Designing Context

by NoD Staff | October 9, 2007

Up until the late 1800s, a painter could concern himself solely with what occurred within the borders of his canvas. In the biannual Paris Salon art exhibits, paintings were hung floor to ceiling and side by side, piled upon one another. Nobody considered the implications of hanging a painting of a virile bull directly above a painting of a reclining woman, and the artist certainly was not responsible for the overall context in which his work appeared publicly.

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The Paris Salon of 1799

It’s not that artists in the 1800s were technically unable to control the contexts in which their art appeared, it’s just that there was, as yet, no historical precedent for doing so. However, when Marcel Duchamp entered a signed urinal into an art exhibit in 1917, everything changed. From then on, artists have been forced to consider the context in which their work is presented.

Likewise, there may have once been a time when a designer could be concerned only with what occurred within the borders of her cleverly composed layout. However, with the advent of interaction design and ubiquitous computing, that time is passing rapidly.
Successful designers must now take into account the contexts in which their designs occur, and control those contexts as much as possible. In other words, contemporary designers must learn to design their own contexts.

In order to control the context in which your design appears you may need to reach beyond the realm of design into fields such as cognitive psychology, marketing and branding, sociology, urban planning, political strategy, environmentally conscious industrial production, curatorial art practices, as well as a host of other “non-design” disciplines. What does designing one’s context actually look like? Here are a few instructive examples.

Stefan Sagmeister’s Movable Columns

Designer Stefan Sagmeister was once hired to make posters advertising a fashion event in the city of Vienna. The posters were to be placed on famous advertising columns in the middle of city. Sagmeister decided he would dress the columns up in fashion gowns as part of the promotion, but the media buyers failed to reserve the columns in time. Undaunted, Sagmeister made replicas of the columns and dressed them up in gowns. He also made his columns mobile. He then hired students to stand inside the columns and move them around town. Some students would stand still just long enough to allow people to start reading the posters, and then, they would suddenly move, freaking the readers out. Other students would chase people down the street. By dressing these very officious-looking columns in the fabrics of fashion and making them mobile, Sagmeister brought them to life, quite literally. In so doing, he mirrored the way in which this fashion event would bring the historic city of Vienna to life. The project got tons of press and was a great success.

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Sagmeister’s mobile columns

A non-contextual designer thinking “inside the frame” would never have arrived at this solution. She would have simply designed the 2D posters and submitted them. The details of their implementation would have been someone else’s problem. By “designing” the context in which his “design” existed, Sagmeister transformed a passive poster advertisement into a performative event.

Hans Haacke’s Manet-PROJEKT 74

In 1974, conceptual artist Hans Haacke was invited to participate in an exhibit at the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne, Germany. At the time, the museum owned a painting by Manet which had been donated by an ex-Nazi. Haacke’s contribution to the exhibit consisted of nothing more than framed documentation of the Manet painting’s provenance, which public exposed the donor’s largely overlooked Nazi history. Haacke’s piece was banned from the exhibit, but fellow conceptual artist Daniel Buren later pasted Haacke’s documentation onto one of his own pieces in the same exhibit. Upon discovering this, the museum removed the documentation from Buren’s piece, however by that time, the damage had been done.

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A Bunch of Asparagus by Manet

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Haacke’s exposure of the ex-Nazi donor of a Bunch of Asparagus

By thinking beyond the hermetic “frame” of their own work, and outward toward the larger institution of the museum and the national past of Germany, Haacke and Buren were practicing institutional critique — a kind of prototypical contextual design. Their art hijacked, and thus redesigned, the context in which it appeared. Of course, not every magazine advertisement needs to critique the magazine in which it appears, but design should at least be in conscious dialogue with its surroundings.

In my previous post, I suggested that contemporary designers are increasingly responsible for “designing” the contexts in which their designs occur, and I gave two examples of what such contextual designing might look like. Here are three more instances in which context is not merely taken into account, but rather purposefully altered in order to enhance a designed experience.

Service Design

In his excellent book Interaction Design, Dan Saffer defines a service as “a chain of activities that form a process and have value for the end user.” By way of example, the cashier in a grocery checkout line performs a service. A service can be thought of as a system of events. Service design is the art of designing the entire context around this system of events. In the case of the grocery checkout line, a service designer would script the interactions between the cashier and the customer. She would also design the cash register interface, the signage for the checkout aisles, and dictate the physical layout of the aisles themselves.

In order to properly design such services, a service designer must take into account the size and nature of the shopping carts, the dimensions of the parking lot, the number of store employees per shift, the store’s hours of operation, the location of the store within the city, the amount and types of products on sale in the store, etc. In other words, a service designer must necessarily concern herself with the totality of the context in which the service occurs, and she must design (or at least negotiate) that context appropriately.

Of course, not all design is service design, but it provides an instructive model for all designers. As contemporary forms of design increasingly move toward facilitating interaction between humans, designers will need to intentionally design the contexts in which these interactions occur.

James Turrell’s Twilight Arch

James Turrell makes art out of light. The craft of his art is in contextualizing the way in which people experience light in space. In Turrell’s piece Twilight Arch, the viewer first enters a dark room. As her eyes gradually adjust to the darkness, she perceives a faint blue square on the far wall. When she approaches this blue square, she realizes it’s not a blue painting hanging on a wall, but rather a square hole cut through the wall, opening onto another room bathed in blue light.

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Turrell’s Twilight Arch

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Fig. A: An isometric diagram of the two rooms Fig. B: A diagram of what the viewer actually sees

Turrell leads the viewer through a series of gradual, phenomenological revelations. He controls the viewer’s pace as she moves through the space by intentionally designing the overall context in which the artwork is experienced. In fact, Turrell designed an entrance hallway that transitions the viewer from the light of the gallery to the darkness of the viewing room for this specific purpose. The entrance hallway is not technically a part of the art, but it constitutes the context in which it exists, so Turrell purposefully designed it as well.

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Blueprint of Twilight Arch showing its architectural context

Bruce Mau’s Massive Change Exhibit

Designer Bruce Mau was invited to curate a traveling exhibition on design. Rather than merely designing an exhibit that reinforced the currently delimited, modernist concept of design (Eames chairs, constructivist posters, elegant teapots), Mau took the opportunity to entirely redesign our contemporary understanding of design itself. He called his exhibit Massive Change. Its slogan proclaims: “Massive Change is not about the world of design; it’s about the design of the world.” Mau interviewed leading thinkers in fields ranging from media theory to genetic engineering. His exhibit is less concerned with the physical artifacts of design, and more concerned with the ways in which design alters our world.

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The back cover of the Massive Change book

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“The Image Gallery” and “The Wealth and Politics Gallery” from the Massive Change exhibition

In his book Life Style, Mau writes, “Life doesn’t simply happen to us, we produce it. That’s what style is. It’s producing life. Rather than accepting that life is something that we passively receive, accept, or endure, I believe that life is something we generate… Style is a decision about how we live. Style is not superficial. It is a philosophical project of the deepest order.” To Mau, then, all design is contextual design (to greater or lesser degrees). To put any design into the world at all is to alter the world that contextualizes it.

The professional (and ethical) question remains — are we purposefully seeking to design the contexts that exist around our designs? Such contextual designing is an admittedly challenging and complicated task. Ideally, it means being involved in the creative process throughout — from product prototyping to branding, marketing, development, post-production, and distribution. It means engaging in cross-disciplinary research and collaborating with experts in other fields. Above all, contextual design means thinking beyond the borders of our gridded templates and out into the messy, daunting, and intricate world in which we live.

This post was authored by NoD staff. Notes on Design is a design industry blog sponsored by Sessions College for Professional Design.

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