Design View | Articles and opinion on design professionalism, technique and culture by Andy Rutledge

Objectivity Be Damned

August 17, 2006

Designing a website is like designing a sex chair. You can gather all the objective data you like from the most comprehensive of studies, but if you’ve not had sex in a chair—in a variety of different chairs—and fully and intuitively appreciate the various issues of, let’s say, alignment and accessibility (ahem), you’ve no business designing that chair. Put another way, if you ain’t feelin’ it, neither will anyone else.

Subjectivity is a vital component to website design and I get a bit frustrated when I see this idea maligned. Design is about experiences and a designer’s responsibility is to understand different sorts of experiences – intuitively, not just as interpreted by data. This is not easily quantifiable mathematics we’re talking about here, folks, but psychology and contextual human behavior as manipulated and exploited by visual, environmental and informational constructs. Objective data is helpful in this arena, but it’s the designer’s intuitive “feel” that must prevail else design is the realm of statisticians.

Yes, I do mean that designers have a different and more highly tuned sense of conceptual experience.

Successful efforts here come most often from the gut – fueled by a high degree of competence. Objectivity is highly overrated in such cases, where subjectivity is far more useful. I’m referring here to a designer’s subjectivity, which bears little resemblance to the textbook definition of the term (I know, I know, we designers are loath to have pat definitions applied to us).

Yes, I do mean that designers have a different and more highly tuned sense of conceptual experience. That’s what makes us designers. For the same reasons that composers have to trust their intuitive sense of line and composition before formula, for the same reasons that criminal investigators trust their own gifts for observation and understanding human behavior before pure evidence, for the same reasons that successful poker players most often employ their gut before they rely on strict odds – designers have to “just know.”

But wait…

Now I’m not saying that objective considerations and sources of data aren’t useful to the design process. Certainly, this sort of information has its place, but it’s not the end-all be-all of design. It’s not even in the top 5 …if the designer has the requisite intuitive understanding of things. A broad and flexible intuition is vital to a designer. Let me be clear: any designer who trusts so-called objective data before his or her own practiced intuition is a poor designer.

In the end, if we are to be competent designers we have to be comfortable with our own understanding of things first rather than others’ understanding of things.

“So-called;” yes, there are hosts of studies and objectivity compilations that aren’t worth diddley. Christopher Fahey, for instance, described just a few instances of this practice of producing idiocy disguised as relevant information and misapplied, objective information. These examples touch on the very real dangers of our relying too strongly on studies and so-called objective data. They also help to highlight the very real need for us to actually develop the skills and understanding necessary for producing competent design.

In the end, if we are to be competent designers we have to be comfortable with our own understanding of things first rather than others’ understanding of things. Copy/paste is great for populating websites with content. It’s poor formula for designing anything. Data of any sort is there to guide us, not decide for us.

We are either designers or we’re just stats proxies. Seriously, when you go get that sex chair, do you want the one designed by a statistics proxy or, knowing what that term implies, a competent designer? You know, alignment, usability, and accessibility can be so fun when properly incorporated into a design.

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