Resolving subjectivity in design's styling

Designers have to make subjective decisions in styling and prove that they will add value. However, the proof is not the easy part, because designers will have to satisfy those who disagree. How do you prove that a particular concept will add true value? Is there any way of proving it objectively? Are there any frameworks and rigid methods used for that purpose? Or is that value proven using the designer’s personal track record?

I would really like to know how it is all done in areas such as styling and branding.


I would love to hear more about this myself as well.

In our class now, our teacher has been encouraging us to look at more “old-school” methods such as drafting and applying things like the golden ratio – so that we can validate styling decisions in a more objective way than “it looks nice,” or at least understand these methods and adding them to our toolset.

When it comes to styling and branding, I think what helps is having good mood boards that capture the “feel” of what their brand is trying to convey. Use concrete visuals that can be directly linked back to the user market, as well as examples of form languages that are similar to the brand. Then, as these visuals serve as inspiration for individual design decisions, it will be much clearer how and why you chose to, say, tighten up the radius in this area or curve the form instead of making it flat.

It is important that design decisions can be traced back into whatever story you are telling in your concept, so that you are not just showing a client “shapes” which are very subjective. You are selling the story of a product concept, and whatever form you create should be the physical manifestation of the concept.

Also Robbie_roy mentioned the golden ratio. Actually I recently saw a Stanford lecture. Basically the professor said that what has been said about the Golden Ratio/Golden Rectangle and aesthetics has mainly been a myth in popular culture. 2. The Golden Ratio & Fibonacci Numbers: Fact versus Fiction - YouTube

But if you are learning about designing forms, do learn as much as you can about composition, as this can also help you in your arguments when asked why you put a design element there instead of here.

Hope this helps

This has been discussed before, but in a nutshell, you ask the customer.

For any brand, you develop a core positioning strategy. This is the value of the brand. Or again, in a nutshell, it is the 4 or 5 words you say while pounding your fist on the table to get your point across about the brand.

In your interviews with customers, you should be asking what does the brand mean, what is its value. There is a thousand ways to ask this question. From those questions, you will get answers. Mostly, the answers are words, but you can ask for images from the customer. You take those words from the customer and create a lexicon. Your strategy team can decide to use the customer-only lexicon, or they can enhance it with synonyms, etc. to wordsmith the end result which is the core positioning strategy.

From that lexicon, the designer can create their design objectives. Typically this is done through mood boards. So if the lexicon has “fast” in it, you grab images that convey “fast”. You final design should have those elements of “fast”. If your client doesn’t want “fast”, you point to the customer research and and show how often the customer said “fast”. That eliminates a tremendous amount of “I don’t like that” subjectivity from the client. You don’t like “fast”? TS. It is what the customer wants.

Not to say this takes out all of the subjectivity. There are a thousand ways to say “fast”, in words and form. The pissing match never ends.

iab summed it up nicely. Essentially the goal is to remove as much “I like it” “I don’t like it” from the process as possible. If you get stuck in that cycle, you end up with a HiPPO decision (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion). Instead, the goal is to create a world based on a brand platform for design solutions to fit into, then hold up proposed designs and critique which solution fits into that world. This can extend beyond aesthetics and become a gravitational center for design, marketing, and R&D. It can start with a mood board or an aesthetic ingredient board, and develop into a ful design language outlining what types of innovation to explore, CMF palettes, packaging guidelines and so on. Sometimes I’ve built these out into “Rig Rooms”, essentially a wall (usually about 10’-15’) filled with images, products from other industries, ephemera of everyday life from the end user. Usually this “stuff” comes from ethno research with users, observing what other products are important to them in their lives. To build on the example from iab, if the brand platform is built around “fast” “light” and lets say “colorful”, you can build multiple mood boards for each, present those, then narrow it down to the final 3 mood boards to build a rig room around, and then present your design concepts with the rig room as a backdrop stating the downselect will be based on which concepts fit best with the rig. Do this a few times with the same steakholders and it can build enough trust and mutual understanding to eliminate it from the process.

In addition to what yo said, helping guide the stakeholders in selecting the correct “rig” (never heard that before, I like it) is really a 3-legged stool. The customer is obviously the sturdiest leg, but you also have to factor in what the client’s company can deliver and what the competition delivers.

So if all of the competition is crowding the “fast” space, you will want to lean more towards “light” and “colorful”. If you don’t need to compete head to head, you don’t. Also, if your client is incapable of “fast” and won’t deliver “fast”, you are just going to piss off the customer and the brand will not fulfill its promise.

And btw, that is all a brand really is, a promise.

Yes sir. You can never take the subjectivity all the way out, but defining many of these subjective terms helps to create a common design language between you and key stakeholders. Again, with the fast example, one person’s interpretation may be chiseled, wedge shaped, with wings like a race car, while another’s may be streamlined like a shark. Both are fast, but one has the modifier of being technical and the other organic. So a competitor can be owning “fast” = “technical” in the marketplace, but there may be white space around “fast” = “organic” but you’ll have to get everyone on the same page.

BTW, don’t let me fool you, I still mess up too. It is all part of a process. For example we were working on a product line with a defined language of “Pure Logical Geometry” + “Magic and Mystery”. I caught the engineers putting an oval section on a technical detail and was like what the heck guys?!.. they rightly pointed out that an oval is pure geometry, while the pill shape I wanted was complex geometry. I had not done enough work on my definition of pure geometry as essentially artful combinations of straights with rads executed to perfection.

Very good replies thus far. In short, it’s not some much about removing the subjectivity, but getting every on on the same page in terms of how they evaluate a given concept.

