Is graphic design subjective or objective?

Published by Nela Dunato on in Branding, Graphic design

Who gets to say whether a design is “good” or “bad”? What are the objective criteria we can use to evaluate the work? Is it appropriate for clients to dictate design decisions, or should it be left up to the experts?

This has been a running debate in design circles for decades. I know designers who do not accept being told what to do, and I know designers who literally make their clients do the hands-on work in a workshop format.

Which is the better way? There’s no one-size-fits-all answer. But in this article, I’ll point out some of the objective and subjective sides of design, and how to make the best of both.

Is graphic design subjective or objective?

The objective “rules” of good design

Foundational design theory has been evolving for as long as writing systems have existed. Our writing and image-making culture rests on the pillars of the earliest empires. Naturally, it had to adapt with every new technological advancement: paper and quill, the printing press, typewriters, film photography, the personal computer, digital photography, touch screens, VR…

Design theory is common to various visual arts disciplines. It’s just different applications of the same core principles.

I’ll run through just a few of these aesthetic rules (which I’ve talked about in a lot more detail in my post: Top 11 Easy-to-fix Beginner Design Mistakes).

  • Symmetry is more appealing to humans, so symmetrical compositions are viewed as more balanced and harmonious, whereas asymmetrical compositions are viewed as more dynamic, modern, and brave.
  • Alignment of elements along the same edge or central axis is perceived as more accurate, while scattered elements can be viewed as either messy or playful.
  • Each culture has established color symbolism relating to human qualities, as well as political or religious movements. Certain colors can be associated with gender stereotypes.
  • Colors suggest mood. Brighter colors correspond to elevated mood, while darker colors evoke somber and serious mood. Using multiple chromatic colors in a design can appear playful and fun, while using only one or two chromatic colors is more common in corporate settings and elegant brands.
  • Too many fonts in the same design is viewed as amateurish. One font alone can look overly monotone, while a combination of two complementary fonts can appear more interesting.

I could go on, but you get the gist. There are some design conventions that we must take into account, and only challenge those conventions when we have a good reason to do so.

To experienced designers, these aesthetic rules are second nature. We barely think about them, and can easily spot if something looks out of alignment. We often don’t bother rationalizing to our clients why we decided on a specific design, because to us—it just makes sense.

Because I’ve spent several years teaching graphic design, I had to learn how to explain my thought process to students who didn’t yet have that intuitive sense of aesthetics. I thought of metaphors, I’ve drawn diagrams, all sorts of things to make the seemingly intangible and fickle choices seem more concrete.

Design theory is not difficult to learn. Developing it into a felt aesthetic sense—the inner knowing that something looks right—that’s the hard part.

The more experienced we are, the more we trust our aesthetic sense without having to consult any manuals. Optical illusions are quite common in graphic design, that’s why we work by the maxim:

Measure with your eye, not with the ruler.

(Of course checking the ruler is a good idea, but sometimes things that are perfectly aligned can look a bit wrong to the human eye.)

This brings me to the first area of subjectivity we encounter in real-world design projects.

The client is not always right

The majority of clients don’t have any training in design theory. If they went about designing their own logo or book cover, it would not raise to a professional standard. But even so, many clients think that they’re perfectly capable of judging good design from bad.

Since most design is aimed at laypeople, hearing out the layperson’s perspective is helpful.

It’s not that the clients don’t have anything valuable to offer. They absolutely do. However, clients can be objectively wrong and simply not know it.

The designer’s role is not to placate clients at any cost, but to educate them if their requests would create issues. We need to protect our clients’ brands and reputation. Allowing them to just run with ideas that are bad from an aesthetic or strategic perspective is a form of malpractice.

When a client asks for a revision that I don’t agree with, I explain exactly why I don’t agree with it in terms that my clients can understand. If necessary, I show them a version with the changes implemented, compare it to a version that I would recommend, and highlight why my suggestion is better. 9 times out of 10, the client agrees with my recommendation. If they don’t agree, I push the process further until we’re able to reach an agreement.

I believe that it’s always possible to find a win-win solution: one that fulfills the client’s needs and respects the rules of good design. But that requires excellent communication skills and a great deal of trust. For inexperienced designers, agreeing with whatever the client requests may seem easier.

