Fit for purpose (by Olga Norris)

I recently visited an exhibition of the work of art editor and graphic designer David Hillman.  He is a man whose work I have long admired – and indeed did not know that he was the one behind all the different manifestations.  From the days of the iconic Nova magazine, the glory days of the Sunday Times newspaper, the surreal Benson and Hedges cigarette advertisements, all the designs for Pentagram , … these are images which brought feelings of wonder, excitement, a need to see and know more.  This was the kind of design that I dreamed of aspiring to in my publishing work.

In each case the image was more than the sum of its parts, and was definitively fit for purpose: it drew the appropriate attention to the product, not to the designer of the image – except from fellow professionals.  Good product design similarly excites me, as does brilliant architectural design.  In each case the end result should be at the very least fit for purpose, and also hold some individual integrity beyond the sum of its parts.

 Design is done to a brief which provides boundaries and requirements, as well as the discipline of a necessary respect for the materials and techniques involved.  I have always believed that the more one knows, but the less one indulges oneself the better prepared becomes the vital tool of the brain’s back burner.

 Although art and design are different disciplines, they should overlap, just as they should both overlap with craft.  The more frequently exercised debate is the one between craft and art; but the one not often enough heard is that between design and art, most especially the question of fitness for purpose.

Of course this fitness for purpose in art this is not so clearly defined as in product design, architecture, even graphic design and craft.  And it goes without saying that I am not in the least talking about any practical purpose.  The artist themselves and time are the important judges of what that purpose is; but the informed observer – whether a practising artist or not – should keep seeking to make critical judgments of their own – even if those judgments are later refined or even revised in the light of further enlightenment.  And by critical I do not mean only negative judgements or observations.

 I do believe that there should be a fitness for purpose in one’s art, and that this should constantly be under consideration.  This design thinking, once second nature, along with mastery of appropriate craft and its twin, appreciation of materials, facilitates those special tools of the artist – imagination and the back burner – in making good art: something more than the sum of its parts.

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5 Responses to “Fit for purpose (by Olga Norris)”


  1. 1 Olga March 30, 2010 at 12:37 am

    Clairan, it’s interesting that John Maltby who works in ceramics does just that: he keeps his prices down so that those who appreciate his work can afford it. Here is a link to a bit about him – http://www.earthmarque.com/index.php?page=john-maltby-2009

  2. 2 Clairan March 23, 2010 at 8:49 am

    So thinking of fitness of purpose and the idea of art as commodity, perhaps we should give more thought to producing art which is affordable so that it will be purchased and enjoyed and wondered at by regular folk.

  3. 3 olganorris March 19, 2010 at 3:47 am

    Jean, yes, too often we dismiss pieces of work or label them quickly, because let’s face it time is short. But often we should force ourselves to stop not only to examine the work, but also to re-examine those labels.

    June – I so agree about the commodity aspect of the rarefied ‘heights’ of the art market – sometimes the foothills too. And I very much agree that there needs to be noticing. And here again I am nodding about what you describe as pie in the sky. I believe that distillation and discrimination are vital skills.

  4. 4 june March 18, 2010 at 8:46 pm

    Oddly enough, Olga, I was just reading an interview with James Hillman in which he says art now seems to be mostly in the service of commodity — of the bottom line — of making money.

    But his belief is that since our art is mostly no longer in the service of god or ritual, it needs to be in the service of “noticing.” He says that the word “aesthetic” comes from “aesthesis” which means “noticing.”

    As a painter, looking seems paramount. But as a designer, it seems to me subtracting while looking could be extremely important. Your idea of “judgment” as part and parcel of art as well as design and craft fit into this vague, but for me compelling concept, almost an ethos, that an artist must continually be looking and correcting preconceptions in light of what is seen and then judging again her own work against preconceptions and the visions.

    All that sounds a bit pie in the sky — I apologize. I suspect I’m just trying to suss out some concept of my own. Thanks for the urls and ideas.

  5. 5 Jean M. Judd March 18, 2010 at 5:10 pm

    Thanks for bringing up the “Fit for Purpose” element of art. You bring up some good points about art, craft, design, and purpose have to all be present in good art. Sometimes it will take more than a cursory look at a piece to distinguish its purpose but the art, craft, and design should stand out and help define that purpose.


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