Subjective And Objective Design Choices

Earlier this year I said that good design is subjective. I’m guessing quite a few people would disagree with that statement. Most of us want to believe we’re objective decision-makers who rationally think about problems and solutions and make choices based on objective principles. The truth is a little different.

Shades of Gray

Despite my thought that design is subjective, I also talk about design principles and I’ve urged you to take a step back from your work and think as critically and objectively as possible about it. In fact I pride myself on usually being one of the more objective people in the room.

Something isn’t adding up. How can I say design is subjective and yet try to help myself and others become better designers through objective means. A post from Seth Godin on the illusion of choice has me thinking about this topic. It has me thinking about how to reconcile what I’ve said and thought about subjectivity and objectivity in design.

Seth talked about essential and inessential choices. Lots of decisions, such as whether to see one movie or another, are for the most part inessential. Which movie you choose to see really doesn’t matter.

I’m sure it matters to those who worked on the movie and it very well could matter to your enjoyment for a couple of hours and there’s always a chance a completely different life unfolds for you based on any choice. However, in the larger picture, which movie you decide to see is mostly irrelevant. You can make the decision arbitrarily if you want.

Seth’s point is to understand which decisions are the essential ones so you could put your energy into them and not waste your time and energy on those decisions that really don’t matter.

Everything is on a Scale

I don’t believe in absolutes. Things are rarely, if ever, absolute. Most things in life are not explicitly either/or. Black and white are just different shades of gray. Still, I often talk about dualities. For example a topic I come back to a lot is the tension between creativity and productivity.

It’s impossible for us to remove every bias we hold when making a decision

While these dualities might seem either/or on the surface I see them more as two ends of the same spectrum or scale. At one end sits 100% creative and 0% productive and at the other the percents are reverse. In between these end points every other point on the scale is some combination of creative and productive.

A non-design related example is love and hate. I think most people understand love and hate aren’t opposites. They’re different end points on a scale of passion. Wen your passion is at the positive maximum you get love and when it’s at the negative maximum you get hate.

You’re highly unlikely to be at 100% passion in either direction and it’s just as unlikely your work is either entirely creative or productive. Nearly all the time, we’re somewhere in between on some scale or spectrum.

I think there’s a similar thing happening with subjectivity and objectivity. Human beings are subjective. It’s impossible for us to remove every bias we hold when making a decision. We’re not even aware of many of our biases, so how could we remove them from the equation?

Any choice you make is going to have some measure of subjectivity in it simply due to the personal biases that influence you.

On the other hand, the universe around you doesn’t care much about biases. It operates independently of them. You can believe the earth is flat and the center of all things and the universe doesn’t care. You still aren’t flat and you still aren’t the center of everything.

We can observe the universe objectively through scientific method. Biases can still get in the way, but the science eventually prevails, breaking through the subjectivity of what you hoped to discover.

And yet, it’s still us deciding what to observe and how to observe it. We’ve even discovered our observations have an impact on the thing we’re observing. Our subjectivity can apparently change the objective.

We’re far from perfect and we make mistakes too. We interpret data incorrectly, or fail to see a flawed experiment as flawed. In the end though we’re pretty good at observing and measuring and determining how the universe around us works with a great deal of objectivity.

But, we are human so everything we do is going to carry some small amount of subjectivity at the very least.

Objectivity and Subjectivity in Design

When you consider design in the micro sense, we can do a reasonable job of being objective. We have design principles to guide us. We develop concepts at the outset to follow. We add constraints to make options more manageable. We bring our own subjectivity to each decision, but we can generally lean far toward the objective side when deciding.

In the macro sense, the bits of subjectivity that enter into each decision add up to something that moves the scale toward the subjective side. It reaches a point where the sum is no longer objective enough to be considered objective. I don’t think that point would be at 50% along the line. Is 15% subjectivity enough to lose objectivity? 25% 35%? I don’t know, but I don’t think it takes 50% subjectivity to make something subjective.

Even if the decisions we make are as objective as possible and all follow a unified logic, they contain some measure of the subjective and add up to something more subjective than we might care to admit.

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

Think about all the decisions you make over the course of a design. Then think of all the decisions you could have made, but didn’t. It’s a lot of decisions. Think of all the potential combinations of decisions you could make and how the resulting design might be different depending on which of the many combinations of decisions you end up making.

Can you honestly say after a design is finished the result was objectively and clearly the best design you could have created? I think you’d be lying to yourself if you answer yes. I think you can honestly say you came up with a good solution and even among the best, but I don’t think you can ever know you objectively came up with the single best solution, unless you test far more potential combinations than you reasonably could.

