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Why Are We Still Talking About this “Line” Between Art and Design?

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Well, hello there Kevin, Glenda, Frank, Patricia, whatever your name may be, I brought you here today to have you ponder over one simple question: how exactly do we define what we consider to be fine art versus “graphic design”? BOR-ING (amirite?). This question has been asked over and over and over again, and let’s be real, it’s gotten old. However, in this ever-changing society and continuously growing design world, it is important to revisit this question in order that we break stagnancy and push our personal creative limits.

Merriam-Webster’s defines “art” it as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination.” With the 20th century under our belt, and a new era of advertising upon us, design, like art, has transformed into a fluid concept. When you make the choice to follow the career path that is graphic design, it’s important to understand the distinction between becoming a mediocre designer who gets their $h*t done during the hours of 8 and 5 and making the choice to be a cutting-edge designer, who, in-turn, is a visual-artist-extrordinaire.

Attending creative conferences exposes us to fellow designers, makers, artist who have pushed their creative boundaries in a way so successful that other people are dying to find out how. One of the speakers that we had the pleasure of hearing at the Creative Works Conference is Shawna X. Shawna, hailing from Brooklyn, is a graphic illustrator turned painter turned muralist turned sculptor. She provides the perfect example of how graphic design/illustration can easily be transformed into other art mediums.

Shawna X at Creative Works Conference in Memphis, TN.

We all know the frustration and defeat that comes with creative block. You’ve been regurgitating your ideas for so long, and now you feel as if your work has no substance and the meaning is bleak. “Go for a walk,” they say. “Read a book,” they say. “Scroll through Instagram for hours on end,” they (probably don’t) say. Creative block sucks, but when Shawna X was struggling her way through one, she didn’t go for a walk (she probably did, but whatever) she picked up a paintbrush. Any of us might think to do this; however, Shawna didn’t pick up a paint brush and try to emulate the painterly style of a master, she chose to paint in way that emulated her own graphic style. The combination of the two proved successful, and at that point, her graphic illustrations became her art.

Shawna X working on a mural for Dropbox at SXSW.


“It’s easy to be versatile, but it takes a long Time to find your style.”

~Shawna X

As Shawna continued to paint, the requests for her work became larger and larger. She began doing murals. And as her work became increasingly-known as large-scale art, Shawna embraced this and made the jump to three-dimensional work. Her sculptures force the viewer into a funhouse another reality full of poppy-colors and hidden with intense emotion made playful.

Installation piece “F*** Your Manners by Shawna X.

Since all of the crew at ST8MNT either come from artistic backgrounds or appreciate the artistic aspects of graphic design, Shawna made a big impact on our team as a whole. I took a lot away from Shawna’s presentation at the conference, but I’ll keep it simple and reiterate a few of my favorite points.

1. Take things one step at a time.
It’s easy to compare yourself to other designers out there who are seemingly making way better art and working for the cOoLeSt clients. Take a step back, and stop comparing yourself to others. Instead, compare yourself to where you were a year ago. You might be feeling great at your agency branding mom ‘n’ pop shops one year, and the next you could be designing interior spaces for restaurants or painting murals for that matter. No matter where you are or what you’re doing, focus on the present, and the future will come.

2. Let go of expectations.
In any realm of speaking, just let go of doing what’s expected. Do what feels right. Make what feels right. If it feels right to bump that rectangle 2 pixels to the right, then go for it! Artistic design stems from letting go of your expectations.

3. Leverage personal growth.
Take time from the work that makes you money, and do something that enables you to grow as a person. Whether you’re aware of it or not, any activity, event, task or hobby that you involve yourself with contributes to your growth as a designer (and probably human being in general). Make time to do the things you enjoy and growth will come with that.

In an interview with Brandi Katherine Herrera for The Great Discontent, Shawna says “…people my age have the privilege of establishing a new kind of culture in America.” But this is true of every generation. Each generation’s culture is established by the most powerful voices in their societies. Our creative work is our voice, and our voice is our power. With the media constantly being blasted in our faces, WE, as designers, have the power to change and influence our generation for the better.

With all of that on the table, I’m not telling you to drop your pen tool and pick up a paint brush. I’m just saying that next time you’re feeling stuck on round three or you’re feeling drained of inspiration, maybe take a step back and contemplate ways you can connect your design with “fine art.” The more you push your work conceptually, the more ability you will have to influence your peers and collaborate with others to establish your generation’s culture.