Should Design Be Subjective or Objective?

Talking about the aesthetics of design is a popular topic that can cause a lot of discussion. Sure, one’s own perception is subjective, but good design is primarily about function, right? So the design should always be judged objectively, right?

Design is a very complex and multi-layered subject that has many facets. It is not so easy to give a simple answer as to whether a design is objective or subjective. It seems to be a real topic of dispute among designers. As is often the case with polarizing opinions, the nuances in between tend to be overlooked. But what exactly is the difference between subjectivity and objectivity? In a nutshell, subjectivity always refers to personal opinion, while objectivity refers to a neutral, impartial, or unbiased view.

Why design cannot be objective

Design surrounds us in every aspect of life, whether it’s for logos, furniture, websites, or anything else. It defines our visual and emotional perception of products and services. Of course, the functionality of a product is a crucial criterion for its success. Without fulfilling the basic function, even the most appealing design is worthless. A chair that you cannot sit on properly has failed its purpose – it’s that simple.

Certain design elements can be measured on an objective level. A study found that specific characteristics can indeed be measured in the brain – we evaluate these objectively (here is the study in case you’re interested). Color, shape, size, composition, and other aspects are some of these characteristics, for example. To achieve this objectivity a target audience is defined, user behavior is examined, and user tests are conducted. Many designers rely precisely on these aspects and are therefore firmly convinced that design is always objective. But is that really the case?

Design is a complex interplay of objectivity and subjectivity: functionality and aesthetics are equally important to achieve a harmonious and successful whole. © Table Lamp created by Aesence using Midjourney
Minimalist Chair Design by Bahk Jong Sun
Walnut Chair, 2009 by Bahk Jong Sun. This chair is an objectively good design because it fulfills the main function of a chair – yet Bahk Jong Sun still gave it a huge portion of subjectivity. And that is what makes the chair unique and special.

While the functionality of a design is arguably undeniable for some people, aesthetics are a completely different story. It is to a large extent a subjective concept that can vary from person to person and even from culture to culture. However, it is equally possible here to distinguish between subjective and objective aesthetics: Because as mentioned above, there seem to be certain principles to which people respond equally.

But still – Let 10 designers create one and the same product/website etc. and you will get 10 different solutions. Because even if objective design elements are used, they are still applied at the subjective discretion of the designer. They use their personal skills, intuition, experience, and judgment to implement them in their projects. Does this mean that design can never be purely objective?

Because even if objective design elements are used, they are still applied at the subjective discretion of the designer.

Subjectivity as a crucial ingredient

Although the aesthetics of a design is a very personal matter on the one hand, it must always have an objective component on the other. Without an understanding of the functionality and aesthetics that underlie a design, it cannot be successful.

For me personally, design is both. It is always a compromise of functionality and aesthetics – that is, objectivity and subjectivity. And I deliberately say compromise here, because it has to be an agreement of both aspects in order to achieve a harmonious whole. Certain concessions may also have to be made in the process.

In any case, the design process is a balancing act that requires designers to be creative and solution-oriented in equal measure: A design must first focus on its functionality in order to be understood by the user and intuitive to use – and then it must contain a fair amount of subjectivity. This subjectivity of the designer makes the design emotional and individual, two very important ingredients for good design. Because this ensures that the user is attached to it and that the design becomes timeless. But that’s just my humble opinion on the subject.

How do you see it? Should design be objective or subjective for you? Or maybe both?

Further Reading

Interesting article about objective aesthetics, unfortunately only in German:

About Exploring Aesthetics:

Sarah loves asking questions and exploring the things she engages with on a daily basis. Exploring aesthetics is her column which discusses art, design, and aesthetics to explore, inspire, and question the status quo.

  1. Thanks for your opinion, Sarah. I tend to think that design should be objective. From my experience I can say that functional, objective design is very important for the success of a product. Nothing beats usability and that has nothing to do with subjectivity.

  2. Your statement about 10 different designers creating 10 different solutions for the same product or website reminded me of a personal experience from my work as a designer. Just last year, I was working on a project with several designers where each of us was asked to create our own design for a specific website. Although we were all focused on the same target market and audience, our designs were vastly different. We then presented our designs to each other and discussed them. In doing so, we found that despite the different aesthetic approaches and styles, each design had its own appeal and could be appealing to the target audience. This underscores the fact that subjectivity plays a crucial role in design and enriches it.

    1. Hey Chris, thanks for sharing your thoughts! The situation you describe is a perfect example of how different the approach and the end result can be 🙂

  3. Hi Sarah, thank you for your interesting article on the subject! You highlighted the topic very well and presented both sides clearly. I agree with you that design should include both objective and subjective aspects. On the other hand, I think it’s important for designers to absolutely bring their own creativity and personal touch to their work in order to create unique and appealing designs – otherwise I guess all designs in the world would look pretty much the same. And that would be a shame, wouldn’t it?

    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. You bring up an excellent point: Indeed, without that individual flair, the world of design would be quite monotonous!

  4. I believe that design should first and foremost be objective in order to fulfill its basic function and provide value to users. The subjective component is an important part of giving design a personal touch, but should be overshadowed by the objective requirements.

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Aesence is an independent art and design publication dedicated to minimalist aesthetics. Founded out of a deep appreciation and fascination, Aesence aims to promote awareness and appreciation of minimalism in art and design.