Pretend for a moment you could know. You’d still have no control over how the design is received or works for people. Things can change after you launch that turn a good decision into a bad one. Maybe the trend that informs your aesthetics, falls out of favor shortly after launch. Maybe the day after your site goes live someone releases a revolutionary navigation system rendering your site less usable. Who knows? Things change that are out of your control. You simply can’t know if every decision will have the best results.

Even if everything stayed exactly the same, you have no way of knowing the experience and mental models visitors bring to your design. Different people could very well come away with completely different interpretations of your design based solely on what’s happened to them over the course of their lives.

The design of a website is a complex thing with every part ideally complementing every other part. Just typing it, makes it sound difficult. It’s too complex to even try all the reasonable possibilities to know for certain you’re choosing the best one.

The sum of your design decisions are subjective, even if each decision was made as objectively as possible, because there’s no objective way to realistically determine which combination of decisions is best.

Essential and Inessential Choices

Back to Seth’s post and the idea that there are essential and inessential choices. When designing a website there are far too many decisions for each of them to be mission critical. Some are going to be more important to the design than others.

It suggests that how we prioritize the things we need to do and think about in any design is important. It also suggests that some things are likely to be toward the inessential side across projects. We can extract these these decisions and abstract solutions for them.

For example type. Now let me be clear, I’m not saying typographic decisions are inessential. I think they’re among the most important decisions you make in any design. However, there’s a point where deciding between two different typefaces isn’t very important in the the sense that either will work just as well and you no longer have any objective reason for choosing one over the other.

Instead of trying to spend time at this level of decision on every project, why not develop a type palette with a handful of typefaces. Choose some that have clear distinctions for how each is best used. You can grow palette independent of any project. Your choices will contain a measure of subjectivity, but it’ll help you objectively make a choice given the constraint.

You can do similar with color and work with a limited set of color choice. You reduce subjectivity within a defined set of options even if the set of options was subjectively chosen. You’ll find enough good choices within your subjective palette to objectively work out a design solution.

No decision you make during a design is entirely inessential. They all add up and contribute. Realistically though some are going to be far more important to the success or failure of your design. The least important won’t impact the final design all that much. They might not even make any measurable difference.

You can and probably do make many of these decisions subjectively. There’s little reason to think about them in any great degree, because they won’t have enough impact to justify the effort. A certain amount of personal preference and the arbitrary is going to enter into these decisions.

You can follow all the rules and guidelines about color theory, and in the end you’ll probably use your eye to tweak things. Your eye sees differently from my eye and both of us see things differently than everyone else. There will always be a degree of subjectivity in the choice because none of us can ever know exactly how the colors we choose will be perceived by someone else.

Closing Thoughts

I want to believe I’m an objective person. I think I am, at least as much as anyone can be, and yet I know that every decision I make carries some amount of subjectivity. Whether it’s my personal bias or not having enough information to objectively determine the best decision to make, some subjectivity creeps in.

The more I learn about people, the more I learn this is true of everyone. We’re controlled more by emotion and subjectivity than we’d like to admit.

The universe around us doesn’t care about any of that. It’s far more objective than any of the creatures that inhabit it. We’re subjective beings surrounded by things that follow objective rules we can mostly determine.

There’s a duality between the internal subjective and the external objective that’s at play in everything we do. Understanding this is a step toward letting each do what it does best when conditions allow.

Understanding that not all decisisons are equally important and that your own subjectivity and biases influences all your decisions are big steps in reducing the impact of the sometimes arbitrary choices we inevitably make as well as the sum of those choices.

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  1. Excellent article, one of the best I’ve read that deals with the whole “design is subjective” debate. Completely agree with your thoughts.

    I used to argue that design is not subjective, it either works or it doesn’t, yet visual design (a segment of design as a whole) is the subjective part.

    However, recently I have changed my thinking to accept even design as a whole is not 100% objective; it is not a science, it is simply one’s understanding of what one feels is the best solution to the problem, based on knowledge, best practices, experience, etc. However, this may not be the best solution for another designer, although at least the rationale can be discussed and evaluated as opposed to visual aesthetic which are more opinion-based.

    • Thanks Adam,

      When I first started teaching myself design I approached it as everything is objective and there are rues I just need to learn so I can apply them.

      I realized before too long design doesn’t work that way. The more i looked at it we have objective principles to follow, but there’s no recipe of apply these things in this order and you’ll have a good design.

      There are far too many things to consider and decisions to make and often there’s little to choose one of the other. You have to develop the art of design so you can trust your judgment when faced with the decisions that can’t be objectively determined.

      Fortunately I find the lack of a recipe to follow more interesting.

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