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What Are Applied Arts and Why Should You Study Them?

What Are Applied Arts and Why Should You Study Them?

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Ashley MurphyJun 4, 2019

Applied arts is a broad subject area that combines aesthetics, design, consumer need, and finding practical solutions to problems. It is an area in which design and decoration come together to create objects and ideas that are both useful and beautiful. Specific areas of study include graphic design, fashion design, architecture, automotive design, advertising, and ceramics.

The applied arts are very distinct from fine art, where the aim is to produce an aesthetic that is beautiful for its own sake or that consciously places itself within an artistic tradition or movement. And although the boundary between the two areas is often blurred, it can be summarized in the following way: fine art is essentially an intellectual pursuit, whereas applied arts focuses on utility and usefulness. Fashion is an excellent example of the divergence between the two forms of art. Just compare some of the more extravagant outfits modeled on a catwalk to the kind of clothing you can buy in the high street from the same designers. Studio artist Hung Luu writes, “Applied arts is very similar to fine arts but instead, you are implicating the art on, for example, a shirt and it has to look good on the shirt while maintaining the quality of the shirt. With fine arts, you can create whatever you want. It doesn’t have to function like a shirt so you have more leeway.”

The fine artist selects forms and designs based on subjective choice, whereas the applied artist must take a more objective approach, tailoring their aesthetic choice to match the needs of a client, consumer, or a business. And because applied arts directly engage with the market economy, there are plenty of job opportunities and career paths for qualified students.

So if you're looking for a way to earn a decent salary while still flexing those creative muscles, opting for an applied arts course is an excellent place to start your journey.

With all that in mind, here’s why you should think about studying the applied arts.

Excellent career prospects

The image of the "starving artist" is a romantic notion idealized through recent ages. In more contemporary times, the rise of celebrity artists like Damien Hirst suggested that the next generation of creatives could make small fortunes by learning how to market their work. However, the realities of being a young artist are very different from such caricatures. First of all, it's much harder to focus your creative talents when you're worried about paying the rent or counting up the pennies for another pack of instant noodles. And multimillionaire artists like Hirst are very much the exception rather than the rule. This isn't to say that you should let the odds deter you from following your passion, but it's a good idea to apply your skills in more accessible areas of the market that guarantee a steady and decent income.

Applied arts students and graduates often have a significant advantage over other art students in highly competitive job sectors. In addition to concentrating on the practical side of design and innovation, many applied arts course have direct links with companies that offer internships to the most talented students, which is one of the bests ways to make a positive impression on potential employees or bolster your CV.

Designers who can respond creatively to applied art and design problems are always in high demand and can build successful careers in education, restoration work, advertising, museums, and retail. Many go on to start their own creative businesses or work freelance as technicians, designers, and craft workers.

An applied arts course takes a comprehensive approach to the whole design process and encourages students to engage with as many different mediums as possible. During a three-year undergraduate program, students will work with a diverse range of artistic forms, such as film, photography, textiles, and ceramics. As such, the applied arts graduate has more skills to market and promote. They're also better prepared for the fluid and dynamic nature of the modern job market.

It will prepare you for the realities of the workplace

The applied arts are driven by innovation and creative thinking. Creativity is associated with emotion, empathy, intuition, and novelty, traits which are essential for any creative pursuit. However, the field also involves a logical and systematic approach to problem-solving. Subsequently, an applied arts course will typically include several modules dedicated to the practical side of operating within a business where customer satisfaction and profit are the primary motivators. So in addition to creativity, on an applied arts course or degree you will also probably study topics such as marketing, the psychology of leadership, and communication in the workplace.

An applied art course isn't about reining in or dampening your creative drive. Instead, it encourages students to harness their natural talents towards a concrete objective.

Your work can change people's lives

Great works of art inspire countless people. Some of these people go on to create works of their own, while others simply enjoy the emotional or intellectual thrill of being in the presence of a masterpiece. Still, the vast majority of this art is contained within galleries or museums, quasi-sacred places that are ring-fenced off from the 'real' world. So while there is a certainly a strong humanistic case for art, it could be argued many do not experience it, for example, during the daily commute or when struggling to assemble a piece of flat-pack furniture.

We rarely praise the efforts of the applied artist, which generally means they are doing something right. After all, good design is about solving problems and preventing any further issues. As such, their work often goes unnoticed or underappreciated, even when it has a beneficial impact on our lives and communities. Even the most successful applied artist will rarely (if ever) garner the same kind of praise and adoration as a 'real' artist, but the work they do can be just as profound in shaping the present and the future.

Lee Clow is the chairman and global director of media arts at TBWA. He started his career in advertising as a graphic designer and went on to be involved in some of the world's most famous marketing campaigns, so well known they became part of pop culture and altered the way we see the world. One such campaign was the 1984 Apple commercial which launched the Macintosh computer.

By the time he was 25, Steve Jobs had designed and created a product that would go on to change the word. It was called a personal computer. But the young Jobs had a big problem -- nobody knew what it was, how to use it, or why they needed one. He needed an advertising campaign that was as bold and as revolutionary as his product. So Clow and his colleagues came up with the following tagline: “On January 24th, Apple computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like 1984.”

By subverting the title of George Orwell's dystopian classic of autocratic power and technology, the team behind the campaign created an alternative future in which faceless corporations or governments would not dominate tech -- a future which, ultimately, would be democratic and liberating. From its earliest appearance within the public space, Apple presented itself as a liberator, a new kind of benevolent company ushering in a new type of world based upon openness, inclusivity, and freedom. What's more, they did all this without even showing the actual product; the message alone was more than enough. So while applied artists like Low will never be as well-known as a Picasso or Francis Bacon, they can have just as much chance of shaping the cultural consciousness.

The applied arts are much less autonomous than the fine arts, but this does not necessarily mean they are any less creative. In fact, as paradoxical as it may seem, working with specific guidelines can be just as inspiring as a blank canvas. Yes, the applied artist has an ultimate goal to reach, but how they get there is up to them. And those who come with the most creative solutions are likely to be the most successful...

Ashley Murphy

After graduating with a degree in English literature and creative writing, Ashley worked as a bartender, insurance broker, and teacher. He became a full-time freelance writer in 2016. He lives and writes in Manchester, England.