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Designers, Be Happy You’re Not Dolphins

May 13, 2010 In Design By Nishant Kothary

I recently watched The Cove—the much-heralded documentary about the covert annual slaughter of Dolphins in Japan. Oddly, I walked away feeling sorry for designers

The film follows protagonist Ric O’Barry, a reformed dolphin activist from Flipper fame, who’s joined forces with Louie Psyhoyo, leader of the Ocean Preservation Society, as they lead a team of vigilantes to covertly film the entire massacre in The Cove—the alleged scene of an annual dolphin massacre that’s been deemed off-limits to all but a select group of officials and fisherman by the Japanese authorities.

Despite the one-sidedness, it’s a great piece of filmmaking. The documentary positions the cause masterfully by gripping its audience with one of the seven basic plots.

The Cove

Having said that, I’m completely astonished (but maybe I shouldn’t be) at how this film has catapulted dolphins to the new status of the sacred cow. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy for Ric and dolphins worldwide.

But, let’s be honest about the double standard here.


I watched the film sitting next to two vegetarians (full disclosure—I like my filet mignon medium-well), one of whom couldn’t see the difference between the dolphin massacre and industrial livestock farming in most developed nations, including the US. In essence, my vegetarian friend noted,both are systems in which humans kill animals for monetization and sustenance.

Ric argues that dolphins have Theory of Mind: They’re self-aware,extremely intelligent and close to humans in the evolutionary chain, if you will. Hence, their captivity and murder are inexcusable.

As Sam Harris argues in his TED talk, Science Can Answer Moral Questions, our tendency to protect certain forms of life such as elephants, primates and now, dolphins, is rooted in our belief that they can experience a broad range of happiness and suffering. Conversely, we don’t show such empathy for rocks, ants or, say, Cattle.

Sam Harris' TED Talk

But this reasoning just doesn’t sit well with many smart vegetarians I know. Some are infuriated that we bestow upon ourselves the right to make judgments about what species we may kill or hunt. Or that we presume to know which species are off-limits, since our understanding about their consciousness is incomprehensive.

Make no mistake—this isn’t just an isolated opinion of a few vegetarians. It’s even a core tenet of many religions—Ahimsa (non-violence), a core concept in Jainism, asserts that all living beings have a jiva (a soul) that is equal and thus, must be treated with equal respect. Practicing Jains go to extreme lengths to preserve life of all forms, from ants to root vegetables; many Jains have never tasted a potato because that’s considered a sin!

Beliefs about what level of respect different forms of life deserve traverse a broad range of complex and subjective arguments.

The keyword here is subjective.

The Curse of Subjectivity

The word “subjective” is the arch nemesis of user experience. That’s because “subjective” is usually an illusion when it comes to design.

Everyday, brilliant creations are adulterated with toxic accoutrements borne from the bowels of a belief that design is subjective. This distortion of reality seems to have become a core tenet in our organizational value system; it often leads to metaphorical Cove massacres of our products.

The challenge with design is that it’s not as primitive as logic, but we tend to silently measure it logically. Design is a craft that approaches the complexity of natural language with nuances, contradictions, and emotions. Much like good writing, good design is something that doesn’t just evolve, but is intelligently created by a craftsman. And it always grips us in an unexplainable way.

Because it is, often, unexplainable.

Explaining the Unexplainable

Kid catching a flyball

The unexplainable part of the practice design is founded on evolved problem-solving capacities that are often hidden from our consciousness. These are the same evolved capacities that allow ball players to catch seemingly impossible fly balls with awe-inspiring accuracy—a task that when solved mathematically relies on solving differential equations in four dimensions—which even the most sophisticated robots can’t replicate.

The problem is that our reductionist methods always mislead us into mistaking the unexplainable for incorrect or illogical. The fact is that reductionist approaches generally do a piss-poor job of reverse-engineering the unexplainable when it comes to design—because they neglect the unquantifiable pieces of real equation.

