More on the Subjectivity of Design

Posted on Mar 05, 2007

A big pet-peeve of mine is someone who thinks design is subjective. That idea hollows out and removes all the effort and knowledge I put into a piece of work. It suggests that the result of my work is the appreciation of each individual observer, regardless of my intent or purpose. That idea could not be further from the truth: good design is functional — it accomplishes something.

As Joshua Porter points out on his blog:

Art is about personal expression. It is about the life, the emotions, the thoughts and ideas of the artist. It matters very little what observers do, their activity is not required, only their appreciation. The practice of Art doesn’t require them. It is a necessary activity for the artist, and the artist alone.

Design, on the other hand, is about use. The designer needs someone to use (not only appreciate) what they create. Design doesn’t serve its purpose without people to use it. Design helps solve human problems. The highest accolade we can bestow on a design is not that it is beautiful, as we do in Art, but that it is well-used.

I often think of designers like architects. They have to consider a broad-range of technical subjects; just as architects should have working knowledge of engineering, urban planning, plumbing, and so on. They have to combine all that technical knowledge with aesthetics — arguably another technical vocation all-together — to produce their final work. Web designers have to think much the same way; mixing things like taxonomy, usability, accessibility, typography, and so on to produce the final results we see (or don’t as the case may be).

Let us set the record straight on web design. It’s a multi-disciplinary profession that requires technical and aesthetic abilities. Web design is definitely not subjective.