Design As Subjective

While I may admire objective thinking, I don’t believe we should allow ourselves to be blinded by it in such a way that we totally aspire towards that kind of mindset.

Unfortunately, this comes to the fault of designers—many of us seek a mindset of objective thinking and seemingly negate the importance of subjectivity. Yes, the importance of subjectivity.

Quite often, the argument made between art and design is that of the difference between subjectivity versus objectivity. This post, however, is not concerned with that argument, nor do I have any interest in attempting to define or differentiate the two. Instead, let this post serve as a reminder that we live in a world with subjective thinking and emotions, and thus we must take that into consideration—even as designers.

To reiterate that last point and to expand on it further, we live in a world where subjectivity exists, in fact, likely dominates, and in this world roam humans, for which we are designing. It’s important to recognize and remember this: we are designing for people—people who think, breathe, have experiences and have emotions.

In this world, design can be subjective, and in a way, has to be. And so, if you’re a part of the objective vs. subjective crusade, you’re fighting a lost cause. We live in a world of balance, where spectrums exists, not binaries. I don’t care to distinguish art from design, all that matters is how people interact, experience, and remember whatever it is we have made.

Subjectivity plays a role in how we care for things, how we evaluate them, and how we understand them. We all hear songs differently, we all don’t see the same, and we all don’t share the same views—we all don’t have the same tastes because we all feel and experience things differently. Our differences exist and we’re allowed to embrace that. When we leave our desire to propagate primitive instincts at the door, we step away from designing stop lights and move towards creating things people intentionally enjoy.

The following example stems from Seth Godin, who is best described as a visionary. Now, imagine you are standing in front of two identical paintings of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. One is the original and the other is an exact replica. Without knowing which is the original and which is the fake, which one would you say is more valuable—the painting on the left or the painting on the right?

Without knowing which is the original, you wouldn’t be able to, but if I were to tell you which is the original, that one would immediately have more value. But why? If we address them both objectively on a surface level, they’re the exact same and should thus be worth the same, right? That’s not how it works though, so why is the original more valuable? Because the original has a story behind it; something we can connect to. We’re able to recognize that doing everything right on the surface isn’t enough.

Art is a wonderful reminder that we are inherently subjective, and the way we respond to art is a demonstration of how we respond to and interact with design. Just as one individual may be a Monet enthusiast, another may be a fan of Pissarro, yet they’re both Impressionist painters. On a modern day level, we experience the same with Canon vs. Nikon, Mac vs. PC or iPhone vs. Android. Although people may argue their objective logic, each brand ultimately upholds a different image and we subjectively associate ourselves with one of them.

“We scientists now understand how important emotion is to everyday life, how valuable. Sure, utility and usability are important, but without fun and pleasure, joy and excitement, and yes, anxiety and anger, fear and rage, our lives would be incomplete.” —Donald A. Norman

It’s foolish to be entirely objective in the way you create. While some may wish we lived in a world dominated by objectivity and logic, it’d also be a very bland and boring world. Why not embrace how the essence of subjectivity can excite a very specific group of people, and how it can make things so much more fun. We don’t have to design for everyone, it’s silly to think that we need to, which is why bringing more subjective thinking into how we work can provide for a greater connection with the people we’re actually wanting to connect with.

We do not create greatness, we do not create art, and we do not create a masterpiece purely out of objectivity or through the conventions that objective thinking entails. Instead, greatness feeds off the emotional appeal of others.

I don’t believe art and design can coexist independent of one another, however, I believe they both exist within one another, entangled like a ball of yarn—one indistinguishable from the other. Art and design interact and play with one another, rather than attempting to untangle them, embrace their relationship; embrace the play.