We need to wrap our minds around a new definition of design that builds upon better evidence. Taking talent for granted, the definition lies somewhere between three key points: Edwards’ assertion that artists have a trained ability to represent the world as audiences desire to see them, Gigerenzer’s assertion that intuition and gut feelings are better suited for certain types of problem-solving and Gladwell’s assertion that expertise in a trade is achieved at the magical 10,000 hour mark.

In simpler words, the practice of design occurs at the confluence of talent, training, intuition and experience. The rest is just background noise.

Thank God We’re Not Dolphins

My point is that the practice of design isn’t really subjective like the ethics of the dolphin trade or personal musical tastes, and while much of it is unexplainable, it’s hardly illogical or incorrect.

But, I suppose the real moral is that designers should be thankful that they’re not dolphins. I mean, can you imagine being a dolphin swimming up to humans, introducing yourself with a friendly high-pitched language that rivals the sophistication of their own, and impressing them with tasks they can’t achieve, including mastering their own language, only to find yourself being held captive to perform circus tricks or simply being marginalized, massacred and consumed without consequence?

Wait a minute…

Follow the Conversation

16 comments so far. You should leave one, too.

Mark said on May 13, 2010

I agree with the statement that design (and a lot of things we all enjoy) "grips us in an unexplainable way".

I have to totally disagree that design is not subjective. There are plenty of sites and designers that are much lauded that I personally dislike and think are unsuccessful. There is work that I loved 5 years ago that I couldn''t stand 2 years ago that I''m suddenly really into right now.

Design is a functional art so you can objectively say if design is successful in achieving its functional goals but beyond that I''d have to say it will come down to a million different the end of the day it''s still art. The tides of culture, taste, emotion, environment, and who knows what (I believe) too complicated to nail down and by the time you''ve nailed the some logical causes for a trend they''ve already changed.

You may be able to logically explain why a design is currently ''good'' in reference to current tastes and trends but beyond that it will get subjective.

Nishant said on May 13, 2010

You''re just amplifying my point that "design is subjective" is just a distortion of reality.

All your points are absolutely true within a certain context and we can all relate to many of them. In fact, I relate to everything you''ve said; heck, I''m back into lightly-textured backgrounds and even like looking at Times New Roman! But your argument means something completely different if you change the frame of reference. The frame of reference you''re using is that of the non-designer; maybe even the designer looking at her own work after a few years and gagging that she could even have been into bevels. But, the reality is that in that frame of reference, you''re a stakeholder/user/whatever else you want to call it.

From the frame of reference of the designer, however, the final design is an objective outcome borne of her talent, training, intuition and experience. Good designers have the ability to incorporate culture, taste, emotion and even the who-knows-what into their solutions in effective ways. To be clear, I''m not saying their design is the absolute right one (there''s no such thing) and every individual in the world will experience it the same way (again, there''s no such thing), but that doesn''t change the fact that the design is deliberate and objective.

It''s a different perspective, but I think it''s one that we need to embrace as clients and stakeholders if we are to get better at designing products in organizations and placing the accountability where it belongs.

I''ve found that whenever someone finds this perspective unsettling, it''s because their mind jumps to the first horrid designer they know who they''d never want to relinquish control to. Or, the first designer they know whose stuff they find to be overrated. Etc. But on the flip side, if you picture a great designer in this objective frame of reference, your mind is now met with images of great designs that appeal to a mass of people.

Mark said on May 16, 2010

Thanks for the thoughtful response. I understand what you''re saying now. The designer is objective in the sense that they are making decisions based on logic and understanding (even if it''s an unexplainable logic and understanding) versus deciding for no reason ''I think an animated GIF would be nice here''.
I think framing it in the context of ''objective'' and ''subjective'' threw me off a bit.

As someone who''s worked in print for a long time and now in web as a designer - I appreciate your message that you need to trust a designer.Designer''s decisions are purposeful. Design processes of any sort get frustrating because clients often overlook that a designer is making certain decisions, not just simply because he or she ''likes'' something but because of experience, study and understanding of design.

