Subjective Design & Objective Design

February 17, 2014 Jonathan Berger

“Design” is a Messy Word

When people ask what I do and I reply “I’m a designer”, their first reaction is often to point at my chest: “Oh! Did you design that shirt?”

“Not that kind of designer,” I reply.

Next they’ll point somewhere around the room. “Oh”, they’ll say “did you hang that wallpaper?”

“Not that kind of designer”, again. Rather than let this game play on, this is usually the time to describe web design, interaction design, product design, visual design, UX design, UI design, etc. The content is tailored to the design-literacy of the interlocutor, but the story is the same. Modern “design” in the context of building products is a mix of many different design disciplines (and: naming things is hard.)

Is design objective or subjective?

There’s a long-running argument about whether design can be objectively called “good”. But what are we judging? We tend not to distinguish between the types of design that are highly objective and the types of design that are highly subjective. E.g., marketing and branding design has a high degree of subjectivity to it. When designing a brand, a professional designer may advise the client on design fundamentals like color and form, but ultimately the design cannot be successful if the client doesn’t feel good about it. Conversely, designing a usable user interface is much more objective: patterns exist, solutions can be tested, and we can often state with a high degree of confidence that one solution is (objectively) better than another.

This is a problem. Even among professionals, we tend not to distinguish between different types of design when discussing work. More importantly, when scoping design work, we confuse the meaning of “done” across various types of design. Designing a new logo and brand? It makes sense to plan for several iterations of client approval. Designing a signup form? “Done” can simply mean “a user can complete their goal”. To subject this to the approval of a non-designer client is akin to demanding client approval from your dentist or surgeon. When the stakes are high it may be prudent to seek a second opinion, but it’s ill-advised to say “I just don’t like your diagnosis. Can you come back to me with three alternatives by next week?”

A Strategy for Articulating Objective and Subjective Design

So how can we address this problem?

  • by crafting better stories for non-designers, explaining which parts of design benefit greatly from subjective feedback and which don’t,
  • by starting a conversation about a taxonomy of design types and the level of subjectivity for each. Here, I’ll start:

A Provisional Taxonomy of Design Types

If we agree that subjective reactions to design have varying degrees of utility, based on the type of design in question, how do we talk about it? A strict taxonomic hierarchy isn’t useful. A rough scale, aimed at helping to guide conversation, is. From most subjective to most objective, here’s a first try:


  • Visual Design – Marketing/Communication (“How should we design our brand?”)
  • Product Design – (“What problem should we try to solve?”)
  • Visual Design – Graphic Design (“Does this color scheme effectively direct the user’s attention?”)
  • User Experience Design – (“Is this product a compelling way for users to accomplish their goal?”)
  • User Interface Design – (“Does this interface help the user do what they need to?”)
  • Information Architecture – (“Does this IA help the user model the world we’re building?”)




The utility of objective and subjective judgement varies by type of design, and we don’t do a good job of speaking clearly about this. If we, as a design community can educate clients the spectrum of subjectivity vs. type-of-design, we can save ourselves tons of pain—and save clients mega-tons of money. Does this taxonomy seem right? Discuss in the comments!

UPDATE: I gave a talk based on this blog post at LeanUX NYC 2014. Find the deck here.

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