Thinking Contextually

Whenever I’m designing anything, I always keep in mind this quote from Eero Saarinen:

Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context — a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.

Whatever you’re working on isn’t an end in itself; it’s always part of something bigger. That bigger thing may be out of scope for the project, but it influences the project. When an architect designs a building, the street grid informs the structure and form of the building. Whenever I work on a navigation system for a company’s website, I must look at other websites in the industry (i.e., the company’s competitors, partners, customers, etc.)

In other words, context matters in design. Nothing ever exists in isolation, and you can’t do a proper job if you don’t consider the forces surrounding the project. This is all design 101; Saarinen’s admonition is printed on the wall in one of the IxD studios at CCA.

But thinking about context isn’t just key to good design; it’s also essential for other sense-making situations. A good biography doesn’t just tell the sequence of events in an individual’s life; it also paints a picture of their world. The author must immerse him or herself in the subject’s context to better understand their motivations and actions.

You do this too in your personal life. When interacting with other people, you look beyond their behaviors to culture, situation, roles, etc. Context changes the meaning of words and actions. You adjust your responses accordingly, without thinking explicitly about the context.

But there are also advantages to explicitly thinking about the thing in its “next larger context.” In his book, Mastery, Robert Greene reminds us that thinking contextually is a powerful way of re-engaging with your commitments:

Your project or the problem you are solving should always be connected to something larger — a bigger question, an overarching idea, an inspiring goal. Whenever your work begins to feel stale, you must return to the larger purpose and goal that impelled you in the first place. This bigger idea governs your smaller paths of investigation, and opens up many more such paths for you to look into. By constantly reminding yourself of your purpose, you will prevent yourself from fetishizing certain techniques or from becoming overly obsessed with trivial details. In this way you will play into the natural strengths of the human brain, which wants to look for connections on higher and higher levels.

Here the context isn’t a set of tangible facts about the world, such as a street grid, but a set of values, goals, and aspirations: the difference between examining what you’re working on and why you’re working on it. Zooming out to take it in this broader picture helps you re-connect with your purpose, releasing a tremendous amount of energy. In this light, contextual thinking can help you focus your efforts and get unstuck.