In the past decade the art world has come to embrace technology and design into its hallowed halls. It’s a been a slow, often begrudging transition. That’s why the recent explosion of new media going from niche galleries to mainstream museums has made us stand up and take notice—and also ask, why now? In the last year alone, London’s Barbican Centre devoted an entire exhibition to AI-based artwork; the Serpentine gallery made a public statement committing to artist-led commissions made with emerging digital technologies; and the Zabludovicz Gallery pushed its 360 space, the first dedicated VR viewing room at a UK arts institution. Phoebe Greenberg, founder and director of Montreal’s Phi Centre, which presents work at the intersection of art, film, music, design, and technology, attributes the growing interest of larger institutions to the power that new, alternative media such as VR, AR, AI, and complex interactive audio/visual installations has to creative multi-sensory and even out-of-body experiences for viewers. “Designers play a crucial role in contributing to the way we engage with art,” she says. 

Currently on show at Serpentine, this is an artwork called The Escapist by Suzanne Treister.
Currently on show at Serpentine, Suzanne Treister, The Escapist BHST/Desktop Portal/Holographic Quantum Psychic Visionary Data Transfer, 2019, Courtesy the artist, Annely Juda Fine Art, London and P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York.

This presents a range of exciting opportunities for designers working across interaction, sound design, and other more specialized fields, to now use their skills in UX, UI, and interaction design, coding, animation, video, product design, and more to work in creative and collaborative new ways with artists looking to turn their concepts into fully realized pieces. And while working with an artist might sound like a dream to many designers who are perhaps frustrated with the demands of commercial or client work, there are few things designers should know before embarking on a creative practice.

Illustration by Minet Kim showing two faces looking at each other
Illustration by Minet Kim.

Designers work with artists in a range of ways. Often these projects evolve naturally, by word of mouth, and the briefs are usually loose and left open to interpretation. Some designers might be given a full brief specifying the software, hardware, and application requirements; others might work closely with the artist on the fundamental aspects of the creative concept. Almost always, however, these pieces are highly collaborative—even when the artist has a good grasp of the technical needs—as with Irina Spicaka, who works in Berlin on client-based UX and UI design projects alongside her own artistic practice. Although she formally studied graphic design, advertising, fine art, sound design, and more—and is pretty skilled across programs including Cinema 4D, the Adobe Suite, Unity, Blendr, and Ableton—her immersive spatial installations almost always require her to bring in outside specialists. 

An artwork by Irina Spicaka commenting on selfie culture and digital narcissism.
Irina Spicaka creates concept art, like this piece commenting on selfie culture and digital narcissism.

Though Spicaka calls herself a “concept artist,” she’s strict about crediting her collaborators properly and encourages them to showcase the projects in their own portfolios. “The sound artists, video technologists, and people who helped with construction all create the artwork,” she says. “Giving that credit also means everyone takes responsibility for their part.” She also enjoys the collaborative aspect; not least because working with others can halve the time it takes to complete a project.

To outsiders, it might be a strange thing to work across both art and design, two seemingly different disciplines. A few creatives, however, go solo when it comes to straddling the worlds of art, design, coding, and more. Zach Lieberman is New York-based artist, designer, and programmer, who helps run interaction design studio YesYesNo and the School for Poetic Computation. He views this trio of skills like “three legs of a stool:” they rely on one another to stay upright, but remain discrete entities. “The most valuable thing is figuring out what I can bring from one to the other,” says Lieberman. As an educator, “commercial work feeds into the classroom, as it’s super valuable for students to understand what it’s like working with clients. Then I learn from the students: their energy is something I want to bring to my art. And the things I learn in my art, I might bring into client work.”

An abstract art piece created by Zach Lieberman.
Zach Lieberman creates abstract art pieces. In his words, “the things I learn in my art, I might bring into client work.”

Lieberman has another analogy for defining the process of making art vs. design; Art, he says,  is “walking around a city at night—you don’t know where you’re going, exploring with no direction. It’s so self-directed, and it’s about understanding yourself and sharing those findings with the world.” Design, however, is like navigating a city in the daytime: you know where you are, and where you need to get to, but might still get lost along the way. 

Still, it’s rare for an artist to simultaneously create work and help viewers navigate it. “In my experience, very few artists have the technical capacity to realize their vision in newer media such as VR,” says Phoebe Greenberg, who cites the support of specialists in fields such as game design and cinematic VR as vital in creating art and mediating how an audience experiences it. The flipside for designers who contribute to a larger project is that they may not see their names in the credits, show texts, or press, even when their skills were vital in the creation of a piece.

