consider myself an artist?

It’s a long and never ending debate. In fact, at The Massachusetts College of Art (MassArt), where I have my degree from, there was a call to add design into the name. And recently the college was formally renamed to The Massachusetts College of Art and Design. I am happy to see this name change, because I do think there is a difference.

But I don’t think it’s focused on any of those areas I thought about while in art (design?) school.

After working as a professional designer for more than a dozen years, I think one of the most critical differences between a fine artist and a designer is that as a designer I create with the end result being mass production. I am not creating one-of-a-kind finished pieces. While each design is unique, the actual end result is something that must be manufactured (in the case of print) or displayed electronically (in the case of the web).

In fact, I think what also separates an experienced, high-quality designer from the newbies and wannabees is this same distinction: the ability to design for an end production technique that is ultimately out of our hands, and yet we are responsible for.

The production side of design

Most art schools, Mass Art included, do not have the time in their curriculum to teach all the nuts and bolts of production. The focus is on learning design and having only some awareness of production issues. In addition to time restraints, there is the fact that production techniques are always changing (most especially with the web) but that design principles are universal and (mostly) unchanging.

Therefore, most designers learn their production skills through experience. Some of this experience is trial and error as they complete more and more projects. Junior level designers also learn from senior designers through internships and with their first jobs.

Even the most exceptionally talented entry-level designer probably lacks the internal tools to see a project through to accurate production.


Designing for print is the ultimate manufactured design. It doesn’t matter what it looked like as a PDF or on your ink-jet-printed mockup. It needs to look good on the 5000 copies that just rolled off the Heidelberg press. Were the files set-up correctly? Was the correct paper spec’d? Was the job accurately proofed? Is the printer capable of completing the required finishing techniques? Is the reality of the design going to be just like everyone has been envisioning?

Learning about offset printing is all about experience. Ideally, a young designer learns valuable insights from someone more experienced, such as a designer or from their print sales reps or pressmen. But every designer will likely have their own share of less-than-perfect results which add to their own experience.


Web initially seems less manufactured, because the whole point is that it’s paperless and electronic. But just like designing for print, an understanding of the end product is a critical requirement for web design.

A design is not really worth much if it doesn’t render correctly in certain browsers. Or, is unreadable by search engines. Or falls apart when viewed with certain operating systems.

So again, web design is not just about what it looks like in a controlled vaccuum, but making it render how you envision it for all your viewers, in many different situations.

Do I consider myself an artist? No.

That doesn’t mean that I’m not creative. But it does mean that I will cringe when you use the term graphic artist.

I see my creativity more in the guise of problem solving and communicating, and ultimately bending my creative vision to allow for the mass production of my ideas.

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