Re: Is Design an Objective Pursuit?

29 Jan 2004 - 3:03pm
695 reads
Todd Warfel

Part of me wishes visual design wasn't typically seen as so subjective.
But then again, part of me enjoys that.

I don't honestly believe that its entirely one or the other, but a
balance of both. And that's not to give a copout answer. My background
is in art - visual design. But my education is in English and Cognitive
Psych. My PhD work is in Information Science (Communications/HCI). So,
for me personally, I can see both the aesthetic arguments and harder,
scientific evidence arguments. It's a tough balance. Personally, I
don't buy into the full blown theory (social science), as I'm more of a
practice person myself. Theory is great, but put it into practice and
see if it holds up. Perhaps I'm too practical?

I do believe that taste is somewhat personal and subjective. However,
that taste can be influenced by our culture and peers. There's no
clearer proof than looking at what's become "accepted" in the U.S. over
the past couple of decades (lifestyles, music, media). And please,
don't start a debate on politics, I'm just giving an example.

I think art can be impacted the same way. You might not like Warhol,
but it's tough to argue that he didn't produce great works. His work
has had a significant impact on culture and society. That makes it
significant, and arguably great.

I would say it's less random and more influenced by repeated exposure.

I'm taking a research methods class right now where we had a similar
discussion yesterday. To summarize, here's a few key points:

1. Social sciences (where our discipline belongs) is less stringent
about failure rates than hard sciences (e.g. Physics). Some possible
reasons: hard sciences have a longer history; their sample sizes are in
the billions, where ours range from single digits to hundreds, possibly
thousands (e.g. polling); they're dealing with more predictable
elements than we are (e.g. we deal with people, they deal with
molecules, atoms).
2. Anything that is observed is changed by that observation. To your
example below, if we observe opera, we are changed by that observation.
3. There is a world, we are impacted by it, and we attempt to build a
library of common knowledge. Again, as you pointed out, we're trying to
4. Measurement error - it's always present - either systematic (less
problematic) or random (more problematic). This relates to validation.
Social sciences are more lenient on measurement error - polls stating
that it's +/- 4%. What they aren't telling you is that they're 90% sure
that it's +/- 4%.
5. Good processes are systematic and repeatable. You do, you test, you
measure, you adjust. You should be able to replicate. We don't do
enough of this in our field.
6. One study only kills the "null" variable - meaning that we killed
the possibility that this couldn't happen. Replication validates, or
invalidates a theory.
7. Research is a systematic investigation of a falsifiable problem,
involving evidence, in order to make inferences. Basically, can't
really prove things, but rather disprove something can't happen, or
infer that something is very likely to happen.

Hopefully, I've answered your questions.

On Jan 29, 2004, at 2:10 PM, Bob Baxley wrote:

> As for visual design, while I agree that it is generally equated with
> style, that doesn't mean it has to be. It is up to us as a community
> to educate our clients and consumers about the real value and meaning
> of design. I would argue that if the CEO doesn't like blue you've
> failed to adequately explain the problem and solution to them. If they
> still don't like blue, you'd be better off finding another CEO *^)
> As for the subjective/objective thing, I was wondering if you believe
> in objective standards of beauty. Do you believe for example, that
> there is something objective and universally beautiful about a Mozart
> symphony, a Shakespearean sonnet, or a Van Gogh painting? Or do you
> believe that all taste is relative and that we've simply made a
> cultural agreement about our "great works"? Put another way, do you
> think that an individual's sense of taste and understanding of beauty
> is enhanced by repeated exposure and understanding of art or do you
> believe that the development of aesthetic sensibilities is random? And
> if it's not random, doesn't the fact that we've come to agree on a
> standard collection of great works evidence of objective standards of
> beauty?


Todd R. Warfel
User Experience Architect
MessageFirst | making products easier to use
Contact Info
voice: (607) 339-9640
email: twarfel at
aim: twarfel at
In theory, theory and practice are the same.
In practice, they are not.
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