Is Typography Art or Design?

Recently, I’ve been looking at design works that look like art, and art that looks like design. It makes me think, how we should differentiate the two. Or should we even try?

Is Typography Art or Design?


One work in particular is LENBACHHAUS by the artist, Thomas Demand. It serves as signage for the Lenbachhaus Museum. On the surface it seems more like something the architect designed to identify the entrance. But here’s how the museum describes it.

Far more than just a nametag, the sculpture, which stands out from the façade by virtue of its color, is composed of individual letters. Their bodies, set off from the façade by a few inches, grow out of an antiqua base, tapering toward the beholder to form a sans-serif typeface. The two-tiered lettering of the metal sculpture is held together by wedge-shaped crosspieces, creating a three-dimensional effect and heightening the interplay of light and shadow. The slender lines of the unadorned metal letters are illuminated, so as night falls, the sculpture continues to highlight the new entrance to the museum. The antiqua typeface was borrowed from the design first used when the Lenbachhaus was founded in 1929; the sans-serif, meanwhile, matches the museum’s current typographic identity.

They think it’s a sculpture. Demand, not known as a graphic designer usually creates life size installations of ordinary scenes in cardboard. Yeah, that escalator is cardboard. He photographs the installation and then destroys the original sculpture.

Is Typography Art or Design?

Here’s a design by Stefan Sagmeister.  Sagmeister is a graphic designer whose work is hard to define. My students often refer to him as a typographer. I’m not sure why. On his site, he’s describes himself as a graphic designer. But his design for the Adobe Max Conference looks like art to me. It was actually a 24 hour performance piece where he and Jessica Walsh spent 24 hours creating a variety of designs. The performance was streamed on a Times Square Billboard.

Is Typography Art or Design?

So the question arises, is it just old people trying to draw distinctions between art and design? It may be. We can go back to definitions of aesthetics of beauty by Immanuel Kant and try to parse words. It’s a great philosophical exercise. But in the end, as an educator, I think it may be time to let it go. We may be drawing boundaries that limit students’ ability to express themselves. Some of my past students create works that when I was in school, definitely would have been considered fine art. Peter Clark is an ex-student working for AutoFuss.  Below is an installation he created with some other designers. His major was motion media, a design degree.


This is his design for an event call OFF2014. He created an animated title for Anton & Irene. Click here to see a video of the process.


Is Typography Art or Design?


The time may have come to just push students to create their best work. If it jumps outside one area, let it. Being that everyone is a designer now to some degree through social media and all, maybe the artists are the ones doing it better.

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