Context-Centred Design

10 min read
Design Theory
A photo of a man standing in the middle of a circle at the center of a basketball court

Introduction

In this article I present a new approach to design: Context-Centred Design. The practice of prioritising context should the primary reference for a designer’s work. Each project is necessarily unique. A never-to-be-repeated configuration of people and purpose. Within this unpredictability, there is no pre-defined path that will guarantee you the best results. Relying on design theory isn’t enough. Instead, I propose your context not only determines the way in which you leverage your experience and ideas, but that it in fact should push you to reimagine what you think you know. In responding to a new context, you are building a fresh mode of design practice, an evolution of knowledge that is triggered through environment and action.

Abandon good, aim for great

Without considering your context, you can only hope to chance upon good results. You will never achieve great results. You may produce good work by following someone’s system or how some other designer or company works. But any pre-defined way of working, followed without reference to your context, will necessarily fail to provide you with the best solution. Any solution conceived outside of your own specific context, and failing to fully take that into consideration, will always leave you with an outcome that has not been optimised.

There is a simple reason why people do not consider their context, preferring to place their trust in the latest theories and ideas of another: design is hard.

When it comes to design, people want shortcuts. But there are no shortcuts. There’s no bootcamp to train your eye in seeing the world differently. To see the interaction of colour. To see the relationship of every object to every other object; on a page, on a screen, or in a room. To switch from seeing the visuals to reading the content. To considering both the visual elements and the meaning of the content in the surrounding environment of wherever your work is seen or your product is used.

If you want to be a well-rounded designer, even if you choose to specialise in one specific area, you need to understand other disciplines and industries: photography, illustration, copy writing, print, web development, to name the most relevant today. You may also need to get to grips with new technologies and products that create unique design challenges. You need to understand users, clients, the market place and how to work with your fellow designers.

The teaching-learning context

In order to teach design, or any complex discipline, experienced practitioners come up with theories, systems, guidelines, rules. What is often not taught alongside these ideas is that these insights come from many years of practice, formulated from many experiences, and distilled into generalisations or relative truths for what has worked for this person or company, at that particular time and place. These theories and rules have their own particular context. And that context needs to be understood in order to determine their value and relevance when referring to them within your own situation.

When you begin learning anything you have no experience to draw on. This is your particular context. It makes sense to follow someone else’s recipe because you’ve never tried to cook before. This will help you get somewhere. Your meal will be edible.

But the true goal is not to continue following recipes, continuously searching out the best ones you can find in order to produce ever more elaborate and impressive dishes. The aim is to use these recipes as a means to understand the basic techniques, to get you familiar with the ingredients, and keep you on the right track as you build your own base of experience relevant to you.

Once you have many years experience you don’t need to refer to books or the ideas of others. You can take what’s given to you and work to achieve the best results given the tools at your disposal and the specific environment you’re working within. And then, maybe, you’ll start writing your own recipes for others to begin their journey.

Caught in the web

Pshhkkkkkkrrrrkakingkakingkakingtshchchchchh*ding*ding*ding*. I remember the messy web. The wild west. It was a beautiful ugly princess monster. I guess it still is. Although maybe now you could say it’s less ugly; on the outside at least. It’s more efficient, for the most part. It’s monetised, the new financial frontier. It’s ubiquitous. Complex.

Wherever you have complexity, you have design. You need design. Design takes the complex and simplifies it. You can’t sell complexity. We don’t want to use something that’s complicated. We don’t have time. If you’re shown something ugly and ill considered or something beautiful and cleverly conceived, it’s obvious what you’ll spend more time looking at. And what you’ll keep coming back to.

Studies have shown that in two applications where one is deliberately ugly but efficient, and the other is beautiful but with a deliberately flawed user experience, test subjects report the later as being more efficient even when it takes them much longer to complete a given task. People are more willing to forgive the beautiful. Of course the goal of design is to produce an efficient and beautiful solution.

There is no either/or mentality in great design.

Within the context of the emerging web, the power of design was quickly realised: a beautiful website with a seamless checkout experience inspires trust and easily facilitates purchases from customers anywhere in the world. But many people working in this new medium had no experience working as a designer or of design practices. The canon of graphic design theory has been picked apart in endless blog posts on layout grids, colour theory and typography. Many design professionals working in the print medium crossed over to this new digital space and took their practices from the old context to the new.

The web fell in love with design, and the feeling was mutual. Now, young designers entering the profession may have no experience designing for print or physical spaces, knowing only the screen as a display for their work. With the speed of change — new devices, hardware, products, technologies, languages and frameworks mushrooming endlessly — there is a bigger congregation than ever waiting for the latest sermon on how to get results. They want to know how to realise good design that will scale and perform in an uncontrollable, diffused and global medium. And their clients and employers want it quick. Under this pressure it’s no wonder that designers seem to be enticed into unquestioningly following the recipes of others who are appear to possess the latest design panacea.

Prioritising context — lessons learnt

I learnt to prioritise my context over what I’d learnt in books on design when I started working with clients. Every client is different. You could be working with one person, or a team of people. That team may not necessarily have the authority to sign off on your work. Someone more senior in a company may materialise suddenly to add a further constraint on the project, or make a demand that has to be taken into account. Managing clients is a discipline in itself, learnt only through experience. Your clients tend not to have the time to hear long theoretical justifications on why your design took this or that direction, or even the inclination to understand them. Their motivations may stem from budgetary or deadline considerations, and you have to work with that perspective in mind. Design is mostly employed as a tool used to solve business problems. If you’re working for a client, never forget this context.

