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 (], 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:


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?

Our Own Private Idahos

I once had a client — let’s call her Mary — who’d built a business on a domain that had a good Google ranking. One day Mary called sounding distressed. The site’s traffic was not growing anymore — in fact, it was going down. “I don’t know what’s going on,” she said, “we’re still the number one result in Google for our keywords.” I checked. “No, you’re not,” I replied, “I see you way down the list.” We started comparing notes, and that’s when we realized Google was serving us different results for the same keywords.

I didn’t know what to recommend. I knew SEO was important, but​ it wasn’t the focus of my work. Still, I had a basic understanding of Google’s ranking algorithm: Roughly, it gave greater prominence to older pages that had lots of other pages pointing to it. This meant there were things you could do to the site — clarify language, structure HTML in particular ways — that could help. It also meant everyone saw the same results: if you googled something and I googled the same thing, we’d both see the same list of results ranked in the same order.

But now this had changed. The algorithm had become more complex, taking into consideration other factors. I didn’t know what they were, but it seemed clear Mary’s results were very different from mine. This place we had both referred to — the first page of Google results for keyword x — no longer existed; now there was Mary’s results page and Jorge’s results page, and the two were different.

The upside to dynamically generated environments such as this is that they make it easier for us to find the stuff we — individually — are looking for. Google’s results have been getting better over time; I usually find what I’m looking for faster. But there’s a downside too: if everyone sees a different version of the environment, how can we come to a shared understanding of what we’re looking at? How can we have a dialog when standing in different contexts? What is our common frame of reference?

For example, the algorithm that powers Facebook’s news feed generates a unique instance of that place every time you visit. It’d be meaningless for you to say to me, “Check this out, you’ll see it in your Facebook news feed!”; there’s nowhere for you to point to because the place you’re pointing to is completely ephemeral. And if you and I are chatting on​ Facebook, you may be seeing completely different things around the chat window than I am. Maybe these things are irritating or inciting me, and that’s affecting the tone (if not the content) of my messages.

Context is a very important factor on how we understand things. A conversation between two people during a wake will have a very different meaning than one during a circus performance, even if the same words are uttered. Effective dialog requires contextual stability, and we’re moving to a world where the spaces we converse in are in constant flux. Those of us who design these places are called to make them effective conduits for understanding, and this requires that we think about the contexts they create — shared and otherwise.

En Contexto

(In Spanish)

I delivered this presentation at the first Experience Design Summit in San José, Costa Rica, in September 2013.

Presentation summary:

We can’t talk about design without in the 21st Century without talking about information. The majority of products and services that we interact with are part of information environments that teach, entertain, guide, and influence us. This presentation examines the importance of context in the way that users understand and navigate information, and what we can do to create more successful information-based solutions.