Design is complicated. Some types of design are more subjective, “artful”—some are more utilitarian and follow more rigid rules. What process do we follow to create digital design solutions? Is it an inevitable conclusion of mechanically applying objective principles to a problem (functional design), or is it the organic result of more subjective decision making?
The relationship between art and design is often misunderstood, and although a design outcome can be artful, the process behind it is altogether very different.
An artist aims to aesthetically express personal ideas or feelings through a particular medium. Art is valued for its originality and ability to explore alternative representations of an appearance, people, or things. With art, you either get it or you don’t—and that’s fine.
Design, however, is the result of a number of decisions made by one or more designers trying to solve a specific problem relative to a user; it is then evaluated simply by how successful it is at solving that problem. If unsuccessful, then the design has failed.
The Design of Everyday Things is a fantastic book by cognitive scientist and usability engineer Donald Norman about how design is the communication between an object and the user, and how to make the experience of using an object pleasurable.
One area of exploration within the book is how often people will naturally blame themselves for being unable to use an object as intended, although it is never the fault of the user. It makes the case for how the design of an object should fulfill a user’s objective, be intuitive to use, and not require training. If it does, then the object’s design has failed.
But what has this got to do with objectivity in design? Let’s look at how we term objectivity and its role in the design process.
Understanding the definitions will help differentiate between something being objective or subjective:
- Objective (adj) - not influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions
- Subjective (adj) - influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions
Using these definitions, we may surmise that design is primarily an objective process. To become successful as a designer, it is advisable we follow an objective process in a project’s initial phase, rather than being influenced by emotions, “taste,” hypotheses, and unfounded assumptions.
Nevertheless, all good intentions aside, when it comes to designing for clients or other people, the design process can be misunderstood and objectivity excluded from the conversation. Instead, to judge the success of a design outcome, we fall back on our aesthetic sensibility and our emotions, and are influenced by how we “feel” about the design.
The problem is, our emotions and how we feel are unpredictable, uncertain, and very complicated. They are subjective. Our judgment is greatly affected if we don’t understand the relationship between the objective approach in design and the influence general aesthetics could have on our emotions.
Understanding Our Industry
All we must do is define a core concept—a problem to solve—and make logical, subsequent decisions off it. –Eric Fisher
When it comes to design, as an industry, ours is afflicted with an abundance of self-deception. We each believe we are doing more than just painting by numbers.
Good design is objective because it just works.
It works because the initial design application follows a system or framework—every subsequent design decision has a reason, and every styled element can be explained. Having set up a strong foundation, it is also a result of well-considered subjectivity.
Human emotion is critical when deciding whether to engage with a website or product; therefore, the aesthetics are equally important.
I consider myself to be an objective person and I expect that you do too. Objectivity is easier, especially when learning a new subject. It’s easier to understand all the objective principles within that subject and understand the truths; by knowing the facts, it makes it easier to decipher the subject. This is how we initially approach design.
There are basic systems and frameworks—design truths—that can be applied to design to ensure that our approach is as objective as it can be. Some examples of these are:
Research and usability testing
User research focuses on understanding user behaviors, needs, and motivations through observation techniques, task analysis, and other feedback methodologies. It is “the process of understanding the impact of design on an audience” (Mike Kuniaysky).
The purpose of user research is to help us design objectively with the end user in mind. It is research that prevents us from designing for ourselves and influencing the design with our subjective opinions. Instead, user research tells us who the person is, in what context they’ll use this product or service, and what they need from us.
User research and usability studies help designers stay objective.
Design is most effective when executed with knowledge of human psychology. Understanding how the mind reacts to visual stimuli allows the crafting of an objective design—without psychology, you are just guessing. Psychology itself is a massive subject, but that doesn’t mean you need a Ph.D. to use it in your design. There are simple psychological principles you can use to improve the effectiveness of your design without knowing the theory behind it.
Understanding human psychology enables effective objective design.
(By Martin420 via Wikimedia Commons)
Best practices, conventions and standards
Using clear and effective design best practices, conventions, and standards as guides, we can use proven formulas for better, more objective design. UX design best practices both aid the usability of our design as well as the aesthetic value. Furthermore, being able to refer back to these conventions and standards when presenting or discussing your design can further help you establish yourself as knowledgeable, with justified, objective reasons for your design choices.
10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design by Jakob Nielsen
All businesses have goals in mind when briefing a project, and it’s the job of the designer to accomplish these. It may be necessary for them to be dissected and adjusted to align with the needs of the user, but ultimately the business will set the objectives of the project. It may seem to be common sense to mention this, but it’s remarkable how many times important business objectives can be overlooked, especially when they may not align with the users’ needs.
A designer who has a clear idea of what needs to be achieved is far more potent than one who is simply trying to make something look pretty.
Finding the Balance between Objective and Subjective
Design systems and frameworks may seem like objective things, until the moment we have to actually use them. It seemed objectively obvious to give users search suggestions, but why not just allow them to search as they please and then filter the results? 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.
The design of anything involves making a lot of decisions. You have to decide what the thing will do and how it will do it. Decisions on what features to include and, more importantly, what not to include have to be made. From the moment the design process begins to the moment you stop, decisions are being made. While these decisions may be objectively founded with the help of systems and frameworks, what decisions we take are ultimately our subjective choice.
Design systems and frameworks are there to provide context—to help in the decision process. Based on vast amounts of previous experience, they offer well-proven templates and guidelines to help reduce the limitless options to just a sensible few. However, just because there are guidelines, it doesn’t mean there is no flexibility.
Architecture has a fundamental, unchangeable guideline—the laws of physics. For example, take Federation Square in Melbourne, Australia; there has always been a lot of opinion about this building, and not everyone has always loved it.
There were five very different designs presented to the board when Federation Square was first proposed, all from different firms. While each idea was unique in concept, all of them had one key thing in common: physics.
Federation Square in Melbourne, Australia
There is always going to be lots of decisions to be made within the scope of a project. The earliest and more important decisions will be informed by the objective principles; the goals of the project, the user and psychological research, and the best practices, standards, and conventions. A roadmap is then provided to help with the decisions that will come after that, but they will also be informed by your own experiences and observations.
When it comes to design, if someone challenges your design outcomes with an aesthetic or emotional response, they need to be reminded that design decisions are based on objective reasoning.
Designers are highly disciplined professionals. They have the ability to perceive and interpret the grey areas and turn them into black and white—and they use both objectivity and subjectivity to create greater user experiences.
But most importantly, they create designs that just work.