In the same tact as putting together visual inspiration boards to direct projects/brand/products I also find it very useful to create strategic matrices. These use a simple X and Y axis with appropriate labels on the axises (?) to define things in terms of a spectrum from right to left or up and down and in terms of the combination of factors (4 quadrants created by intersecting axises. When done right (a lot harder to find appropriate labels and examples than it looks), you get the insight that added dimension adds and you can see how far you can go in any direction.

There’s a small example in my portfolio in the 4th image, but I will try to dig up a more clear example and post here.

In addition to visuals, I find that a well written text brief is a good tool for defining direction and gaining consensus. More than just the usual bullet points, I try to describe a brand/product with well crafted, full descriptions like a novel would. Things like Brand Personality, can often be more descriptive in text than trying to find visual words that aren’t ambiguous.

Something I’ve also done before (more in branding development than design - which is actually far more subjective), is to create a scoring matrix. Pick 10 or so criteria (ie. fast, modern, fun, etc.) that are pulled from your inspiration visuals or design brief, and associate an order of importance from 1-10 (10 is most important). Then score each concept against each criteria, multiplied by the importance. If you have several stakeholders do this, you can easily crunch the numbers and get mean, median and average scores, in effect using subjective ranking to help quantitatively evaluate. I also sometimes throw in an “X” factor score, which is 100% subjective to allow for a different kind of ranking or comparison of subjective vs. evaluative scoring.


iirc, there is a thread somewhere showing tools that can be used to evaluate criteria, objectives, etc.

I thought I have shown Treacy’s value principles, BCI chart, AIDA chart, etc somewhere on these boards along with other stuff people have posted.

Good stuff to aid in the decision making process.

Or, when in doubt, make it red.

Or, when in doubt, make it red.

But… . I thought the new red, was pink. :wink:

nice… first time i’ve heard that term before. so true…

love the detailed responses.

Micheal, how do you determine your end user? Is it an aspirational figure that you want to be your end user? Is it an established user of the brand? I’m having a hard time justifying a consistent brand language because we’re not sure about the end user in the first place, so coming to a consensus about inspirational items is dicey.

I usually center on an aspirational persona, and then you can find “good, better, and best” examples of that persona, in a manner of speaking. I usually call the three levels something like “Early Adopter, Fast Follower, and Follower” or something similar. Early adopter being closest to the Aspirational Persona.

It is important to remember that you can’t be all things to all people without devolving into nothingness. It is also important to remember that other people will buy the product outside of the aspirational persona set, that is called cross over, and it is a good thing. They aspire to align with what they are not.

Quick example. Air Jordans. Designed to the exacting performance requirements of one of the greatest athletes of all time, that is the aspriational persona. The early adopters were the potential professional student athletes who took their game out to the streets. Fast followers the urban culture that adopted it. Cross over came from the massive amounts (majority of sales) of suburban kinds and Asia Pacific sales that the product was never designed for. That has been the largest consumer base of the brand for years, but they never adjust the target, because that is what makes it cool.

My subjective read is that the hundreds of millions of dollars in “urban” sales skewed the design of Jordan’s heavily, seeming to coincide with the retirement of the star.
One case in point. Hard to make a performance case for spats.

Design is subjective, putting a design in context is key as mentioned above. Design/corporate/brand mythology plays a role as well.

One case in point. Hard to make a performance case for spats.

I don’t think it was intended to represent any kind of “performance” enhancement. While originally intended to protect expensive leather shoes, spats evolved more into a symbol of wealth, or being eccentric. And what would draw more attention than wearing spats (and black ones at that), or the appearance of them, over your AJs? On top of, what is more attention grabbing, especially “on the street”, than wearing AJs?

Thank you so much for the great and insightful replies. In most cases, I have noticed that some methods are great for proving a concept to a client who wants a one-off product. However, I still don’t see how is it possible to convince that a particular style will appeal to a large number of people… like 1000 people, for example. I don’t have a good understanding of academic interpretation of human psychology, so I’m probably misunderstanding such things as Treacy’s value principles, BCI chart, AIDA chart, etc. Maybe that could resolve my doubts.

So in any case, is there much point in producing one design for a large amount of people anymore? Is it more profitable and risk free to design different styles for small segments of the population?

The brand is a promise. It is the value to the customer. Will all customers have the same values? Absolutely not. Can tens of thousands, if not millions of customers have the same values? You betcha. So the notion that the value of a brand only appeals to one person is ludicrous.

Style is merely a reflection of the brand.

That said, a 14-year-old girl’s interpretation of “fast” is likely going to be different that a 47-year-old man’s interpretation of “fast”. That why we have product lines. You don’t have to have a one-size-fits-all approach. The term is call market segmentation. Not only can they be used to fill in price points, they can be used to fill demographic gaps, geographic gaps, etc.

Determining whether you approach different segments with different styles will also depend on this pesky thing called profits. You will capture some market share with an all-in-one approach, but if you can capture more with a segmented approach and the revenues justify the costs, you expand your product line.

Wow! I found this thread in search and can’t believe it’s current!

I have a adjacent question on the subject… “Can you test it?”

Does anyone have experience testing a form language or CMF with consumers? Can you test a particular segment to ensure they’re interpreting “fast.” And can you test your styling against competitors for the same reaction and or general purchase intent?


To all.

One-on-one interviews. Online surveys. Sensory panels. Mall intercepts. The dreaded focus group. Etc.

I have always called it confirmatory research, ymmv.

We call it Validation Testing.

I never test the actual design. Test mood boards, other people’s designs, conceptual high level designs. Testing the final design is the fastest way to take anything memorable and interesting out of it in my experience. To make something memorable, it tends to need to be at least slightly provocative and different… different and provocative tend not to test well. It is the great dichotomy in this business. To be successful you have to have some level of differentiation, to be differentiated you have to be, all different, and people are initially put off by different. With a little time in the marketplace, some good marketing, positioning and product placement, different becomes desirable…