The other day someone told me that typography was subjective. It set me off on a rant about how it wasn’t. I tried to explain about how typography affects reading and changes your mood. Different fonts will create different feelings in the reader. I tried to explain kerning, serifs and other typography topics. It was lost on her. She just thought it was all subjective and her opinion was as good as someone who created fonts for a living or a designer who used various fonts for decades.
A great designer knows the qualitative difference between different designs. It’s not subjective, but rather an objective evaluation of multiple criteria. Certainly some designs are optimized for one audience and sub-optimal for another. Also, there is the personality of the designer that is imbued into any design. Still, there are rules of what works and what doesn’t. There is a reason comic sans is hated.
When people try to say some decision is subjective, they are denying the expertise of people who spent their lives studying the details of that topic. They are trying to make everyone equals. This technique is used to great effect to eliminate the expertise of designers and allow people who have not studied the craft to make decisions because they have “power”.
This is the number one reason that many designers hate their jobs and why testing has become so popular. With testing you can (if you have statistical confidence and if you design the experiment properly) have an answer to the question, “Which is better?”. I have learned much through my time at Intuit testing different designs. The most important of which is that most people don’t design their tests properly and will often make spurious conclusions. Additionally, most designs that are entered into the test fail to be quality designs.
Of course, not all experts are equally good at their craft. Take this example from Amadeus the movie. Salieri composes a march that he thinks is really good. Mozart hears it and immediately thinks an area could be better. (1:56 in the clip)
Mozart is not being subjective. He understands music as a master. He knows that is is objectively better. So does Salieri! It isn’t subjectively better. Music has rules. And so does every craft in the world.