The $64,000 question in software industry today is:

How do you transform a software design process into its ideal form—an objective, deliberate activity that furthers the cause of commerce—from its typically subjective, clumsy one, which always seems at odds with the bottom line?

Its deceivingly simple answer requires that we overcome some elegant human imperfections. Ironically, the answer came to me from a subculture that has its roots deeply planted in the exploration of the human condition: rap.

Design's Got a Bad Rap

Bling on a roll of cash

The early courtship process in a relationship is usually characterized by a healthy curiosity for each other's tastes: favorite restaurant, type of food, fit of jeans, color, movie, book, music, and so on. Music is always high on the list. If your experiences have been anything like mine, a conversation about musical preferences can get as contentious as a political or religious debate.

I was a bit of a music snob when my wife and I met. "After all," I would think to myself, "I've been playing the guitar for the better part of the last two decades; I must be a better judge of music than the everyday listener."

So, imagine my plight when my wife (girlfriend at the time) disclosed to me, very proudly and excitedly, that she was into hip-hop and pop, and looooooved Jay-Z, Beyonce, and Usher. My heart sank, but I was determined to "cure" her. No love of mine could enjoy to such heathen music.

"It's not real music," I explained. "It's exactly what's destroying this generation. I can't believe you would support such crap."

In her unwitting wisdom, she responded, "That's just one way to look at it. I just like the beats and melodies. It makes me want to dance. It's fun." Blasphemy. The woman I was intending to marry was trying to compromise my values for some… fun?!

The crux of her argument (which took me a good couple of years to accept after umpteen discussions) was that people listen to and select music in different ways. There is no right way to select music. In fact, you could argue that at a cognitive level, music selects us for varying reasons: we relate to the artist, the beat inspires us to dance, a particular melody reignites a fond memory, the song was recommended by someone we trust, and so on.

Subjectivity in musical taste tracks closely to our orientation toward design. And I mean "design" in the broad sense—inclusive of user experience, visual design, information architecture, and so on—even though it's going to peeve some of my peer "designers" in the software culture.

Is the Lemon Really Yellow?

Lemon, yellow?Sensory experiences—in this context, experiences stimulated by objects or actions that have an inherent aesthetic quality such as music, art, or visual design—are truly subjective. What you sense when you see a color, for instance, can only be accurately described through your sensation of it. Every other account is an approximation at best. It's no wonder there is a massive body of literature on the topic of color, which has intrigued everyone from Aristotle to Faust's author, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Goethe was an influential, mid-18th century polymath: a person whose expertise spanned a variety of subjects such as poetry, drama, literature, science, and so on. Among other works, he produced an extensive study titled Zur Farbenlehre (Theory of Colours), in which he questioned Newton's application of the scientific method to color theory (pg xxxviii).

Physics alone, Goethe argued, couldn't sufficiently explain color. To truly understand color, one must look to its softer, cognitive, and often contradictory attributes. Unfortunately, these are not easily quantifiable; as a result, color remains an intriguing topic for exploration even today.

Betty Edwards' book Color: A Course in Mastering the Art of Mixing Colors presents a fitting and eloquent observation that affirms Goethe's hypothesis even today:

Scientists and philosophers have written huge tomes to ponder the question, What is color? This seemingly simple question defies an objective, simple response.

Fortunately, a scientific understanding of color theory is not a prerequisite for appreciating or applying color evocatively. One need look no further than the Kuler gallery to see evidence of this.

This is not to say that everyday color enthusiasts are experts at "painting pretty pixels." But it does suggest two things about the aesthetics of experience design: picking harmonious colors isn't a scientific exercise and, more importantly, certain individuals are more proficient at it than others.

It's Not Personal

Edwards also writes about how our sensations are influenced by cognitive bias. Various brain processes affect our ability to see what is actually there—that is, the true data reflected back to the retina—rather than what our preconceptions tell us we are seeing.

chair sketches

Take the phenomenon of size constancy, a neural process that jumbles perception by actually overriding the direct data hitting our retina, causing us to "see" images that fit our preexisting notions of the situation. This is the reason some of us "can't draw." Even though the retinal image of the chair is exactly as shown in the image on the left, our brains convince us to draw the right image because we know the relative dimensions of the chair.

Our personal conflicts with creative representations—whether music or the visual design of a Web page—are just that: personal. And, as size constancy illustrates, these conflicts are deceiving enough to pass undetected, despite their irrational origins. Of course, problems arise when we pretend that our personal and subjective sensations are objective.

The tendency to assume that our views correspond to reality has its benefits. Evolutionarily, it has helped us quickly interpret the world. We know, for example, that a silhouette of an elephant on the distant horizon is an elephant. But paradoxically, we find this very quality at the root of our disagreements about music and design.

The brilliance of a good designer is not defined by her ability to represent teh world as she sees it, but by her trained ability to represent it as other expect to see it.Ultimately, it's this same predisposition that leads us to question our creative counterparts' aesthetic talents and irrationally promote our own views as fact.

In a sense, you could say that the brilliance of a good designer is not defined by her ability to represent the world as she sees it, but by her trained ability to represent it as others expect to see it.

Again, certain individuals are more proficient at it than others.

Is Design Subjective?

We've all heard that design is subjective and that "beauty lies in the eye of the beholder." Unfortunately, we often misinterpret these aphorisms and use them to rationalize why we don't like certain designs. When someone argues that our reasoning is faulty, it ruffles our feathers.

