Subjectivity Counts

September 27, 2016

Line of Faces, One of Which Has a Photo of a Baby’s Face Masked into It

One phrase tramples any discussion in seconds flat: “It’s all subjective.” When designers sidestep subjectivity, A/B tests trump personal taste; “conversions” eclipse common decency; data beats intuition; the ruler rules; designers are not artists.

Parts I and III of my recent article series, The Apple Goes Mushy, dealt heavily in aesthetics. Mouths opened in retaliation. See this Designer News comment snippet from Ted McDonald:

The author makes the claim that the [Time Machine icon’s] new look (on the right side) represents an “aesthetic decay.” It’s a purely subjective claim, as many such articles tend to be constructed of.

For McDonald, the subjective nature of my claim warranted its dismissal. His comment was, by votes, the thread’s most popular.

I replied as follows:

You are right. However, I embrace the subjectivity of the article’s claims. Should designers discuss only what people can measure objectively? I would believe that a boring discussion indeed, missing a vital chunk of what it means to “design” things. Taste, and the motives that give rise to it, reveal a lot.

Mr. McDonald could have rebutted my aesthetic evaluation of the Time Machine icon with his own aesthetic evaluation. I would have welcomed it. Instead, he and the 29 people who up-voted his comment dismissed the entire concept of aesthetic evaluations (where subjectivity looms).

What Taste Entails

Metallica & Giorgio Armani Logos

Band and brand.

Above, I have juxtaposed the logos of Metallica and Giorgio Armani.

The two tell differing tales: Metallica’s lettering, whose lightning-bolt barbs could lacerate the nose, exudes might and (melo?)drama; the curves and serifs of Armani’s logotype, meanwhile, evoke elegance.

We cannot quantify these tastes. What’s more, not every observer will share them. That is beautiful and enlightening. The way people make and talk about design reveals their varying values, beliefs, opinions, and personalities.

Any well-rounded design criticism accounts for these qualities. And—lest my reader believe this article is an anti-objectivity tirade—good design benefits equally from its objective and subjective components. If we want to understand the meaning in the looks of things, we must treat “it’s all subjective” not as a full stop, but as the capital letter commencing an endless, exquisite sentence.

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