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Designing Context

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In order to control the context in which your design appears you may need to reach beyond the realm of design into fields such as cognitive psychology, marketing and branding, sociology, urban planning, political strategy, environmentally conscious industrial production, curatorial art practices, as well as a host of other “non-design” disciplines. What does designing one’s context actually look like? Here are a few instructive examples.

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Up until the late 1800s, a painter could concern himself solely with what occurred within the borders of his canvas. In the biannual Paris Salon art exhibits, paintings were hung floor to ceiling and side by side, piled upon one another. Nobody considered the implications of hanging a painting of a virile bull directly above a painting of a reclining woman, and the artist certainly was not responsible for the overall context in which his work appeared publicly.

Figure 1 The Paris Salon of 1799

It’s not that artists in the 1800s were technically unable to control the contexts in which their art appeared, it’s just that there was, as yet, no historical precedent for doing so. However, when Marcel Duchamp entered a signed urinal into an art exhibit in 1917, everything changed. From then on, artists have been forced to consider the context in which their work is presented.

Likewise, there may have once been a time when a designer could be concerned only with what occurred within the borders of her cleverly composed layout. However, with the advent of interaction design and ubiquitous computing, that time is passing rapidly. Successful designers must now take into account the contexts in which their designs occur, and control those contexts as much as possible. In other words, contemporary designers must learn to design their own contexts.

In order to control the context in which your design appears you may need to reach beyond the realm of design into fields such as cognitive psychology, marketing and branding, sociology, urban planning, political strategy, environmentally conscious industrial production, curatorial art practices, as well as a host of other “non-design” disciplines. What does designing one’s context actually look like? Here are a few instructive examples.

Stefan Sagmeister’s Movable Columns

Designer Stefan Sagmeister was once hired to make posters advertising a fashion event in the city of Vienna. The posters were to be placed on famous advertising columns in the middle of city. Sagmeister decided he would dress the columns up in fashion gowns as part of the promotion, but the media buyers failed to reserve the columns in time. Undaunted, Sagmeister made replicas of the columns and dressed them up in gowns. He also made his columns mobile. He then hired students to stand inside the columns and move them around town. Some students would stand still just long enough to allow people to start reading the posters, and then, they would suddenly move, freaking the readers out. Other students would chase people down the street. By dressing these very officious-looking columns in the fabrics of fashion and making them mobile, Sagmeister brought them to life, quite literally. In so doing, he mirrored the way in which this fashion event would bring the historic city of Vienna to life. The project got tons of press and was a great success.

Figure 2 Sagmeister’s mobile columns

A non-contextual designer thinking “inside the frame” would never have arrived at this solution. She would have simply designed the 2D posters and submitted them. The details of their implementation would have been someone else’s problem. By “designing” the context in which his “design” existed, Sagmeister transformed a passive poster advertisement into a performative event.

Hans Haacke’s Manet-PROJEKT 74

In 1974, conceptual artist Hans Haacke was invited to participate in an exhibit at the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne, Germany. At the time, the museum owned a painting by Manet which had been donated by an ex-Nazi. Haacke’s contribution to the exhibit consisted of nothing more than framed documentation of the Manet painting's provenance, which public exposed the donor’s largely overlooked Nazi history. Haacke’s piece was banned from the exhibit, but fellow conceptual artist Daniel Buren later pasted Haacke’s documentation onto one of his own pieces in the same exhibit. Upon discovering this, the museum removed the documentation from Buren’s piece, however by that time, the damage had been done.

Figure 3 A Bunch of Asparagus by Manet

Figure 4 Haacke’s exposure of the ex-Nazi donor of a Bunch of Asparagus

By thinking beyond the hermetic “frame” of their own work, and outward toward the larger institution of the museum and the national past of Germany, Haacke and Buren were practicing institutional critique — a kind of prototypical contextual design. Their art hijacked, and thus redesigned, the context in which it appeared. Of course, not every magazine advertisement needs to critique the magazine in which it appears, but design should at least be in conscious dialogue with its surroundings.

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