Design is Objective
(don’t bother trying to change our mind)
“Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”
The immortal words of “The Dude” in the Coen brothers’ screwball comedy classic the Big Lebowski have long haunted sensitive snowflake graphic designers the world over (and yes, we probably all fit this description).
It all comes down to that eternal conundrum. Is good design a matter of opinion? Is all art subjective? And even if it is, is 21st century graphic design necessarily an art form?
Before we answer those questions, let’s picture a depressingly common scenario.
You’ve just created the Sistine Chapel of websites for a company that produces ball bearings. The head of marketing is giving it the once-over and he’s not entirely happy…
“The colour scheme is nice, but it doesn’t have that ‘wow’ factor – what about doing it in green, yellow and pink neon stripes? And maybe moving the logo down there? And what if we change the font to comic sans? By the way, what’s all that white space doing there – we need to fill it up with something please!”
So – design. Is it objective or subjective? The first thing to note is that design and art are not the same thing. While the latter may well be largely subjective, the former is more of a discipline, and follows a set of rules and procedures and best practices.
Basically, while artists aim to produce an aesthetic and highly personal response, designers work on solving a specific problem. And really, the only one way to evaluate design is – how effective is it in solving that problem
For a digital designer, the problem might be how to increase sales, for example. Or how to help a user navigate a website faster and more easily. Put another way: when it comes to design, it doesn’t matter what you think – it has to work.
We can see this idea expressed most vividly by substituting digital design for more literally concrete examples. A bridge. A highway. A house. A car. While part of a totally different discipline, these design projects nevertheless have the same objective – solving a problem. And while there is a subjective, purely aesthetic veneer to them, the basic foundations of these design projects are rooted in objective considerations and are either right or wrong.
Here’s the bottom line: good design is objective because it either works or it doesn’t. Any successful design follows a system or framework or set of principles; every design decision has a rationale, and every stylistic choice an explicable purpose and motivation.
Of course, aesthetics are incredibly important – and often decisive in the decisions of a user to engage with a product or website. But even those aesthetics must be purposeful and well-considered, and aren’t purely subjective. They need to account for a number of objectively evaluated factors, including balance, unity, proportion, pattern, repetition, and many others.
In general, good design must factor in the following highly objective elements:
User research is crucial to understanding the impact of specific design decisions on an audience. Once there is a clearer picture of the end user, the design can be tailored to that person or group of people. Do you know your audience?
Successful design entails a grasp of how the brain responds to certain visual stimuli. There are various psychological principles that improve the impact of any given design. Does your design appeal to those cognitive trigger points?
- Best practice and accepted standards
There are tried and tested applications for successful design. Good designers know what works. They’ve seen it work countless times before. Are you using a round wheel rather than reinventing a square one?
- Business objectives
A design might look pretty – but does it drive traffic, boost revenue, improve reputation, or increase knowledge and awareness. Does your design accomplish what the client needs it to accomplish?
If the answer is “yes” to all of those questions – congratulations, your design is objectively great.
Now good luck with getting it approved…