Tension & Balance

In software design, we are trying to maintain a tense balance between the subject and the object, the subjective and the objective. In a version of the subjective model, it is the users interpretation that matters. This places emphasis on the study of the user. In an analogous objective model, good design is understood as a sort of art whereby majority agreement of beauty and usefulness can be perceived, taught, and designed without large amounts of user-feedback.

A case study: Google vs. Apple

Google and Apple are known to have two well-discussed traits. Google emphasizes data collection to drive function. Apple emphasizes good design to drive function. Let’s discuss these in terms of objective and subjective thought, as each exhibit both.

Google touts the objectivity of the data, saying that data’s power lies in its ability to back the subjective with “facts,” or something nearer to facts than something else. However, Google’s model is subjective, in that it treats the human response as the goal. Essentially, it says, “the humans are right” regardless of whether they are right or not. The danger in this is that there are examples where humans are easily deceived and willingly pollute themselves to such states of degradation that they can no longer function (i.e. addiction). Awareness that the human wants something doesn’t mean it’s good for their well being and longevity. In addition, subjectivity can generate a lack of innovation: a person may not know of the potential options available him if the options come from paradigms to which he is unaware.

Apple touts the subjectivity of the designer. A good designer will make a thousand decisions, some more well-informed than others, in the name of a coherent cohesion that causes the finished product to function as one polished piece (as opposed to a collection of disparate pieces glued together). This, however, is dangerous in that, the designer’s design effectively becomes the object (or objectivity) plopped into the subject’s life. At this step, the subject, if not in tune or harmony with this design, will then develop work-arounds, creative bandaids, or exploitative loopholes to cause the design to function in a way that is more in tune to their own channel of thought than the one for which the designer intended. Of course, this can cause the designer to learn and plan for these cases, but nonetheless messiness ensues for a time or longer.

Essentially, subject vs. object are the beginnings of the discussion of control vs. freedom, of central government vs. self-government. And so the question of balance: Which technique is more right? I perceive this to be one of the more difficult human conditions, so the best I can do is open the discussion.

When forming something in a relatively immature space, I tend to lean toward designer subjectivity and central control. To go farther more quickly, it helps to have a rigorous set of artistic principles designed to promote simplicity and order rather than allow each to create his own reality. This simplicity and order is especially useful for improving accessibility and understanding for those unfamiliar with the subject space.

However, once the distance has been covered in the space, once paradigms are established, it certainly is plausible to see a world where more freedom and self-government are enabled to allow for play within the defined boundaries of the matured space. Anarchy without government is scary; Government without freedom is equally scary. We work in tension to design with balance.

Nathanael OttoComment