Street Art and Design


Art versus Design

Art is an idea that has found it’s perfect form. It doesn’t make a difference what the source is. Source or the genre doesn’t make any difference, whether it’s advertising, painting or sculpture or architecture. The formal problems are the same.— Paul Rand

“Clients are the difference between design and art.”Michael Bierut

 “Artists are a conduit to a communication that operates outside of language,” — Kambui Olujimi

I could fill the next six months just posting more quotes on definitions about art and design, how they are different, or the same – or non-existent (Tsion Avital). What do they do that is different, what is the same. Most practitioners find a definition that fits their practice and beliefs, as well it should, while these practitioners have earned that opinion through decades of experience (and even those that haven’t), it is moulded from them, it is biased, it has been defined after the act. There is nothing wrong with that. What I think fascinates – and at times annoys me when presented rigidly and dogmatically – is why we care so much. What is the value in this discussion? that is not meant as a rhetorical question. It is an argument that sort of has been decided yet not accepted. It would seem that as a culture we can’t agree even on a definition for either individually, and feel the need to further divide and specify the individual terms. (Which might be key to the argument)

I will refer to this both as an ongoing argument, but also as one that has been decided. That is, of course, confusing, and I am not hedging my exposure, it is just that in my mind the argument is over, but I understand that in many more minds it either is not, or the held beliefs are opposite to mine. I don’t want to have the argument anymore, while certainly interesting and of value when it opens up additional avenues, it is perhaps an argument to be had visually rather than verbally. And perhaps the main question should be, how would a deeper (personal) understanding of this benefit me, my work, or anyone/anything?

Art and design are the same, it is just how we interact with them that makes them different, which means they are different…why does this matter? Also, in the early 21st century, is there actually anything on which we can agree. I am not sure if history ended (Fukuyama et al) but I am pretty sure truth and facts did, and the technology involved in the latter is also ‘threatening’ traditional design and production.

Walter Benjamin’s Aura of the original will come up again and again in the next months, but we all know that by now. Although, it would be interesting to revisit it in light of artists now available to all on Instagram, digital reproduction rather than merely mechanical.

I have no qualms walking the now well-trodden path of art vs design, and no doubt, I will in the next few months, but whether Vermeer was an artist or a designer is less of interest to me at this moment. I wish not to minimise the scholarly study of Vermeer, but for me (not to me) that is a discussion to be had over wine.

My interest in this is perhaps less about the actual argument and more about how I see or want to see my work evolving; pushing the envelope of what design and art can be or do and where each is seen and by whom is a mechanism and method in which I see value.

It should also be said, if that were not fairly clear already, that I have little interest in the profit-generating commercial part of design. Again, I am not naive enough to think that designers can live off love and happiness, and I know that if we educate and train designers, we must also believe there is a market value for their skills, but it just seems too…basic. If it is solely about profit, then are designers not just in a race to the bottom and handicapped at that? Fiverr, Wix, Squarespace, Canva – and many better ones soon to emerge – are all involved in reducing the cost and need for a designer thus increasing profits. I don’t see the end of the ‘designer’ in the very near future, but the roles and responsibilities (and education) of designers will have to adapt and change significantly over the next years and encompass strategy, systems, ethics, cultural, political aspects of the realm and…actually, I genuinely do not know, this is not meant to be about the predicting the future. For all I know, and with any luck (of which there has been little this year), a Google program will write my final dissertation by the time this is all done.

A designer’s value and impact as a creator of cultural artefacts interest me, the ability of art and design to shape the message, the stories, and the discussions is interesting to me…not selling more stuff, but reflecting on and informing upon the culture. Is there a responsibility that comes with being a designer, do we wield more (potential) power than we admit or realise? Are those with no access to design disadvantaged and disenfranchised?

Los Angeles

There are various versions of the statement that Los Angeles is not a city, but a collection of suburbs/villages looking for a city/metropolis. I still have not tracked down who first wrote or printed it. It could have been Aldous Huxley, it might have been H.L Mencken, it probably was not Dorothy Parker. Like most quotes, it almost does not matter, the reason the original author is unclear has probably to do with it being anal most universally agreed upon truth, (and also for reasons above in paragraph five.)

What did strike me as interesting that one of the books that it is supposed to have appeared in, and which I tracked down, H.L Mencken’s Americana from 1925 is a collection of letters to newspapers in the United States and its territories of the time. Mencken’s belief, that he states in the preface, is that there is no better way to understand America than by reading what its citizens say No sociological inquiry, however elaborately planned could get as near to the folk’

There are some clear problems in drafting an almost devout racist, which is what Mencken appears to have been, into any argument, but there is something interesting about allowing a country to be described by using the words of (very few of) its citizens. He also wrote that ‘Truth is a commodity that the masses of undifferentiated men cannot be induced to buy, …Homo Boobus, like higher Mammalia, is moved by whatever gratifies his prevailing yearnings.

I have written about a lot, Los Angeles is unique in the way it has exported a false version and vision of itself through the US’s cultural output (films and television) and is instantly recognisable, envisioned even yet not at all understood by a global audience. Other cities share this phenomenon (Woody Allen’s New York, Richard Curtis’s London…) but I do not think to the same degree.


Can you capture and sincerely present and reflect cultures different from your own as a designer? If designers and artist (not just visual) are the creators of artefacts that represent a culture, is that a bit like the victorious writing history?

How can I create work that goes beyond, even if just a bit, my reading of this city? Can I produce work that shares voices that are not mine?

And what role could anonymity play? Should designers and artists step back and let the message and work speak for itself, or is there an important part of revealing the author. Banksy is anonymous to an extent, though he did reveal that he or she or they is or are white, or at least that is what he implied this week. Is his work stronger because of the mystique?

Ultimately, my interests and research seem to be leading to this question(s):
1. Is expressive design, typography, visual poetry a more honest way of conveying culture and/or place.
2. Can the culture, the reading, the experience of others be accurately reflected in such work?

Hank Willis Thomas

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