Another (redundant) way of putting the point is to say that design is subjective from the perspective of the subject (the beholder). From the perspective of the designer, however, design is as objective as anything else. A designer feels that his product is deterministic—no different from a line of code.

Good designers have an acute, trained, and almost instinctual ability to communicate with an audience through their products. Great designers are so objective that what they produce may not even remotely resemble their personal tastes and intuitions.

It's Time to Grow up

plants growing

For a design process to produce an extraordinary product, two conditions must be met: stakeholders and participants must unequivocally accept that they aren't designers, and trust the real designers' abilities. This of course requires that the real designers are good at what they do. Bill Buxton provides a great template for identifying good designers.

Simple as this recipe seems, few get it right. Elaine Wherry of Meebo recently wrote a piece on why UX professionals are some of the most professionally unhappy folks she's encountered. Doug Bowman's legendary goodbye letter to Google tragically confirms some of her observations. Clearly, our industry is not there yet. But we must persevere, for the rewards are rich.

A good understanding of a designer's process naturally encourages other behaviors integral to designing good products. It allows clients to let designers do their work without telling them how to do it. It makes it easier for designers to measure their work objectively, not relative to their clients' personal (and often limited) understanding of the context. It improves how designers and other participants collaborate. It streamlines the design process with an undying focus on the customer experience. It frees up team members to focus on their core areas.

Ultimately, it is this simple recipe of acceptance that transforms a design process into its ideal form—an objective, deliberate activity that furthers the cause of commerce—from its typically subjective, clumsy one, which always seems at odds with the bottom line.

The Punch line

In the time it took me to write this piece, my iTunes cycled through a diverse collection of hip-hop and rap tunes. Next to me is a dusty stack of assorted classic rock, blues and jazz CDs, waiting to be ripped.

The irony of this picture is only underscored by a Jay-Z lyric that is unexplainably and almost mockingly real: "He who does not feel me is not real to me, therefore he does not exist. So, poof... vamoose, son of a b@#ch."


Great article, but I think the real moral to this story is: Wives & girlfriends will always win.

The entire notion of design being subjective makes my hair stand on end. Whenever I encounter allegations such as this I become belligerent to the point of wiseassery.

Except you're absolutely, 100% right. Subjectively.

So while I won't tolerate clients thinking they have to make everything I create fit their taste (a little education goes a long way here), I have to admit that who we are as people, maybe moreso than the physical attributes, determine our perception. Which also means that I still have a long way to go to find out more about what other people see. Which, ironically, is what drew me into the profession in the first place.

Kudos for giving Betty Edwards a shout-out. Her book "Drawing on the right side of the brain" may be the single greatest drawing lesson ever given.

Thank you for such an insightful article. I found so much truth in the bit about It's Not Personal and how it relates to web design. I'm sure from now on I'll have a voice in the back of my mind saying, It's not what you see but what's perceived.

The images of the chair perfectly illustrated that fact for me.

I have to say this was an extremely interesting read. I, like you, tried to "cure" my girlfriend of her musical shortcomings. I would make mix CD's for her with "real" music on it. When we would ride in the car together I made sure to bring my iPod, because as we all know there is NEVER any good music on the radio and I would die before I let that digitally enhanced baby food be spoon fed to me. It took me some time to realize the same principle you found to be true. However, my epiphany came after reading the book "This Is Your Brain On Music" by Dr.Daniel J. Levitin ( It explains how our brains function when we hear music and different aural signals. Anyway, it really opened my mind and help me to understand her and how other senses can be different in any given person.
I often wonder if people see the same things as me. Is blue to me the same as blue to her? Or does she see yellow, but calls it blue because that's what she was taught? Wow, it can really mess with your head if you let it. Anyway, thanks for such an interesting read. I enjoyed it thoroughly, but perhaps differently than the previous reader...
Sammy D.
Designer, Musician, and all around Handyman

Very good article. The part that stuck out to me most was the idea that a good designer produces what other people enjoy in an objective way, rather than producing what the designer enjoys in a subjective way.

I got my first taste of this when a group of us decided to design a blog a number of years back. We came up with a design, one that we thought was great, and then, on a whim, we decided to test it on some people sitting in the coffee shop we were meeting in.

The people we tried it on thought the design was "nice", but had more bad to say about it than good. The other members of the team were devastated, but for me it opened up my eyes. It was the first time I had been able to look at a design through other peoples eyes, and I was hooked.

Nice article, Jay-z is way deeper than most non-rap listeners care to accept. Its all about perception, glad your mind has been opened

Thanks for fabulous, well written and thought-provoking article.

I will add one point regarding Doug Bowman's letter. I really do think there is a positive shift occurring in the value development organizations assign to designers. While I understand Bowman's frustration with the desire for Google engineers to test "41 different shades of blue," I believe it should be tempered with an understanding that this is not always a terrible thing. After all, don't we believe usability testing is good because it provides insights into how users truly behave? Obviously, visual design / composition is influenced by more than simply a particular shade of blue; but as designers, we should be open to leveraging data in decisions. A positive development team is one where everyone is free to challenge the ideas and assumptions of anyone with the best ideas winning out.

what if your wife enjoys the Kardashians?

Great piece! Saving it for repeat reading at a later date.

Fantastic, insightful article

Great article! I love how you mixed up philosophy into it. Design does need to be in tune with the content of a website, though - if you look at dubli you can see that the designer has gone to great pains to marry the two sides of this particular equation together.

awesome article.

I just needed to say that I think this is a phenomenal piece. It's going to take some pondering before I can comment beyond that.