The Objectiveness of Design, Part 1

The Objectiveness of Design, Part 1 With the recent launch of a new website, this seems like an ideal time to discuss a central tenant of the design process: objectiveness.

When people talk about creative endeavours, the concept of "objective" vs "subjective" seems to come up. Often, it's presented as a sort of dichotomy where one strives separate each from the other – to isolate and control each side of what I think, is the same coin.

As such, this is one of the toughest balancing acts that a designer faces. And for many designers, this turns into an even a greater challenge as this relationship takes a back seat to other considerations and becomes just a subconscious part of their design process. And that, I think, does a great disservice to this important part of design.

Before we delve deeper though, it's important to understand what these two concepts mean to the practice of "design".

As an adjective, the Oxford dictionary defines "objective" as:

not influenced by personal feelings or opinions

While “subjective” occupies the other end of the spectrum:

based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions

These definitions serve the area of design quite well. It’s considered a good practice to be “objective” about your work - and with good reason. A designer is trying to create work that must function and appeal to a wide audience. As such, they need to step out beyond their own personal taste and preferences in order to find the right ground which will resonate with the intended audience.

Become too subjective with your work and you risk losing touch with the ultimate goals of the project. Become too objective about your work and you risk not being able to tap into some personal, well-formed fundamentals and lessons learned from past experience which help bring a unique perspective to solving a problem.

This creates a unique relationship between these two sides of the same coin. Truly good design cannot, I think, ignore either of these two areas completely. Unfortunately, maintaining a healthy balance between these two areas is extremely challenging. By nature, we humans are very emotional beings and it is very easy to respond and gravitate to things that evoke feelings of comfort, well-being and pleasure. These are all emotional reactions that are, of course, highly subjective and individualistic.

In my experience and training as both an architect and visual artist, "objectiveness" was always put on a pedestal while "subjectiveness" was a bit of a second-class citizen. In the context of learning the creative arts, such a focus is probably a good idea as developing a sense of "objectiveness" is a much more difficult thing to do. It involves divesting oneself of their immediate "gut reaction" and allowing critical thinking to enter the picture – to judge decisions by other, more concrete goals.

Over the almost 20 years I've been engaged in design and creative endeavours across architecture, the visual arts and web design, it's been an ongoing process to learn how to foster that sense of objectiveness about my work while still allowing for a subjective element to exist.

And that balance becomes particularly difficult when tackling "personal" work – or perhaps more accurately – work that is not dictated by an outside source (ie. a client).

In looking to develop a new identity and website for Coalescent Design, I found myself about to work in a way many designers are unaccustomed to. I had no external client – I became both client and designer. This happens fairly rarely in this industry. The last time I was in such a "predicament" was in almost 6 years ago when Coalescent's last site was launched. In the intervening years, I had become quite comfortable with working with someone else's goals in mind.

Now, suddenly, it was a bit like a blank canvas – very exciting but a bit intimidating. First steps involved laying out my own goals for the project (me playing the role of client). That was relatively easy as in my role here at Coalescent I often have to help clients articulate their goals and form a strategy around them.

The challenge arose when work began around the visual design of the new website. Here's where "objective" vs "subjective" really come together to argue and wrestle – and where the years of experience of standing between these potential combatants will hopefully pay off.

In a traditional client relationship, you always have a sort of "check and balance" relationship in place to keep you as the designer looking beyond your own immediate concerns. Remove that relationship, or take on that role yourself (they amount to the same thing) and suddenly arises that great temptation all designers – no, all people – face: to give in to what feels good.

I remember an interesting story from my days studying architecture. It involved a student presenting his master's thesis to a design board. When pressed to justify many of his decisions, he continually fell back on the reason of "it felt good". Eventually, one of the design critics stood up, walked over to him and grabbed his, ahem, "package" and said to the student, "This might feel good but is it appropriate?"

An alarming way to make a point perhaps but it is at it's heart a very true one.

When approaching this new site, this was a danger that was looming more greatly than it normally might and the question was – as it's always been – how do I balance what feels good with what is appropriate? Where and how do I make "objectiveness" and "subjectiveness" meet?

In my next post, I'll explore this dilemma further as I design a new Coalescent website.


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