Ian Muir said on May 17, 2010

I''d agree with you 100% on this Nishant. I''ve run into the subjective design mentality on almost every freelance project I''ve done. I can''t count how many times I''ve tried to explain why tiny fonts with no line height are bad.

One thing I''ve had some luck with is having clients explain aspects of their business, then using those as examples. Almost every profession has some aspect that seems arbitrary or subjective to outsiders, but is based on proven practices. Using these examples often helps clients relate to and understand design decisions.

When that doesn''t work, I usually just ask them to Google "line-height" or "Comic Sans"...

Richard Westenra said on May 23, 2010

I think you''re being overly simplistic.
But then again, as a web designer, a philosopher (with a special interest in ethics), and a vegetarian, I''m probably bound to say that.

You''ve introduced a lot of big ideas and arguments in a relatively short space of time with little justification, but that''s forgivable because this isn''t an academic thesis, it''s a blog post. I''ll try to offer a similarly brief reply.

On vegetarian ethics: Personally, I''m a fan of Harris'' argument, although I think it could also do with refinement. To defend it against the "smart vegetarians''" argument: Just because we can''t tell what another organism is thinking or whether it feels pain, it does not follow that each individual''s perception is subjective. It only means that their state of mind is unknowable. The minds of other humans are just as unknowable as those of dolphins or rats or termites, yet we are quite comfortable assuming that other humans feel pain. In the absence of complete information, we make the best guess we can on the evidence we have: Other humans tell me they feel pain and act like I do when I am in pain, therefore I assume they feel pain. Dolphins, apes, pigs, fish etc have comparable brains to humans with the same types of pain-sensitive receptors, and their behaviour when injured is consistent with what we''d expect of a being in pain. Therefore it''s safe to assume that they feel pain too.
On the other hand, plants, insects, and shellfish don''t have brains with pain receptors like ours, and they don''t exhibit behaviour consistent with pain. Therefore it''s safe to assume that they don''t feel pain. Granted, it''s always possible that they DO feel pain using some yet undiscovered pain receptors, but it''s unlikely. It''s also possible that there''s an invisible pink elephant hovering over my head, but in the absence of evidence it''s best to assume that there isn''t.

Anyway, I''m getting off track. The point is that there is a difference between something being subjective and being unknowable. I can never know what it is like to be you, but I still believe that your experience of the world is as accurate and objective as possible given the circumstances (I''m ignoring Kant for a moment here, we don''t have all day).

I don''t believe that ethics are subjective. There may be those who have correct ethical beliefs, and then there are the majority of us who are sorely mistaken about what is right and wrong (at least in some sense - it''s very very difficult to work out a completely consistent ethical framework!).

Personally, I think that Jainists and your ''smart vegetarian'' friends are on the right track, but may be erring too much on the side of caution. I don''t think that we are arrogant to ''bestow upon ourselves the right to make judgments about what species we may kill or hunt.'' Frankly, we have to make a decision, so we ought to make the best decision we can using the information we have available. That''s not arrogance, that''s pragmatism.

Anyway, on the design argument: I think that design has elements of both objectivity and subjectivity. I like what you said about the practice of design occuring ''at the confluence of talent, training, intuition and experience.'' That''s a cool way of putting it, and I agree that there are a lot of objective rules and best practices that designers follow in order to create good designs. However there is also subjectivity to design, in that each of us have personal preferences that we ''superimpose'' upon the objectivity, if you will. For instance, I may like minimalist, blue, Bauhaus-style designs, whereas you may prefer a warmer, embellished Art Nouveau style. Neither of us are going to like a crappy Comic Sans flashy gif geocities website, because it breaks all the objective design rules. But we may disagree subjectively over a competently-designed Bauhaus-style site, merely because of our personal design preferences.

