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The Subjectivity of Design

By: Fardis Khadem, Senior Interior Designer at Hager Design International Inc.


Is design subjective or objective?

While at first glance it may seem easy enough to take a stance on this topic, the question of subjectivity of design is not quite that simple.


Whether design is subjective or objective is a highly controversial topic in the design world, with some very strong defenders on both sides. While some of you may have already made up your minds on the matter, I would encourage you to keep an open mind and read to the end of this article.


To get a better understanding of the topic in question, we must first have a clear understanding of the words “subjective” and “objective”.


Subjective: Based on and influenced by personal opinions, tastes or feelings.

Objective: Not influenced by personal opinions, tastes or feelings.


In essence, to argue that design is subjective is to say that it is affected by someone’s personal preferences, likes and dislikes. I emphasize the word “someone”, as I believe that contrary to popular belief it is not only the designer’s personal opinions, tastes or feelings that may subjectify the design, but rather the personal tastes or opinions of those for whom the design is created.


Let’s analyze this further by defining the role and goal of design.

What is “design”?

I see “design” as the creative solution to a problem; an intentional process of creation whereby the creator simultaneously considers the purpose, form, function and aesthetics of what is being created.

Every design is the outcome of someone’s ability to conceive something that does not yet exist. It emanates from imagination and evolves through deliberation. In other words, “design” has as much to do with imaginative thinking as it does with careful and deliberate consideration.


One of the earliest considerations in the design process is the purpose of the design. As designers, we often design not for ourselves but for others. Identifying client wants and needs is a crucial step in the very first phase of the design process, referred to as “programming”.

The next phase, “schematic design”, is by far the most subjective of all phases within the design process. It is at this stage that the designer comes up with creative solutions to meet design objectives. It involves using the information gathered during the programming phase and making choices from the multitude of available options, all the while taking into consideration the various design constraints. Schematic design is the designer’s expression of a design solution that takes both form and function into consideration. While one can argue that the five design principles of balance, rhythm and repetition, emphasis, proportion and scale and harmony can be applied objectively to guide the design, the schematic phase still requires the designer to make choices, and not between right or wrong. The choice often comes down to the designer’s aesthetic perception.


In the “Design Development” phase, the designer guides the client through various selections and decisions that need to be made. While many of these decisions may be guided by objective principles or existing constraints, usually in the form of codes and regulations, many others are based purely on the designer’s personal taste. Even when options are presented to the client it is ultimately the designer who has selected from the multitude of available possibilities.


In effect, what started out as the client’s subjective requirements has, at this stage, materialized through the designer’s subjective perception.

What is “subjective perception”?

Subjective perception can be defined as the manner in which an individual views the physical world based on his/her unique brain function and sensory experiences. It is a complex topic and beyond the scope of this blog. However, it suffices to say that subjective perception has its roots in our past experiences and is often what determines our likes and dislikes. As we evolve and our life experiences expand, so does our subjective perception, our likes and dislikes.


Several years ago, I would often wear my favorite plaid skirt to work. To me, its grey and maroon pattern paired with a simple black shirt made it the perfect fall outfit. I stopped wearing this outfit, however, when a colleague who had spent some time studying set design in Germany commented that my skirt reminded her of the school uniform of girls in Nazi Germany! I never researched to see if it was in fact true, and whether school girls in Nazi Germany wore a similar plaid skirt. The point is that our different life experiences made us have two completely different perceptions of the exact same object.


As designers, we are always making decisions, many of which may be guided by objective principles. Still, many of the choices we make on a daily basis are guided merely by our subjective perception. While it is impossible to argue that design is purely subjective, the subjectivity of design is irrefutable.

If design were purely subjective, how would one distinguish between good design and bad design or why would anyone ever bother to go to design school?


If it were purely objective, why would the exact same programming requirements given to two different designers produce two completely different results?


Any successful designer knows that “good design” is a fine balance of the two: remaining objective to discover the facts, the requirements and the constraints; and being subjective to breathe life and personality into the design.

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Fardis Khadem is a Senior Interior Designer at Hager Design International Inc. with a background in literature and education. She loves working on hospitality projects and is always looking for better design solutions. Fardis can be reached at fardis@hagerinc.com

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