Andy Rutledge

Design:Objectivity Be Damned

June 11, 2015 | By Andy Rutledge

I originally published this article in April of 2006. It appears here edited and updated.

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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 it is a designer’s responsibility to understand the dimensions of user experience according to the relevant context(s); intuitively, not just as interpreted by data. This is not easily quantifiable mathematics we’re talking about here, but psychology and contextual human behavior as encouraged, compelled, manipulated, and exploited by a visual, interactive, environmental, and informational constructs. Objective data is helpful in this arena, but it’s the designer’s skill and intuition that must prevail else design is the realm of statisticians!

Pro Tip: it is not.

Successful efforts here come most often from the gut—fueled by experience and a high degree of competence. Objectivity is highly overrated in such cases, where subjectivity is far more useful. Note that I’m referring here to a designer’s subjectivity, which bears little resemblance to just anyone’s subjectivity.

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 of human behavior before circumstantial evidence; for the same reasons that successful poker players most often employ their gut and numerical odds—designers have to just know.

But wait…

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 3 …if the designer has the requisite intuitive understanding of what’s relevant. A much-practiced intuition is vital to a designer. Any designer who trusts to so-called objective data before his or her own practiced intuition is a poor designer. And a coward.

“So-called;” yes. There are hosts of studies and objectivity compilations that aren’t worth diddley. Oh, the data may be accurate, but that doesn’t mean interpretations of it will be accurate or relevant. Data isn’t design. It isn't even a design tool. It’s simply fodder for consideration and for careful interpretation in order to reveal the possibility of relevant design constraint(s). Good design comes from design competence in a good process, and not from data.

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 be considered; to inform us, not decide for us.

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

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Background image: Revel Furniture | The Essence Sex Chair in a reclined position by Revel Furniture