Good Design Is Subjective

How does one arrive at a design solution? Is design the inevitable conclusion of applying objective principles to a problem or is it the end result of more subjective decision-making? Something in-between perhaps?

During a recent conversation, someone suggested an idea I had for an article about design wouldn’t work because it would be too subjective. It would be based on my opinion rather than objective principles. My reaction was to think so what.

Design is subjective. Any design you encounter is the result of a number of decisions made by one or more designers and most, if not all of those decisions, carry some measure of subjectivity. A lesson I’ve had to learn in my journey as a designer is design decisions aren’t absolutely right or wrong. There’s a lot of subjectivity in them.

Darts stuck in a dartboard

Human Beings are Subjective by Definition

A couple of definitions make clear the difference between something being objective and something being subjective.

  • objective (adj.) — not influenced by personal feelings, tastes or opinions.
  • subjective (adj.) — influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions.

Every designer brings a unique set of skills, intuition, experiences, and decision-making abilities to the mix

The difference is us. When something of ourselves is injected into anything, whether it’s our feeling, opinion, or taste, things becomes subjective. When was the last time you completely removed yourself from a decision you made?

We may not always be aware the role our subjectivity plays in what we convince ourselves are objective decisions, but it’s always there. Despite our best efforts we can’t remove the personal completely.

Let’s face it. None of us is even 100% aware of all the psychological stuff that goes on inside us and makes us do the things we do. How could we possibly be entirely objective doing anything. If you or I design something, by definition subjectivity enters into it, because you or I enter into it.

Guidelines aren’t Absolute Rules

Design principles are more guideline than absolute rule. They’re along the lines “if you do this, then that is likely how it will be perceived” or “when people in the past did it this way, here’s how it turned out.”

Yes, there are fundamental principles that are more objective than others. There are principles with plenty of data to support them, but ultimately there’s subjectivity in all of them.

We’re given guidelines about type such as 50–60 characters per line of text. Some will suggest up to 75 is ok on a screen. Still, others have performed studies that suggest longer lines are quicker and more efficient to read and even lead to greater reading comprehension.

How can a choice in typeface or type pairing ever be anything other than subjective? Will everyone feel the same thing upon seeing Helvetica? Georgia? Comic Sans? We have guidelines to suggest how those typefaces might make people feel, but ultimately when you choose a typeface, it’s you choosing based on how it makes you feel or how you think it will make others feel.

Layout? Grids seem rather rational and objective don’t they? Who decides which grid to use? How do you choose the size of grid units and fields? Are there rules that tell you exactly where to place elements inside the grid. Does every element need to fall on the grid or can some be placed off the grid? Who decides?

None of us sees color exactly the same way. Show 50 people the color red and they’ll see 50 different hues of red. How could that be anything other than subjective? Color theory helps explains some characteristics of color and what happens when colors are placed near each other, but in the end different people will see color differently and most of the meaning we derive from color is cultural.

Do I even need to explain how aesthetic details are subjective? You might choose them based on an objective desire to unify a design concept, but who again chose that concept? How exactly was it chosen? Would every designer come up with the exact same concept for the same design problem? Would you come with the same concept 5 years from now as you would today?

Designers Make Subjective Decisions

If design were truly objective then giving the same design problem to several designers with the same knowledge and skill should inevitably lead to the same resulting design. It won’t and it never will.

You’d probably recognize similarities between the designs, but they wouldn’t be the same. Every designer brings a unique set of skills, intuition, experiences, and decision-making abilities to the mix. We bring our subjectivity, which is the context of our lives.

Designers make decisions. We make a lot of them when designing anything. We usually have so many decisions to make we start by defining constraints to eliminate many possible decisions and options as quickly as possible.

Some of these constraints lean to the objective side, but hardly all. It would be impossible to make an objective decision about every possibility a design might consider. Experience tells us we don’t have to. We can set a few constraints based on some subjective things and still be fine.

That’s not to say our choices can’t be rational. They should be. We should do our best to have reasons for our choices, but we should also accept that many of our reasons will be more subjective than we might care to admit. Again we’re human and by definition subjectivity enters into our decisions.

We define constraints and develop concepts based on our interpretation of the problem. Who we are, where we’ve been, our experiences, our instincts, our voice as designer, our voice as human being, and even our mood for the day shape our interpretation. When these things change our interpretation changes as well.

Learning Design Subjectively

I consider myself a rather objective person, at least as far as people can truly be objective. When I attempt to learn a subject, I seek its objective principles. I want to discover the absolute truths in the subject I’m learning. It’s how I initially approached design.

Design fundamentals came across like objective things, until the moment I had to apply them. It seemed objectively obvious that aligning elements to each other in a design created order, but why align this element to that one instead of the one over there? What made one a better choice than the other? The answer has less to do with an absolute rule and more to do with subjective experience.

At times I’ve struggled when it comes to using type and color. I’ve come to realize it’s because there are no objective rules for what I’m after. I want to know the rule that says this typeface communicates joy while that one communicates anger. I want to know the rule that tells me what color to use when I want to express elegance and what color to use when I want to express adventurous.

It doesn’t work that way. If I want to choose a typeface or color based on what it communicates and expresses I have to look at a lot of typefaces and colors and decide for myself what I think they communicate and express. It’s up to me to build a library of subjectively chosen options in order to help me later make what I’d like to think are objective decisions.

The guidelines can help us decide, but ultimately it’s our subjective choice. Whether we succeed or not will depend on whether those viewing the sites we design receive what we tried to express.

Closing Thoughts

I’ve always urged others to be as objective as possible when making decisions and I’ll continue to do so. I stress learning and gathering as much information as possible in order to help you make decisions more objectively. I think we should spend more time critically thinking about our designs and those of others in order to understand the reasons behind the decisions we make.

Having said that, I’m fully aware that it’s impossible for us to make completely objective decisions or look at anything with an entirely objective eye. By definition anything we do or touch becomes subjective because of our involvement.

For some that’s a scary proposition. How are you to know if you’re right or wrong? How you know if you’ve done well or done poorly? Welcome to the human race. You can never know with absolute certainty.

Don’t let it scare you, though. While it means you can’t be sure, it also means no one else can be either. It means your opinion is valid. If you think a design good, then it is. If you think it bad, then it is. For you. Learn to have confidence in your design decisions and opinions.

Your opinion will likely change the more you understand design principles and why they exist. Your opinion will change the more you think about design and the more design decisions you make. Your opinion will change as you come to understand why another designer might have made a particular choice.

In the end it’s all subjective.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

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