Good Design Is Not Subjective.

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There are times when the difference between two choices is completely lateral — two substitutable alternatives that are equal in importance and consequence. If you’re craving some fruit, it doesn’t matter whether you choose the apple or the orange. In these instances, it’s okay to defer to preference, precedent, or a coin toss. But these cases are the (rare) exception, not the rule.

Apples and oranges are both fruit, but on the off-chance that you’re a pirate with scurvy, you’re absolutely better off with the orange because it has more Vitamin C. Even with something as trivial as choosing a fruit, there are legitimate factors to consider, such as allergies and nutritional needs.

In other words, there is nearly always a better choice.

If even only by a little bit. Color is a great example of this. Many perceive all colors as being approximate equals: swap out red for blue — who cares! And indeed, if you’re just choosing your new home wallpaper, all colors are equal in terms of importance. No one color is more qualified than another. It’s all up to you. Your home might end up looking like a mess of exploded condiment packets, but if it suits your taste, then it’s a success.

But suppose you’re trying to encourage sales on a website. Is it really the best idea to make everything scarlet red? Probably not, since we associate red with words and concepts like “stop” and “error.”

If you’re trying to romance your partner with a Valentine’s Day Card, would you use bright green paper? Probably not. A deep red would play on our culture’s existing symbolic association with love and romance and may be more appropriate.

Again: there is nearly always a better choice. A choice that is objectively superior.

Good design is not (completely) subjective.

Good design is a standard built upon rational, defensible models and rules — a matter of function, not form. It is the foundation. This may be a bit of a semantic argument, but it’s an important one. Certain design choices may reflect a designer’s particular design philosophies and there’s certainly some wiggle room, but they’re not personal opinions.

If a good designer advocates against the use of red, it’s not simply because he or she hates red. It’s because they understand red — its cultural connotations, its scientific relationship to other colors in the scheme or palette, etc — and they believe that its use would be either suboptimal or legitimately harmful. Treating this recommendation as being “the designer’s own personal opinion,” and subsequently dismissing it as such, is wrong. It undermines their experience, impedes their ability to their job, and significantly reduces the amount of value that they can provide to you. It assumes that the designer’s job is simply to perform the “grunt work” of choosing a few colors. But that is not what a graphic designer does.

Design is a skilled, mental process that manifests in some tangible or visible end product or result.

The graphic designer’s task is to solve problems with visual designs. To consider the role of color, composition, contrast and more, and to produce a solution that effectively balances all these considerations. But reducing a graphic designer’s worth to simply the assets — color palettes, logos — they provide is misinformed and counterproductive.

A software engineer’s task is to solve problems with well-designed software. To consider software design patterns, team size, maintainability and more, and to produce software that works. But reducing a graphic designer’s worth to simply the features they spit out is misinformed and counterproductive.

A Real World Example

A client once approached me to make a website for their educational organization. They wanted to express that they foster and encourage cultural diversity. Great! That’s a noble goal.

As a web designer, I began thinking of ways to accomplish this with a website. I had two initial suggestions off the top of my head:

  • First, I wanted to showcase their photos of their student body by putting a gallery on the website. This was proof that they actually support children from all cultures; it proved that they actually cared, that they weren’t trying to use “cultural diversity” as an advertising buzzword.
  • Second, I wanted them to create a dedicated “Mission Statements” type page, where they could elaborate further on their beliefs and values.

I genuinely believe that these were two solid starting points. I proposed the ideas to the client, but was promptly rejected. They claimed that the best way to express a sense of diversity was by using fabric textures and animal prints all over the website. Particularly, they wanted to use cheetah prints, leopard prints, and zebra prints.

I legitimately considered it, but ultimately decided that using such prints would be “bad” for the following reasons:

  • Reduces Readability. Try reading black text over a zebra print.
  • Visually Distracting. This website’s purpose was to educate students. Having several different fabric textures will be visually distracting. The focus should be on the content itself.
  • Ambiguous Purpose. While, in my client’s mind, a zebra print may evoke a sense of “cultural diversity,” that’s not going to be true for everyone. I imagine most people would just be confused.
  • Potentially Offensive. Let’s be frank. Including zebra prints because there are zebras in Africa, and because you want to communicate that you welcome African American students — it’s not exactly the most subtle way to go about it!