Dave Meckin is a musician, sound designer, and researcher, who lectures in creative technologies and digital media at UWE Bristol, as well as maintaining his own artistic practice. Over the past several years he’s worked on numerous projects including installations, multimedia sculptures, and brand activations for studios including UVA and Nexus. He also frequently collaborates with individual artists, including Oliver Beer, who he helped create a series of pieces that use sound generated from variously sized vessels in order to form a playable 32-note sculptural instrument. This has since been played by Laurie Anderson and Philip Glass, and shown at sites including The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and London’s Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac.

With certain clients, Meckin says he feels very much part of a collaborative team—and is credited as such—while at other times he plays a more silent creative technologist role, brought in as he’s needed. His stipulation in this more behind-the-scenes role is that he has to “be able to see the creative merit in a piece. That allows me to make designs that are both robust and facilitate the artist’s idea.” 

As with traditional artists’ media (think Olafur Eliasson’s expansive studio, Warhol’s Factory, or Matisse’s glamorous bevvy of assistants), there are always such people in the background, and many who design for artists are happy to stay there. For Valentin Ritz, a Swiss web designer working with artists to create digital platforms, the ‘art’ is firmly about the idea—not how it’s executed and by whom—and such projects offer a welcome relief from more traditional client work. “Artists will usually have a good idea of what the project will be, but they’re always happy to work with someone they can discuss the work with, rather than just giving orders,” he says. “I want to help artists achieve their ideas and show how they can go further. I’m just a tool, if you like.”  

An interactive artistic design created by Valentin Ritz for Mariesahy.com
Valentin Ritz sees himself as a designer support for artists, helping them express their ideas.

However, at points in his career working on pieces that have involved a lot of his own creative input, Meckin admits it can be painful to feel sidelined when the project finally comes to fruition. Like Greenberg, he acknowledges that getting any ambitious artwork off the ground is never a solo effort. “That’s why there are so many people in these sorts of roles, and it’s nice to be part of making these things. Ultimately, it’s the artist or company’s idea, but with every project I learn something, even if I’m not credited. Each informs what I do [in teaching] or in my own practice, so it’s all useful.”

A successful project in both fields, however, is about how a user views and experiences it.  Curator, interaction design lecturer, and researcher Nora O’ Murchú, who was recently announced as the new artistic director of Berlin’s Transmediale festival, focuses her work on art that examines narratives through its marriage with design, coding, software studies, sociology, and politics. She underscores the idea that all areas inherently feed into one another, whether you work as purely a designer or an artist, or across both: user-centered processes, prototyping, and iterating ideas are common to commercial design and artistic applications alike. 

“There are typically around four phases to interaction design: research, design, prototyping, then evaluation,” says O’Murchú. “With an artist it might not be that formalized, but they’re both cyclical processes, and share the experimentation and flexibility that leads to producing iterations of an artwork, or designing an object or service.” Spicaka adds that she finds commercial design principles such as competitor analysis and formulating user personas around her potential viewers carrying over into her self-initiated art, in a bid for originality.

While the designer/artist relationship can be beautifully fulfilling, it’s clearly not always easy. So what makes a great artist/designer/curator collaboration? For O’Murchù and Meckin, the main things are financing, communication, and a shared agreement on deadlines and deliverables. “When the project is super clear, and I know it’s something I can use my expertise with, that’s always a good feeling,” says Meckin. Spicaka also underscores the importance of trust. “You have to give people freedom and not be too controlling,” she says.

Making self-initiated, rather than commissioned work, also opens up the maker to a new set of vulnerabilities. “When you’re exposing yourself and your creative process, there’s a lot of fear,” says Lieberman. “There are always those voices in your head saying ‘it’s not good enough, you’re fake, you’re bad, this sucks’—there’s a lot of self doubt inherent in any creative act, not just art,” he says. Spicaka agrees, “In art I can often feel a bit lost, and wonder, why should I even start something new? Why would anyone be interested? I think every artist struggles with that.” 

Lieberman says the key is to just put your work out there. “Experimenting is how you find new pathways, so even if you feel embarrassed or awkward, you have to share your work. Only then can you understand how your idea might be in or out of harmony with the world.”

This article was written in partnership with AIGA’s Eye on Design publication.