Design Subjectivity and How to Overcome It

Nolan Marketti-Morales

From solo designers all the way up to complex design teams, you will always encounter feedback and criticism. Some valuable and some subjective. If you’re an Art Director, you’ll have to consistently provide design feedback to others. What you don’t want to do is be subjective about it. Having the ability to provide clear, concise and actionable feedback is an extremely important skill — so let’s get one thing straight.

Design should not be subjective. And neither should your feedback.

Example above. The line detail next to the quote block is not cute. It’s not “creative”. It’s not trendy to add a line next to it. It serves the purpose of guiding your eye and calling out a key point I wanted you to notice. Okay, maybe it’s a little design-y. And in all fairness, sometimes you will be slightly subjective.

So What Is Being Subjective?

Every week, I spend a couple of hours surfing the world wide web on sites such as Brand New — a well-known graphic design site curating high profile logo redesigns. After reading through and digesting the visuals of each project, I always make my way to the best section…the comments. Consistently I see comments that just straight up bash on the logo re-design and share with everyone that they have better ideas and executions.

“Jumping on the bandwagon of flattening a logo”
“The first thing that came to my mind when I saw this (inserts logo that has same shape or similar logo)”
“It’s okay, but it’s relatively uninspired. Such a weak solution.”
“Trendy nonsense, we have seen before done much better…yawn!”

The comment section is the mecca of subjectivity. Sometimes being critical is okay, but more often than not it’s taken to an unnecessary level. There are logo redesigns that are so dreadful they might deserve very critical feedback. Gap, I’m talking about you. See what I did there?

Let’s take an example of a recent rebrand of the automotive manufacturer, Toyota. Overall the rebrand is simple. They’ve accentuated the icon by enclosing it in a vibrant red box and scaled the logotype down. The result is a pretty solid lockup. Additionally, the typographic system is unified and feels approachable.

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View the Full Rebrand Here

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Before we get into details, let’s understand a little bit about the brand. The core attributes of Toyota can be summed up to quality, reliability and durability. (In their brand guidelines)

Let’s take a look at two different sets of feedback.

Subjective Feedback

This type of feedback is based solely on personal taste, feeling and thoughts.

  1. It’s bland and boring
  2. I don’t like the red box
  3. I’ve seen this before
  4. This looks like “X’s” logo

If what you say has the word “I” it’s probably going to be subjective, unless it’s a positive note. The design solution is not about what you like. Remember that.

Non-Subjective Feedback:

Considers the goals + strategy of the project at hand and provides feedback against them.

  1. The square feels strong, which can resonate with quality and reliability, however, the strokes feel a little weak compared to the original.
  2. The lockup feels holistic, giving a sense of durability, however, the balance between the icon and the logotype feels a little off.

Is this the most creative and out of the box solution that will win the next HOW Logo Design Award? No. Is it sensible and practical for the Toyota brand? Most likely. Yet, many designers (and non-designers) will attack and critique this as awful, uninspired and bland without considering the goal of the logo rebrand. And without being in the board room, they might not fully grasp the strategy.

Being a better facilitator

Regardless if you’re an art director guiding a team of designers or a designer collaborating with others, being able to provide useful and concrete feedback that is geared more towards the goal of a project is 10x more effective than telling those around your opinion on the design.

If you have goals and strategy of the project established, that helps guide the process and eliminates any personal feelings and taste. The goal of the design is to achieve the desired outcome, not feed your personal ego for Dribbble or Behance. So how can this relate in the critique situations?

During Critiques

Every time you sit in on a critique session, begin by asking simple questions.

  1. What type of feedback are you looking for? As obvious as it may seem, it can be easy to babble out your thoughts. Sometimes an idea isn’t fully fleshed out and a designer wants feedback on a specific part of the project.
  2. What is the goal of this website/logo rebrand/project? Revisit the goals. State them. Focus on giving feedback in relation to those goals and not “what you like”.
  3. Go around the room one by one. If everyone starts blurting out comments, things get messy. You get sidetracked. Things are forgotten.
  4. Save additional ideas for last. The goal of a critique is to review a design and provide constructive feedback. Don’t pitch your new idea you’ve been thinking about.

Speak Carefully and Thoughtfully

So how does this translate into actually articulating what you want to say effectively? Being thoughtful in the words you choose and how you deliver that feedback matters.

Say Things Like This:

  1. This doesn’t feel “insert attribute”. Attributes come from a good strategy workshop where you define the look/feel/voice, etc.
  2. The navigation still feels cluttered and overwhelming, which is detracting from the goal of the redesign to be more streamlined and accessible.
  3. The typography is losing legibility without proper hierarchy of the different headings and subheads.

This addresses issues with the design and allows the designer to focus on solving those problems while still being in control and having creative freedom.

Not Things Like This:

  1. I’m just not feeling this design
  2. Change the blue to red. Move the logo to the right. Size the text up 2pt. Add a line here. Divide this.
  3. I think we can be more creative than this.
  4. I don’t like that font.

This comes off as the “hovering art director”, and the designer is not in control of their design. They will feel like you’re commanding them what to do the entire time. Nobody likes this.

Learn, Adapt and Grow

Being a facilitator and providing feedback is not an easy thing to do and is a never-ending process. It’s important to fail and learn from your mistakes. Sometimes design sprints are the focus and design become direct — move this here, change this color, let’s make this font bigger. This is okay. Sometimes the deadline is looming like a storm cloud over your head and it just needs to get done. Pixel push when those times come.

What’s important is we acknowledge the fact that design serves a purpose. It’s normal for designs to be over analytical and critical, however, it’s our responsibility to overcome our ego and be less subjective.

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