Brain Pickings

Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich on Art vs. Design and the Joy of Losing Yourself in Purposeful Work

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“Art pushes the limit of human experience and language for its own sake, while Design might do this but only to humanize and integrate people’s lives in the context of an economy.”

In a recent episode of the inimitable Design Matters — which has previously given us exhilarating conversations with Paula Scher on creativity, Massimo Vignelli on intellectual elegance, Sophie Blackall on storytelling, and Chris Ware on the architecture of being humanDebbie Millman sits down with designer and typography maestro Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich. His innumerable accomplishments and accolades aside, I — a hopeless lover of beautiful and quirky alphabet books — was instantly smitten with the lovely specimen he created for his daughter’s first Christmas in 2000, inspired by the challenges of instilling an equal love of language in a bilingual child. Titled Bembo’s Zoo: An Animal ABC Book (public library), it features 26 different animals, one for each letter of the alphabet, constructed entirely out of the typeface Bembo. The story of the book’s genesis is as creatively invigorating as it is heart-warming:

In his most recent book, Men of Letters and People of Substance (public library) — a gallery of famous portraits created entirely out of letters and objects, with an introduction by none other than Francine Prose — de Vicq de Cumptich writes:

Design is not Art, since Art exists as an answer to a question posed by an individual artist, while Design exists as an answer to a question posed by the marketplace. Design must have an audience to come into being, while Art seeks an audience, sometimes, luckily, finding it, sometimes not. Art pushes the limit of human experience and language for its own sake, while Design might do this but only to humanize and integrate people’s lives in the context of an economy. Design needs an economic system, while Art does not. Art may become a product, but it’s not the reason why it was created, but how our society transforms it into a commodity.

In fact, this distinction between art and design seems to be a central concern: Echoing Chuck Close’s conception of artists as problem-finders rather than problem-solvers, de Vicq de Cumptich offers a succinct yet poetic definition of the difference between the two:

I like design because [in] design you have a problem and you have a solution … and you have a problem that existed outside of yourself. Art is different: [In art], you have to pose the problem.

Diving deeper into the distinction, de Vicq de Cumptich uses motive — creative impulse vs. commercial gain — as the differentiator, a proposition similar to H. P. Lovecraft’s contrast between “amateurs” and professional journalists:

Adding to history’s great fatherly advice, de Vicq de Cumptich articulates the existential urgency — and joy — of finding your purpose and doing what you love:

One of the things about work that is great is the idea of losing yourself into the work. … You have joy … to play with type, to play with image, to find similarities, to find patterns, to create ideas, to transform… So you lose yourself into the work. And that’s one of the things that I tell to my daughter: Try to find something that you’re so passionate [about] that you lose yourself in it.

De Vicq de Cumptich makes an interesting point about the role of typography as design’s lone singular agent:

The only thing that is specific about graphic design is typography. Everything else you borrow from the other arts — you borrow the image from photography, from painting — but the only thing that is specific material for graphic design is typography. So you have to know type, and you have to learn the history of type, and you have to be willing to play with type.

De Vicq de Cumptich is also the author of Love Quotes (public library), published more than fifteen years ago — a simple, elegant selection of history’s most profound words on love, rendered in exquisite typography alongside expressive photographs by Pedro Lobo.

In a meditation on the creative process, de Vicq de Cumptich ponders where ideas come from and champions the value of managing time purposefully:

Time is also essential. You have to manage your time. Your ideas have to be when you are taking a shower, not when you are in front of a computer.

De Vicq de Cumptich stresses the role of humor in making the audience feel intelligent, a core responsibility of great design also championed by Massimo Vignelli:

Listen to the interview in its entirety and be sure to subscribe to the free Design Matters iTunes podcast for a steady stream of stimulating conversations at the intersection of design, culture, and creativity.

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