The impact of the designer’s style

I see designers as partly problem-solvers, and partly artists.

Some designers claim that design is entirely separate from art. I’ve also warned about sending artists to do a designer’s job in the past. But I don’t think these disciplines are so far apart as some of my colleagues do. They can be combined if there’s an opportunity for that. As with everything, moderation and balance is key.

On the style spectrum, we have designers that have a very strong personal style, to the point that all their work looks alike, no matter the client.

On the other side of the spectrum there are designers whose work is so varied that you’d never be able to say they’re done by the same person. My colleagues who are adamant that “design is not art” would say this is exactly what we want to achieve. If the designer is any good, their handwriting should not be visible to observers—it’s the client’s brand that should speak through it.

I do mostly agree with this opinion. We do need to take into account the client’s needs, audience, their core values, and their brand strategy during our logo design process. That’s how we come up with fresh work that is distinct from any of our previous projects.

But many clients already know what they like, and they’ll select designers whose portfolio demonstrates that they can do that. This is how we fall into our design style, even if we didn’t plan on doing it. Every creative project is a stepping stone towards more work of a similar kind.

I’ve been told by multiple clients that the reason they like my designs is because they are “artistic”, and that this quality comes through even in my more corporate work. Ultimately, it’s what my clients value.

Looking at my portfolio, I can see two pretty distinct styles emerging. One is precisely based on geometric shapes and grids (often involving symbols or monograms), which most of my clients in engineering and law appreciate.

Geometric logo designs

The other one is based on hand-lettered script or organic symbols, which my clients in healthcare, coaching, and creative vocations appreciate.

Artistic logo designs

I feel like these two styles reflect my personality which is a blend of “artist” and “engineer”. Which one will come through more strongly depends on the client, but they’re both always present. Even my most artistic logos are never messy, because my inner engineer tidies everything up.

We can’t really run away from our style. And I think that’s good, because if our clients like our previous work, it gives them confidence that they’ll be happy with what we ultimately create for them. Our style is what makes us all unique.

Culture clash

Different cultures have had different ideas of a desirable appearance at different times.

Something one culture might consider elegant and refined, another culture might consider dull and lacking in wealth markers. What one culture might consider abundant and celebratory, another culture might consider too ostentatious or kitsch.

Today’s designers often work with international clients, and we need to be mindful of any cultural differences between us, the client, and the intended audience.

If the client comes from the same culture as the intended audience, the designer should ask for samples of what is considered “good design” in their region so they can use the visual language that the audience understands.

If the designer shares a cultural background with the intended audience, but the client does not, the designer needs to show examples of work that the audiences in this region respond to, to set an appropriate expectation.

If the client’s cultural background is important for the nature of the business (like ethnic food and other products), designers should take inspiration from the client’s culture, and adapt it somewhat to the intended audiences. As long as it’s done with the client’s approval, it’s not cultural appropriation.

While many “rules” of design are cross-cultural, there are some differences that we shouldn’t ignore.

Expect the unexpected

Obvious solutions can be a sign of inexperience, limited imagination, or lack of effort.

If you gave the same design brief to 10 different designers, you can expect to see 10 different solutions. At least, you should. Sometimes designers come up with very similar solutions, which I’ve seen a whole lot of while I was teaching a graphic design course.

I used the same briefs for fictional clients that students could choose from, and they had a couple of hours to work on the assignment in the classroom (but they were allowed to complete it at home). Here’s what happened:

  • The majority of students who chose the fake “Massage studio Yin” as their client, designed logos with a Yin Yang symbol.
  • The majority of students who chose the BackUp cloud hosting startup, designed logos with a cloud, an arrow pointing upward, or both.
  • The majority of students who chose the GizmoLab smartphone repair service, designed logos with an icon that represented a smartphone.

Most students stayed on the surface level of logo meaning, according to the scale I described in my article on logo meaning and message:

Logo meaning depth

My favorite student assignments were those that featured none of the common symbols, even if it was a pure typographical solution. I’ve seen some pretty creative solutions among students. But I’ve also seen a lot of “same old” visuals, which just made me realize how much effort it takes to move beyond the obvious. That’s why most design contests will receive entries with a house for a realtor, or a stethoscope for a doctor, or scales for a lawyer, or some other cliché. While clichés are not always bad, they do at least need to be executed in an original style to stand out from every other similar business.

