I have a tendency to cringe when I hear what I do for a living described as "artistic." For me, that word evokes tortured souls subsisting on crusts of bread in stifling garrets, bead-wearing earth mothers weaving kaftans, and aimless liberal arts undergrads without much aptitude or discipline. This isn't to say that I'm some sort of Philistine that can't appreciate the difference between a masterpiece by Picasso and schlock by Thomas Kinkade. I think that art - real art - is vital, important and powerful. It is, however, not what I do.
What I do is a lot more pragmatic than that. One popular definition describes design as problem solving and I think that's largely true. It's important to make sure that all of the required page elements and functionality appear on the site, but that is the easy part. The tricky part is incorporating all the elements in such a way that it reinforces the brand.
That's what I see as the biggest departure between art and design. Both are in the business of creating things, but the artist is using all of the means available to uncover and declare some greater truth. Designers may have an idea of what they consider a greater truth, but it's irrelevant to their day jobs -that's because their day job is to solve the creative brief, not to make art.
So what is the creative brief?
The creative brief is an outline of all the visual challenges that need to be addressed. This may relate to functionality issues, but more often than not, it attempts to communicate the tone and overall message that the final deliverable must achieve. Many people will assume that they can't describe to a designer exactly what they want to be created. They come to the kickoff meeting with a lot of technical questions that need to be satisfactorily answered, but the design? Well, they know what they like and they'll know it when they see it.
The risk here is that if design questions don't get asked, answered, or are answered inadequately, there is a real possibility of delivering something that doesn't meet expectations. If those expectations are recorded in a document however, both the designer and the client can refer back to it as a guidepost. At the end of the day, the question is whether the execution addresses the brief, not just a subjective measure of aesthetics.
So how do we get people talking about design?
For many, design is meant to be expressed and appreciated and that makes them reluctant to get involved in the conversation. I happen to believe that they're confusing it with art. By introducing the term usability, we can finally look past the color palette and typefaces and get to the core of the experience.
Using those terms - experience and usability, rather than design, is likewise an effective way to draw people into the conversation. It may be a cheap trick of semantics, but you could argue that design is what you do to solve usability and user-experience problems. It's a lot easier to draw someone into a conversation by discussing their frustrations and pain points with similar experiences and then work your way back from there. The issues raised in that conversation are what will comprise the creative brief, along with information about target audience, business goals, messaging, and calls to action.
In the end
Different designers will approach creative briefs differently, but all designers need to be good at listening to their clients. The best designers are the ones who are able to draw out the information that they need, even from reluctant clients in order to create elegant solutions to complex problems.
That communication, between client and designer, is what separates art from design. Obviously there is territory where design strays into the realm of art and vice-versa. But at its heart, design is all about identifying and solving the creative brief.