I learnt to prioritise my context over what I’d learnt in a theory when I tried to apply Josef Müller-Brockmann’s grid systems and typographic rules into my web projects. Müller-Brockmann probably never worked on a digital project. He probably never heard of CSS. It was just taking shape in W3C as a working group at the time of his death in 1996. Anyone who has tried to apply Müller-Brockmann’s ideas to a web project will either miss their deadline and produce something that will not be sensibly maintainable from a code perspective, and/or quickly realise that these systems do not work out of their context. There are some principles that underpin the work, an approach and a precision, and that’s how the work must be learnt from.

I learnt to prioritise my context over what I’d learnt in a theory when I started working with big existing brands. The reality for many designers is they spend the majority of their careers working within the brand guidelines created by others. A brand may be very old, even in its current visual iteration, having had many different people working on it. Inconsistencies and oddities will surround you and the tools provided may be inadequate for your tasks at hand. In order to stay consistent with a brand you may have to break ‘rules’ you never thought you would. A good designer will audit a new context, figuring out what sacrifices and compromises may need to be made in order to produce work that will be successful in that specific environment.

I learnt to prioritise my context over what I’d learnt in a theory when I started working in a startup. In a startup things move fast. Everything can change from one month to the next. Nothing is certain. In this context, how can you implement a design system? You often need to favour speed and embrace a lack of consistency. The initial time needed to setup a design system is wasted if the direction of your product, or the product itself, completely changes. The rest of your team want to see output quickly and regularly. That’s your context, so figure out how to make the most impact knowing that your work may or may not be used, or will in all likelihood be reworked again and again in short order.

I learnt to prioritise my context over what I’d learnt in a theory when I worked on a new product that had no users. Most design theories work from an assumption that you have users or you have easy access to potential users. When working on a new B2B enterprise software product that was using blockchain technology within inter-business processes, there was no way of effectively testing the product as our users would be employees across multiple business partners interacting in complex networks or supply chains. On top of this, there was no similar product we could use as a reference point and few references of blockchain products that were easily accessible. There’s plenty of UX advice on best practice for signup forms, but not so much info on products leveraging blockchain, cryptography and private key infrastructures.

Evolution and Originality

Nothing is static in this world — your thinking and work practices should embrace this truism. When you reimagine ways of working and question what you know with each new project, you create an open mindset and the conditions to learn and find creative solutions at the same time.

The ability to navigate the grey areas in any project and emerge with a clear way forward is a skill, which, like any other, requires consistent and constant practise. This skill demands a sharp, agile and flexible mind. Entering too deeply into the thinking and work practices of others dulls the progression and evolution of your own thinking, closing you off to gaining the true knowledge of any discipline, which is inherently deeply subjective.

By creating an evolving and present mindset, Context-Centred Design ensures a degree of originality is always embedded within your work. Trend-based copying in design arises when designers abandon any reference to their own context and imitate others who they perceive as being successful. By centring your work on your context, which is necessarily unique, you will always give the interpretation of any style or particular way of doing something your own take.

In design there can never be complete originality. Or more accurately, this should never be the goal. If you do produce something wholly original, then it has no reference point to the people who will interact, use or consume your work. There is no mode to comprehend or access the work. Still, we understand that a degree of originality in design is always desired and beneficial, and it is something that can be achieved naturally through a work’s relevance to its specific design context.

How to practise Context-Centred Design

By now it should be clear that Context-Centred Design does not seek to set out a prescriptive guide or set of rules on how to approach your work. However, I propose a mentality that can be adopted to help facilitate Context-Centred Design.

A context-centred mentality encompasses the following traits.

  • Research focused. You will only fully understand your context through research. Find out everything you can in the beginning of the project. Everyone understands the importance of user research, but understanding what your team’s experience of working with your predecessor is, or how your client likes to work with designers, can be just as important, and sometimes more important, in realising the overall success of your work.
  • Considering every constraint. The personal and the professional are all taken into account, such as deadlines, budgets, capacities, personalities, group dynamics, company culture, legacies, technologies, experiences and environments.
  • Realistic and pragmatic. Ideals are ideal, but working with what you have often means toning down expectations, and managing that with your team, company and/or client. Considering your research and all your constraints should naturally take you to a point of realising the nature of your context and a pragmatic way forward.
  • Willing to compromise. In any area of you work, be prepared for the consequences of a realistic and pragmatic approach in order to seek a better overall balance and, ultimately, result. When compromising its important to define what the desired result is — what will be achieved but also what will have to be sacrificed or put on the sideline.
  • Iterate, don’t finish. Most people will agree ‘done is better than perfect’. Context-Centred Design takes a different view, leaving behind a counter-productive obsession with perfection, as well as the false illusion of a finishing line. When you produce a product, whether physical or digital, it’s almost always one step in a sequence, or one version in a history of improvements. As long as the next step is an improvement and the work is deemed a success by the stakeholders through a shared understanding of what the aim was, it doesn’t matter if it’s not perfect… because it’s not finished. See your work as a series of continuous improvements.

A Context-Centred Conclusion

As I reread this article I see lots of points only partially unpacked as I think the subject is too broad for one short article. At this point though I think the core ideas are explained and illustrated, and considering a pragmatic approach to how much time I can devote to my writing, I will accept this version 1.0 and will continue to iterate on my ideas…

Et voilà!  

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