What is art? It’s a difficult question because of its broad implications. In his essay appropriately titled “What is Art?” Leo Tolstoy argued, “The presence in various degrees of these three conditions — individuality, clearness, and sincerity — decides the merit of a work of art as art, apart from subject matter. All works of art take rank of merit according to the degree in which they fulfill the first, the second, and the third of these conditions.” This is hardly the only definition of the term. Oscar Wilde famously said that “All art is perfectly useless,” because he thought that art only existed for its own sake. There is no purpose behind it. Considering the controversies behind this term, can product design be considered a form of art?
The key factor in art is as a form of expression, a connection being made between the artist and the person viewing it. If one uses Tolstoy’s criteria of individuality, clearness, and sincerity, then some product designs may definitely qualify. Imagine a newly designed product. Is its design unique and an expression of the artist’s individuality? In some cases, that may be true if one designer has a particularly strong vision. The design possessing a clearness of thought is another important factor. When the consumer views the product, is there a clarity of vision that the designer and consumer share?
The last criteria, sincerity, may be the most difficult. If the designer truly hopes to say something meaningful with the design, then true sincerity is possible. If, however, it’s an elaborate ruse mechanically designed to elicit a particular response from the consumer, then it doesn’t really succeed. It’s no accident that the criteria for successful art dovetail so meaningfully with the goals of the best product designs. The goal, the connection with the consumer, is the same.
Some people will argue that art can be almost anything that’s a creative form of expression, and if that’s the case, then product design may be one of the most powerful forms of art out there.