Glagolitic inspired monogram logo meaning for a law firm
In this law firm logo, I integrated the scales symbol with the partners’ initials so it’s meaningful to the owners, and stands out from classic depictions of scales.

The fact that many designers gravitate towards the same idea is not necessarily a sign that it’s the best idea. It could just be a very obvious idea.

When I sketch my logo ideas on paper, I start with the most obvious ones just to get them out of my system, but then the real fun begins. Each layer of new ideas digs into deeper and weirder places, and that’s good. We’re more likely to excavate something original that way. It’s important to give a project a few days of time for new associations to form, because rushed projects often don’t move past that obvious stage.

Therapist logo design
Psychotherapist logos often involve human silhouettes, brains, wings, or knots. My psychotherapist logo design ditches those clichés for a dandelion seed—a symbol of hope, health, and resilience.

The differences in process

If you’ve read any of my other writing, you know I’m a big proponent of using a clear and methodical creative process. I talk about my own logo and brand identity design process to anyone willing to listen because I’m just blown away by its effectiveness. I’m super proud of it, and I’m willing to teach it to designers who want to improve.

I don’t think my process is the best one for every designer. I’m glad to hear from colleagues who use a similar process to mine, and I’m also intrigued by different processes. I don’t think any one of us is wrong to be doing whatever works for us.

Ian Paget, the host of the Logo Geek Podcast, repeatedly mentions his reservations about using the “one concept” logo design approach. He’s worried that he wouldn’t produce work as creative as he does when he pushes himself to create 3 different concepts. He doesn’t want to stop coming up with ideas too early, essentially. I totally get it, and I don’t think that he should change his process just because so many other designers are doing it.

I’m in full support of people’s natural way of working.

The one concept approach comes naturally to me. I’ve done it in my very early days as a pro bono designer for student organizations. I had no idea that I was expected to provide more than one design to a client to choose from.

Then I took a detour when I learned some bad habits in my day job that have stuck with me for a few years into my freelancing journey. After I shook those off, I was again very confident in my process and it felt like the most natural thing in the world. Not only that, but my clients are very satisfied both with my process and with my results.

For lettering artist Jessica Hische, the natural way looks like showing 6 sketches that the client selects from, and then developing iterations and including the client in every round of selection. It works for her, so my opinion on it is irrelevant.

The creative process never yields exactly the same result.

  • If we fed the same brief into the same process but two different people did the work, the results would be different.
  • If the same person used the same brief but with different processes, the output would again look different.
  • If the same person used the same process with two similar briefs one year apart, the output would hopefully be different again, since the person has learned something new in the meantime.

Which of these results would be the most successful one? What would that mean? How would we measure it? And if one design measured higher than others on a certain numeric scale, would that mean that the designer who produced it is better than others, or that the process it came from was superior to others?

Maybe it would just mean that in this particular case and this specific set of circumstances, this designer and this process produced a result that scored higher on a certain scale. No more, no less.

Any work that can be measured and calculated will soon be done by AI

Artificial intelligence will get involved in logo design pretty soon, at least as a novelty that can be hyped up to clients who want to have the shiniest toys.

If a creative agency used an approach where they:

  1. Generated a set of 10, 50, or 500 logos that fit certain parameters.
  2. Showed the samples to dozens or hundreds of people and measured their responses.
  3. Used a statistical analysis to determine the “winning design”.

…this process could be automated even with today’s technology. Within the next 5 years the technology will become affordable enough that we can have the first real AI-powered creative agencies. Designers will be useful while the network is being trained, but after that it will produce work on its own.

The objective argument for this approach is strong: the resulting logo was preferred by the majority of the tested subjects. I can see business owners and executives getting very excited about that.

But will the design be good?

Will it last, or will it fall out of favor as passing trends fade?

Will it have the depth of cultural significance that a symbol designed by a highly skilled human would possess? We need to wait and see, but I’m skeptical.

