Design in the Arts

Design in the arts; a drawing, more especially when made as a guide for the execution of work; that side of drawing which deals with arrangement rather than representation; and generally, by analogy, a deliberate planning, scheming or purpose. Modern use has tended to associate design with the word “original” in the sense of new or abnormal. The end of design, however, is properly utility, fitness and delight. If a discovery, it should be a discovery of what seems inevitable, an inspiration arising out of the conditions, and parallel to invention in the sciences. The faculty of design has best flourished when an almost spontaneous development was taking place in the arts, and while certain classes of arts, more or less noble, were generally demanded and the demand copiously satisfied, as in the production of Greek vases, Byzantine mosaics, Gothic cathedrals, and Renaissance paintings. Thus where a “school of design” arises there is much general likeness in the products but also a general progress.

The common experience—“tradition”—is a part of each artist’s stock in trade; and all are carried along in a stream of continuous exploration. Some of the arts, writing, for instance, have been little touched by conscious originality in design, all has been progress, or, at least, change, in response to conditions. Under such a system, in a time of progress, the proper limitations react as intensity; when limitations are removed the designer has less and less upon which to react, and unconditioned liberty gives him nothing at all to lean on. Design is response to needs, conditions and aspirations. The Greeks so well understood this that they appear to have consciously restrained themselves to the development of selected types, not only in architecture and literature, but in domestic arts, like pottery. Design with them was less the new than the true.

For the production of a school of design it is necessary that there should be a considerable body of artists working together, and a large demand from a sympathetic public. A process of continuous development is thus brought into being which sustains the individual effort. It is necessary for the designer to know familiarly the processes, the materials and the skilful use of the tools involved in the productions of a given art, and properly only one who practises a craft can design for it. It is necessary to enter into the traditions of the art, that is, to know past achievements. It is necessary, further, to be in relation with nature, the great reservoir of ideas, for it is from it that fresh thought will flow into all forms of art. These conditions being granted, the best and most useful meaning we can give to the word design is exploration, experiment, consideration of possibilities. Putting too high a value on originality other than this is to restrict natural growth from vital roots, in which true originality consists. To take design in architecture as an example, we have rested too much on definite precedent (a different thing from living tradition) and, on the other hand, hoped too much from newness. The same is true of all forms of design. Of course the genius and inspiration of the individual artist is not here ignored, but assumed. What we are concerned with is a mode of thought which shall make it most fruitful.

Excerpt from: Encyclopedia Britannica articles about art