At least, that''s my theory for now. Ask me again next week and I may have changed my mind ;)

PS/ whoa, turns out that wasn''t so brief after all :S

Margi Prideaux said on May 24, 2010

I agree, thank God we''re not dolphins, or whales, or porpoises. They all get a rather rough lot from our kind.

A two day multi-disciplinary conference has just been held at the University of Helsinki, Finland, addressing the question of whether whales and dolphins should be considered as non-human persons and granted special status. Experts covering various disciplines ranging from behavioural science to philosophy and international law concluded that all whales and dolphins have the right to life, liberty and wellbeing.

They agreed on a Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans which is now online at

Pretty profound, but important stuff

ed hardy said on Jun 1, 2010

yes, you''re right. Thank God We''re Not Dolphins
My point is that the practice of design isn''t really subjective like the ethics of the dolphin trade or personal musical tastes, and while much of it is unexplainable, it''s hardly illogical or incorrect.

Nishant said on Jun 4, 2010

@Mark—All great points! I agree that Jains tend to being overly cautious, but my smart vegetarian friends make the point about our dual standards with dolphins vs., say, cows. I still see shades of gray there; I’ve never bothered to investigate because I think I secretly don’t want to be unplugged from the Matrix for certain things (I really do like my steak). :-) With respect to subjectivity around visual design, yes, true, we all have our tastes. But my expectation is that a good designer creates what’s in tune with the average taste of the audience rather than his own. In a sense, I’m arguing that a good designer has the capability to meet his user’s “subjective-objective superimposition” and that’s objective as a solution. Yeah, you’re right, tough to talk about this with a word-limit :)

It certainly seems like I need to read Harris; I like what you said about the unknowable. Thanks for the very thoughtful response.

Vineet said on Jun 12, 2010

"I am a designer and I wish we were dolphins"...I''ll explain why in a minute.

I come from a interesting mix of education/ training and practice which included all senses, gut and reactionary evolution in a particular context. "Context" especially helped me evolve my thought process to understand what is correct for that context and leave behind subjectivity.

I remember having a conversation in an interview, where the argument was on Art vs Design, which I later realized was between subjectivity and objectivity. I am a craftsmen but I do not like the business of selling it, I love the craft and want to pursue it in full detail. I sit down with my tools and chisel, sand, blow, burn my object till it justifies both the craft and its own function. Then I do it all over again.

It is intriguing that designers tend to work for "others"..consumers/users/organizations/ constraints and contexts and lose their craft somewhere in the middle of that. More and more designers are either falling prey to this organizational nuisance or decay of the craft itself, especially subjective-objective argument is seen in reverse.

I wish we were dolphins, not because I believe in (1)subjective ethics or (2)performing circus tricks, but the fact that those succumbing to (1 and 2) will be massacred or weeded out.

Those who survive will still swim free and practice their beautiful craft.

architecture minor said on Jun 12, 2010

ahh..spoken like a true dolphin..i mean designer ; )

i''m digging the math reference in the third section. after writing a paper on deleuze and guattari in last semester''s arch theory course, i was pleasantly surprised by their assertion that both *smooth + striated space are mathematical. therefor the ''unexplainable'' baseball catch of the player is in fact also mathematically achieved. and how the player has the ability to tap into that mathematical catch- is like you said ''talent, training, intuition and experience''. also, dolphins are simply born dolphins.

Nishant said on Jun 18, 2010

@Ian—I''m going to have to use your approach to help people relate back to the unknowables within my profession. So simple and brilliant. I think we are all guilty of not taking enough time to be empathetic.

@Vineet—I agree with you that framing problems in the right context translates us from subjective to objective modes even when we''re solving functional design problems. But, I don''t share the sentiment that designers "work for others". That line of thinking is a trap, one that we are prone to falling into frequently especially as designers working in organizations or ones with clients to serve.

