Form Follows Function: Why Graphic Design is Different Than Art

Last updated on: 2018


You see it all the time, whether if it’s on a billboard along the freeway, on the TV screen inside your living room and especially on your social media apps. It oftentimes goes unnoticed, both because it’s so prevalent and also because you might mistake it for reality. It’s none other than one of the core services and specialties offered at Taylor & Pond: graphic design. Graphic design is a key player in the world of digital marketing, working with video and photography to create the visual foundation of your favorite campaigns. Something that is often forgotten, however, is that graphic design is different than art. Today, we are diving into what graphic design is and how it fundamentally differs from art.

What is Graphic Design?

Graphic design is a lot harder to define than you may think; it’s also a wider topic than this blog post has room for. Let’s start with defining what it isn’t. Graphic design isn’t exactly art. Sure, it has facets similar to art, and both require an incredible amount of creative skill and imagination, but it differs in one main aspect — function. Art is meant to be admired and appreciated for the emotional response it will produce in its viewers. Graphic design, on the other hand, has a purpose beyond provoking an emotion.

It is a form of direct communication that demands a behavioral response.

Design is encompassed into a phrase graphic designers know very well, “form follows function”, whereas art can be defined as the opposite, function following form. What this means is that there is a very specific message a design should relay, while in art, the message is oftentimes subjective and up to each individual’s interpretation.

Below are four main components of design that make it different from art.


Semantics are designing to convey meaning. In other words, create a design that can communicate the subject from the sender to the receiver in a way that makes sense. Moreover, a design should be able to be passed multiple times between different parties and never lose its meaning. Semantics absolutely need to be implemented at the start of the conceptualizing process, prior to the execution process. This ensures that the design is aimed at a precise target from start to finish.


Syntax is the structure set into place to regulate the relationship of various elements of the design project. For example, the balance and consistency of type, grids and images on one page but also maintaining these elements throughout an entire newspaper, book or magazine. Syntax, at its core, is organization and that extra attention to detail.


Similar to syntax, discipline enforces the need for and use of structure. Moreover, while syntax predominantly helps organize and determine the relationship between elements on a page, discipline guarantees that there will be consistency across multiple pages. Discipline helps to ultimately avoid fragmentation throughout a design.

Avoid Sameness & Fragmentation

Avoiding sameness comes down to establishing an original identity that does not replicate any other design too closely. I say “too closely” because designers constantly build off of previous trends and pieces in order to provoke nostalgia and connections in viewers. On the other hand, fragmentation is when the identity is so diverse that the viewer doesn’t understand the values, message or characteristic you are trying to convey. Hence, too much diversity creates bad communication and should be avoided.

In brief, the purpose, function and absolute goal of graphic design is to convey a clear message to its audience. Graphics will attempt to do so by targeting the emotions of its audience and seek to encourage or persuade them differently. Ultimately, a design is considered successful if, by persuading the emotions of the audience, they continued to provoke the behaviors of the viewer. On the other hand, when the design is unclear, it has failed to prompt any emotions and behaviors. This can be caused by many factors, including that viewer may lack any of the cultural, social, historical, symbolic or psychoanalytic knowledge that the graphic is addressing.

Simply put, the success of graphic design depends completely on its audience’s ability to comprehend meaning.

It requires mutual communication between the two parties where the graphic presents a topic in a symbolic and artistic way and then the viewer is not only then asked to make sense of it all. To do so, the viewer must interpret the design and react to it in such a way that the viewer would communicate back through their actions. Graphic design cannot be considered exhibition art that belongs in a gallery. It serves far too many other practical functions including what T&P does best – marketing and branding!

If you’re interested in learning more about form follows function, click here. Want to learn more about graphic design? Check out these resources. 

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Sam Carbajal