Because of these reasons, I advised against using fabric textures. I asserted that a sense of “cultural diversity” could be communicated through other means.

I was met with a stern, disappointed look and was told, “I’ll run your idea past my team.” When I offered to explain, he insisted we move on to the next item: multi-colored dropdowns.

A Design Recommendation Is Not My Personal Opinion

He referred to my suggestion as “my idea.” I’m not trying to nitpick at phrasing, but his word choice does reveal something about the way he perceived the exchange. The decision to not use fabric textures became my idea, my personal opposition. I didn’t expect a new client to blindly trust in my ability, but his insistence that we move on told me he wasn’t even interested in my thought process.

He viewed my suggestion as my personal opinion. My personal preference. He thought that I simply didn’t like the fabric textures, in the same way someone might not like the color blue, or the flavor of vanilla. And you don’t ask somebody to explain their preference for vanilla. Why would you! That makes no sense.

And that is the problem: there is a fundamental mismatch between the way the general public views design work and the truth of what design really is and how it really works. It’s not “just our opinion.” We operate based on design principles, whether it’s color theory or software engineering best practices.

To be clear, though: I don’t blame them for this misunderstanding.

I don’t blame my client for having the attitude he had and for feeling the frustration he felt. Color is a seemingly elementary concept — it’s something that we have known all our lives. I had the luxury of having several friends with an interest in fine arts; if I hadn’t known them, who knows? I may not have known about color theory at all.

It’s wholly understandable for the average person to assume that they’re just as qualified as a graphic designer to discuss color, since they don’t know about complementary colors, “color psychology,” etc. But I do think it’s time that we rethink our perception of “creative design” from just “a semi-professional hobby” to a skilled, legitimate craft that takes years of study and practice to master.

Now, I’ve been using color (and graphic designers) as the operative example, but my point extends to all design work, whether it’s programming software, writing an article, or even just planning a really great social event. These are all their own massive domains of knowledge, and we should acknowledge that there’s far more nuance than is apparent at first glance. But how can we do that?

I think it all comes down to how we communicate. There are two sides to this coin: the designers and the ones who hire (or work with) them. Here are my basic recommendations for both of those parties.

To The Designers

Try not to get frustrated. Don’t play the I Know More Than You About This card, even though it’s tempting to. Don’t expect them to fully understand the nuances of what you do, that’s not their job.

Do explain things, but avoid technical terms and translate things into terms that they’ll intuitively understand. (Most often in business, this means profits and money.) Don’t be afraid of saying, “trust me on this,” but say it sparingly and with caution. Manage expectations from the get-go and explicitly communicate timeframes.

Be respectful. Be willing to compromise.

To The Clients, The Bosses, & The Leaders

Try not to get frustrated. Don’t micromanage. Don’t play the I Sign Your Paychecks card, even though it’s tempting to. Don’t go into a meeting with decisions already made. Don’t operate based on money alone.

Do accept that there is probably far more nuance to the decision than you realize. Do accept that your designer’s prescriptions are not just personal opinions, and should be given serious weight. Be willing to listen, and ask questions. Trust in your designers to “just get the work done” every now and then — it’s what you’re paying them for.

Be respectful. Be willing to compromise.

Conversations Are The Key

The problem I’ve described is a subtle, widespread one — it’s not exactly something that is fixed overnight. That’s not the goal — I don’t expect this post to be some magic salve that causes a worldwide explosion of productivity. But I also don’t want it to be a purely theoretical exercise, an article that makes you go “huh,” and then gets forgotten on the commute to work.

I implore all readers, both designers and bosses, to have those awkward conversations about the nature of design work, cooperation, and trust. To tiptoe and explore that those tricky themes for themselves. As design work becomes more corporate, it’s tempting (from a managerial standpoint) to view designers as just the assets they produce, but this attitude is moving backwards. It’s divisive, alienating, and hurts more than just the designers, it hurts businesses as a whole. I firmly believe that the first actionable step toward achieving a healthy, productive, and cooperative professional working climate is to slow down and have more earnest conversations. Conversations are key.

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