I think it''s perfectly admirable to be a craftsmen fully engaged in one''s art—to be in "flow" as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi frames it. The key to happiness for the craftsman, in my opinion, isn''t the final product, but a set of moments leading up to it. I''ve found that the joy I get from the end-product and the solitary process of creation isn''t as comprehensive as what I experience when other people are involved regardless of their irrationalities (and mine) and the struggles. Needless to say, it''s not fun when such behavior is modus operandi, and I''m not talking about persevering through incessant organizational dysfunctions (that''s just silly… know when to quit).

The point is, I like to know that I''m solving a real problem for real people and that my work makes a positive impact. I share "Michael Bierut''s view": Of course, enjoying such a mode of operation needn''t be mutually exclusive with the one you''re referring to: creating something for and by yourself without the pressures of making the world see its genius. And, there''s evidence that both approaches lead to great happiness and success; one, in my opinion, isn''t better than the other.

@architecture minor—Well-said and thanks for exposing me to the topic of smooth/striated spaces. Piaget''s "points of view experiments": are really fascinating. I''ll be reading more about this.

Vineet said on Jun 22, 2010

@ Nishant.
I may have sounded wrong. I have the same point regarding "working for others". The designers are losing the sense of craftsmanship by living in a fallacy that they are always designing for others. The purity of design lies in the craftsman aspect of it.

Rick Poynor in his book " No More Rules - Graphic Design and Post-modernism"...
"In a perspective analysis of what it means to possess craft knowledge, published in 1994, the British critic Peter Dormer argues that the ''constructive rules'' that govern a particular kind of craft activity are not external to it. These rules are the activity; they give it its own internal logic, which the practioner must follow, and , taken together they add upto the body of the knowledge. To divorce them from the activity would be to destroy it."

As a designer what I see around is the constant separation of the activity and the rules, which would gradually dilute it and ultimately kill it.

(btw, this thread has been pretty retrospective and self-awakening for me)

Richard Westenra said on Jul 18, 2010

@Nishant - I assume you were talking to me, not Mark, judging by the content of your June 4 comment ;). I used to be the same way about vegetarianism - the arguments sounded promising but I liked eating meat too much to look into them. Then I read ''Animal Liberation'' by Peter Singer, and my world was turned upside down. It''s a brilliant, compelling book, and it really opened my eyes. For one thing, I realised that saying ''I know animals are badly mistreated and I''d be a vegetarian but I really like eating meat'' is kinda like saying ''I know murder is wrong and I''d stop, but I really enjoy killing people''. Anyway I recommend checking it out - if you finish it and still decide to eat meat then at least you properly questioned your beliefs, which is generally a healthy thing.
Oh by the way: you might also find this article interesting - - I used it as a source for a university essay a few years ago.

I''ve read a little Harris and I like him, but I think he talks more about the evils of religion than about the difference between the subjective and the unknowable.

Nishant said on Jul 27, 2010

@Vineet—Great clarification, and thanks for the book recommendation.

@Richard—I just read a few paragraphs and had to stop myself (don''t need more excuses to procrastinate work). :-) Needless to say, the beginning of the article was really fascinating, and I suspect Peter Singer''s book will be as well. Thanks much for the recommendation. Added to my list...

Dallas Web Design said on Aug 5, 2010

I am a dolphin. Eeeeee! Eeeeeeee! lol - No, but seriously... Executives trying to play art director will make you wish you could jump into the ocean and swim away.

Berthold said on Mar 24, 2011

Not to be a douche here, but I''d like to argue that design is kind of subjective - communication has four levels according to von Thun, and at least two of them - self-revelation and relation - are inherently subjective.

This doesen''t invalidate the argument that you have to know what you are doing to design properly; just that its way more complicated and that the same, correct design can end up saying very different things to different people.

Which is all well and good as long as clients understand the difference between talent and intuition. But the vast majority (damn that 80:20 rule) of course think that they have above average design skills and thus need to *fix* our work. The only decent way around this is to make it seem that everything was their idea in the first place, or find some insignificant thing for them to decide upon and making a fuss about it. I''d rather be honest though.

intuition vs talent- it''s the 80:20 rule again