14/52: Combo Box

I struggle with the relationship between design and art.


Each week for a year, I’m going to be designing a shirt and releasing it on my Threadless store. This is the design for week 14.


My kids think that I’m a great artist. But most days, I wouldn’t call myself an artist. Designer, yes. Artist…. I’m not sure.

It’s probably a hangup from my youth, but to me, artists use natural media. Paint and canvas. Ink and paper. I feel completely lost with a paintbrush in my hand. While I work out ideas in a sketchbook, my tool of choice is a computer. And to be honest, I’ve always felt that makes me less of an artist.

I’ve talked to many designers my age who feel the same way. But younger designers often have no issue with the distinction between natural media and computer-based creations. They’ve grown up with computers as just another tool that artists use. It’s all art to them.

To complicate things further, as a designer in the business world, I’ve always been taught to base every aesthetic decision on a strategic need. Organizations struggle with subjective artistic decisions, but they love a problem solver. And so designers — like me — often downplay the “art” side of what we do in an effort to show the strategic value of design.

This shirt project is the first thing that I’ve done in a while that feels like an art project. The tools I’m using are the same ones I use when I’m working with clients. The process I’m undergoing is no different than my normal design process. But it feels different. 

Maybe it’s that I’m creating for myself, or how I’m presenting the shirt project. Perhaps it’s because I’m not trying to justify my art with a strategic foundation. Whatever the reason, I’m now sure that the difference between artist and designer has nothing to do with the tools, and everything to do with perception.

So it’s possible my kids* are right...

This week’s shirt is a little snippet of a computer interface expressing my uncomfortableness with the label of “artist.” You can purchase “Combo Box” at Threadless.

* My wife thinks I'm an artist, too. And she really didn't like this shirt idea.

Bob Wertz writes about design, technology and pop culture at Sketchbook B. Bob is a Columbia, South Carolina-based designer, creative director, college instructor, husband and dad. He’s particularly obsessed with typography, the creative process and the tools we use to create. He's currently in the middle of a project to design a new shirt a week for an entire year. Follow Bob on TwitterInstagram and Micro.Blog.