Objective v. Subjective Design

Our tools do more than just aid us in the creation of our products, they shape them in their own image. The modern minimalist aesthetic has started as a response to shoddy historical imitations that were popular at the end of the 19th century. Manufacturers tried to copy the old designs from hand-crafted goods, but fell short because the new method of manufacture was not suited to that sort of design. For example, mould casting cannot produce the same sharpness and depth as hand carved goods, so the results are more rounded and less detailed than the subject of the imitation. The modern designer realized this and worked to create an aesthetic that was simpler and more suited to mass produced goods.

If we try to reduce the design of form into components, we can split it up into two: the material and its application. The material is everything we work with: line, color, form, and so on, and its application is how the material is used together to construct the final product. I think we can further split each of these into two types: objective and subjective. Objective material is everything that is perfect: a straight line, pure color, pure geometric forms, and objective application is everything that follows a system or a framework. There is a reason for why every element is styled in a certain way and placed in a certain location. Modern designers use tools like A/B testing to objectively construct such systems.

On the other hand, subjective material is everything impure, that is, a mixture of the perfect line, color and form. These are things like patterns, textures, styles and so on. In turn, subjective application of this material is up to the designer’s intuition. There is no framework or system that tells the designer how to align this item or what size to pick, they listen to their own feelings to make those decisions.

The reason for such classifications is to better understand the state of design and where it is going. I see much of modern design on the objective side, not only in application, but also in the material. When we follow systems and frameworks we learn to enjoy the clarity that they bring to our process, and in turn we steer towards the same sort of material to use in our work, which is why clean, minimalist design tends to use simpler colors and more perfect forms, avoiding complex styles, patterns and illustrations.

What’s interesting to me is that this division is further reinforced by the tools that we use. Hand crafted goods are full of imperfections. This cannot be avoided, unlike the digital screens our hands cannot perfectly reproduce the same pattern over and over again. Because of this imperfection, hand-crafted goods tend to embrace the subjective sort of design I mentioned above: more complex patterns, carvings, illustrations and the like. There is no drive to reach perfection or objectivity, so we embrace the subjective.

The computer on the other hand lets us create perfect lines, forms and colors. These are our materials, and by embracing them our work takes on a colder, more calculated nature. Digital work doesn’t have the same constraints over it as mass produced goods had before it a hundred years ago, but it follows the same aesthetic trend. Further, as we move away from tools like Photoshop and begin to hand-code our interfaces, those interfaces will move ever further into the territory of objective design, both in material and application.

Published August 2012