The Importance Of Context

Context is everything. It shapes the meaning in all communication. Without context you can’t communicate effectively. When your message is delivered in one context, but received in another, it likely leads to miscommunication.


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As you can guess I want to talk about context. It’s a subject I come back to a lot because I think it’s incredibly important. I also think it gets overlooked too often and not given the importance it deserves.

The Message Relies on Context to Communicate

Let me offer some examples of context. What if I asked you to add one to one. You’d probably hear the question as a math problem and quickly tell me 1 + 1 = 2. Does it? It depends on the context.

What if I rephrase the question and ask what you get when you add one sperm to one egg? You don’t get two. You get one of something different. What if I asked what you get when you add one drop of water to another drop of water. Mostly likely you get one larger drop of water. Again adding one to one, doesn’t automatically result in two.

I admit I’m cherry picking examples, but hopefully you see the point. It’s all about context. I gave three different answers to the question of what you get when you add one to one. The answers depended on a greater context.

The question, while seemingly straightforward, required more information than originally given to answer. We naturally assume the question is a math problem, but it doesn’t have to be.

Politicians speak in sound bites because what they say is reported in soundbites. When you remove the context of the words around the sound bite, you can present it in in a different context. You can change the meaning of the words or use them to give a false impression of the meaning they attempted to convey.

Anything in the form of “if p, then q” can easily be stripped of context by removing the “if” clause. If (insert some country)’s army crosses our border, we’re going to war with (that same country). Read it without the if clause and it presents a very different picture.

Sarcasm is another example. When it’s delivered in writing, without the context the human voice provides, the meaning is usually lost. So much of sarcasm is communicated with a change in pitch or rhythm of voice. You communicate two different messages, one based on content and one based on content delivery.

Visit any tech blog. Look for a post about Apple, Samsung, Google, or Microsoft. Find one with a lot of comments. You probably won’t need to scroll to far through the comments to find the following.

Someone leaves a comment that comes across taking a strong pro or con stand. Someone else replies to directly address the points in the original comment. The first person comes back saying something like “I guess some people don’t understand sarcasm.”

Of course they didn’t pick up on your sarcasm. You heard it it internally when writing. Someone else reading doesn’t hear that same voice while reading your words. That’s why you see people adding [/sarcasm] or </sarcasm> to forum posts and blog comments.

Communicating sarcasm through writing is difficult. Not impossible, but difficult. Sarcasm is saying one thing and having it mean the opposite. How do you do that with writing alone. You have to hear the voice speaking the words to hear the sarcasm. If you can’t literally hear the voice you have to be familiar enough with the voice to be able to accurately hear it.

Techniques Without Context Are Less Than They Could Be

Techniques for design and development are offered everywhere, but too often they’re given without context. The technique is offered without greater thoughts for where it might be useful.

I’ve come across many techniques over the years that looked impressive, but I could never figure out when or where the technique would be useful other than to demonstrate the technique itself. There’s nothing specifically wrong with that. Perhaps I lacked the imagination to understand where to apply the technique.

Still, when techniques given without some context it can be difficult to understand in which context it might fit. People copy and paste the code as is. They often don’t understand how to modify it for a different site, a a different context. It’s giving someone a fish instead of teaching that person how to fish.

Context is Everything

Everything is interpreted through some context. A very important part of our job as designers is to create a visual context that enhances what the site we’re designing is trying to communicate.

Context comes from what we create and it comes from the schemas and mental models of those who view the design. Context can exist at both ends of visual perception. As designers we can only control one end, though we can guestimate what the context at the other end will be like and design to work with it.

Every site should start with a story. Not a fictional account of events, but the story about the business or individual behind the site. The story should appeal to a group of people that will become customers or clients. The story will share why the business exists, what it does, why it does what it does better than the competition, etc.

That story is used to form a concept for the design that communicates visually what the story is communicating verbally. Your concept becomes the context for the communication. You visually create a unified context where every part of the story is contributing to the same message.

On a website, the context begins as soon as someone sees the design. It happens so quickly that all that can be taken in is a quick visual impressions. Within milliseconds and before viewers have had a chance to even think about your design, it’s setting an atmosphere for everything that follows.

People start comparing the context you created against those they hold in long term memory and making judgements and decisions about the site based on the similarities and differences.

Art Direction Is Creating and Maintaining Context

I started thinking about all of this after reading a couple of older articles about art direction. One was an article by Stephen Hay for A List Apart from 2004. It contains the following quote about what it means to be an art director.

art directors (often teamed up with a copywriter) come up with “concepts,” the creative ideas which communicate with us on a gut level through such devices as theme, metaphor, and symbolism. Some art directors do little more than dream up these ideas and present them to clients, while some oversee almost all aspects of the design and production process.

Art direction is about concept. It’s about choosing how the message will be delivered. The concept should help the site reach its goals and objectives, but it’s also determining the context for everything that comes after.

Art direction is about defining what will be unity for the design and overseeing the design so that it remains unified to its story.

Art direction is not designing each post to make each post unique for the sake of being unique. It’s designing each page in a way so it’s unified with a singular story. The different looks for different posts did arise out of the same idea, but on a single article. Unfortunately I think it’s come to mean something different as the term is passed around on the web.

Art direction is creating context and making sure that context matches the goals of the design. It’s taking the story to be told and communicating that story visually and setting the scene for that story.

Summary

Hopefully I’m not rambling too much and the importance of context is getting through. The meaning of communication is shaped by the context in which it’s delivered and that meaning can be completely altered by delivering it in a different context. I hope the examples here illustrate that idea.

Designers create context. That’s what we do. We create the environment where the story lives. Our setting can contribute as much to the message as the message itself. It’s in our ability to enhance the message or detract from it.

We do this by understanding, as best we can, the story behind the site. We develop a concept that communicates the story visually, and contributes to the context within which the story lives. We make decisions based on a unified vision so that every aspect of the design contributes to that vision and the whole becomes more than the sum of the parts.

That’s the power of context in delivering a message.

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