Form and Context

If you ask people what they think about when they think about design, many will tell you about things they either like or dislike. You’ll hear about their iPhone, their car, their office, a chair, a book, a poster. It’s always about a thing — a form that exists in the world.

This shouldn’t surprise us. We can relate to forms. We see them, touch them, hold them, get into and out of them. They’re “real”; we tacitly understand where we stand in relation to them.

But forms are not the only product of design. Things don’t exist in a vacuum; they always address — and alter — a broader context. The coffee mug next to your computer is a response to a context that includes your biological need to ingest liquids, the mechanics of your body, a culture that has taught you to prefer coffee hot, etc. A chair hints at a particular course of action, and its dimensions and materials respond to physical, economic, and social constraints. A room with a video camera in it changes your behavior. (This is why public places visibly announce their presence.)

Context is not as easy to perceive as forms are. We can’t touch context in the same way we can touch an iPhone or a coffee cup or a chair. Instead, we experience the effects of acting within a context when the forms that enable it alter our understanding and behavior.

Forms can be explicitly designed to create particular contexts. Consider Albert Speer’s design for the Nazi party rally grounds (Reichsparteitagsgelände) outside of Nuremberg:

Image: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-04062A / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons
Image: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-04062A / CC-BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia

The forms that made up this place were subservient to the context they were designed to create: a place where individuality was discouraged, and social hierarchies and rules were reified. This, in service to reinforcing a broader context — that of the Third Reich — which produced the conditions that called for the creation of the Reichsparteitagsgelände to begin with.

So context births forms and forms alter context in a cycle of constant adjustment. The Reichsparteitagsgelände (along with many other intentionally designed forms) was created by — and helped create — a context which encouraged and enabled unspeakable atrocities. When the war was over, the forms that had enabled this context had to be eradicated:

swastika-explosion.gif

Regardless of what area of design you work in, the forms you produce also respond to, uphold, or address particular contexts. Are you clear on what they are? How do you know?