When I was studying graphic design at OCAD, the most common topic that sparked debate among my classmates was the difference between art and design, or if they differ at all. This was probably because so many designers are artists at heart, but also because the terms 'art' and ‘design’ are so overarching that there are huge mutual areas. Still, it became apparent by the debates that the relation of these two concepts is becoming more and more convoluted. To begin thinking about the question, first the terms should be defined:
Art — ärt — noun
1. The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.
"the art of the renaissance"
2. The various branches of creative activity, such as painting, music, literature, and dance.
"the visual arts”
De·sign — dəˈzīn — noun
1. A plan or drawing produced to show the look and function or workings of a building, garment, or other object
before it is built or made.
"he has just unveiled his design for the new museum
2. Purpose, planning, or intention that exists or is thought to exist behind an action, fact, or material object.
“the appearance of design in the universe"
Since industrialization and mass-production (and especially since mass-digitization), we no longer experience art to the same extent nor in the same context as we used to. Most of the imagery we see is online, and the art we see offline is more often than not in a commercial environment. Therefore, every artwork we see now carries an additional purpose in its context. Whether it’s a buzzfeed article, a website with stock imagery, or a tumblr page, these images are rarely, if ever, the original source. Even apps that promote original content such as instagram (and occasionally snapchat) are filled with re-posted imagery. They are not precieved as what they are at a base level, but rather as to what purpose they serve.
By comparing the definitions of art and design, it is easy to see the debate with the second definition of art as merely any branch of “creative skill / activity”. How do we distinguish any discerning characteristics? Firstly, any piece of design can be considered art but not any artwork can be considered a piece of design. When you see a square you don’t call it a rectangle because it is also a rectangle, you call it a square because the overlying characteristic of an object is what identifies it— we wouldn’t call a spoon a piece of metal. The meaning of language derives from abstractions, where the top / surface layer is the characterizing one.
Art is visceral. It exists at the foundation of everything. Often, we find beauty in objects that have a harmonious balance of art (base level) and design (surface level). We like to see novelty within an otherwise coherent system. If design is the outcome of thinking, art is the outcome of feeling.