If there is any hope for humans to stay in demand in a market cornered by robots, it’s in our subjectivity.

At least, until AI becomes so advanced it develops consciousness and the capacity for its own subjectivity. But by that time it probably won’t be interested in being a source of cheap labor for humans, so human brains may once again be needed as cogs that keep the civilization running.

Subjectivity results in unexpected discoveries and surprises.

It’s difficult to evaluate a creative idea completely objectively.

We need to determine its merit on a case by case basis, being aware of the project background and long-term results. Sometimes we don’t know the real impact of a creative idea until many years later.

Who is the judge on how successful a design is?

  • It could be the designer who produced the work, but they might have blind spots they aren’t aware of.
  • It could be the client paying for the work, but they’re often too focused on personal taste.
  • It could be a public opinion (or a focus group), but the public often selects the lowest common denominator, and looks past the more sophisticated work.
  • It could be a jury of design professors, renowned designers, and design critics who look at it with an expert eye, but they may dismiss stuff that wasn’t made for them.

If we could get all of these people in a room, hear their arguments and facilitate a healthy discussion, we might arrive at some consensus on what is “the best” creative work. Everyone would learn a great deal, because it would force people to listen to those whose opinions they typically ignore.

Since this never happens in real life, it’s difficult to look at the issue from many different sides and take every possible perspective into account. We focus on the viewpoints that are available, and give up on the possibility of making 100% objective decisions.

There is value in listening to your gut.

Your instinct makes the decision, and your reason finds a rationalization. It’s very rarely the other way around.

You may be persuaded by outside opinions to make a choice that goes against your instinct, but the instinct won’t change its tune. Time will tell whether it gave you good or bad intel.

It’s easy to tell what “bad” is, but differentiating between “good” and “great” is more difficult.

Bad art leaves everyone indifferent. Bad design fails to communicate the desired message to the people it was intended for.

Good art moves and entices people to think. Good design delivers the message.

But what are the characteristics of great art and great design?

  • Does it sell for a lot of money?
  • Does it persuade someone to spend money?
  • Does it cause people to share it with friends?
  • Does it win awards?

There are so many different ways we could be judging how great something is, and each work might score the highest in a different category.

What we as creatives need to decide is which category we want to excel in—because we can’t win them all. Once we decide, that’s the measure we need to keep in mind.

After that, we should clearly communicate to our prospective clients how we define project success, and ask them how they would define it. If our criteria match up, we can work together. If they don’t, we will always fall short.

I wasn’t as successful in agencies, because my bosses had defined the criteria for success that I wasn’t on board with. (Speed was one of them. I work slowly.)

Now that I define my own subjective criteria for what success means (informed by my experience), I ask clients if they’re on board with that, and never make promises I cannot keep.

Design will never be completely objective.

And that’s one reason why I love it. But not all designers do!

I’ve found that designers who want to be as objective as possible in their work thrive in:

  • User experience design
  • User interface design (apps and websites)
  • Digital advertising
  • Packaging (consumer goods)

Those fields rely heavily on measurements and iterations, and their goal is optimization. If something works, repeat it. If it doesn’t work, change it. How do we know whether it works? The number of clicks or sales will tell us.

Designers that want to have more free reign usually excel in:

  • Branding
  • Event poster design
  • Book cover design
  • Magazine design (especially culture, fashion, etc.)

Those fields don’t have an exact way to measure performance of design, because design can’t be easily separated from the other variables. And just because something worked on one project, it doesn’t mean it will work again on another project. At some point what is known to work becomes boring, and we have to shake things up in order to attract interest.

If I had to come up with a short way to explain how I use objectivity and subjectivity in design, here’s what I’d say:

Use subjective methods to invoke inspiration.
Use objective measures to identify errors.

Objectivity nor subjectivity alone will result in good design. Objectivity and subjectivity together, will.

Nela Dunato

About Nela Dunato

Artist, brand designer, teacher, and writer. Author of the book “The Human Centered Brand”. Owner of a boutique branding & design consultancy that helps experienced service-based businesses impress their dream clients.

On this blog I write about art, design, creativity, business, productivity and marketing, and share my creative process and tips. Read more about me...

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