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  1. Designing Context
  2. Designing Context (Part 2)
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In his excellent book Interaction Design, Dan Saffer defines a service as “a chain of activities that form a process and have value for the end user.” By way of example, the cashier in a grocery checkout line performs a service. A service can be thought of as a system of events. Service design is the art of designing the entire context around this system of events. In the case of the grocery checkout line, a service designer would script the interactions between the cashier and the customer. She would also design the cash register interface, the signage for the checkout aisles, and dictate the physical layout of the aisles themselves.

In order to properly design such services, a service designer must take into account the size and nature of the shopping carts, the dimensions of the parking lot, the number of store employees per shift, the store's hours of operation, the location of the store within the city, the amount and types of products on sale in the store, etc. In other words, a service designer must necessarily concern herself with the totality of the context in which the service occurs, and she must design (or at least negotiate) that context appropriately.

Of course, not all design is service design, but it provides an instructive model for all designers. As contemporary forms of design increasingly move toward facilitating interaction between humans, designers will need to intentionally design the contexts in which these interactions occur.

James Turrell’s Twilight Arch

James Turrell makes art out of light. The craft of his art is in contextualizing the way in which people experience light in space. In Turrell’s piece Twilight Arch, the viewer first enters a dark room. As her eyes gradually adjust to the darkness, she perceives a faint blue square on the far wall. When she approaches this blue square, she realizes it’s not a blue painting hanging on a wall, but rather a square hole cut through the wall, opening onto another room bathed in blue light.

Figure 5 Turrell’s Twilight Arch

Figure 6 Fig. A: An isometric diagram of the two rooms Fig. B: A diagram of what the viewer actually sees

Turrell leads the viewer through a series of gradual, phenomenological revelations. He controls the viewer's pace as she moves through the space by intentionally designing the overall context in which the artwork is experienced. In fact, Turrell designed an entrance hallway that transitions the viewer from the light of the gallery to the darkness of the viewing room for this specific purpose. The entrance hallway is not technically a part of the art, but it constitutes the context in which it exists, so Turrell purposefully designed it as well.

Figure 7 Blueprint of Twilight Arch showing its architectural context

Bruce Mau’s Massive Change Exhibit

Designer Bruce Mau was invited to curate a traveling exhibition on design. Rather than merely designing an exhibit that reinforced the currently delimited, modernist concept of design (Eames chairs, constructivist posters, elegant teapots), Mau took the opportunity to entirely redesign our contemporary understanding of design itself. He called his exhibit Massive Change. Its slogan proclaims: “Massive Change is not about the world of design; it’s about the design of the world.” Mau interviewed leading thinkers in fields ranging from media theory to genetic engineering. His exhibit is less concerned with the physical artifacts of design, and more concerned with the ways in which design alters our world.

Figure 8 The back cover of the Massive Change book

Figure 9 “The Image Gallery” and “The Wealth and Politics Gallery” from the Massive Change exhibition

In his book Life Style, Mau writes, “Life doesn’t simply happen to us, we produce it. That’s what style is. It’s producing life. Rather than accepting that life is something that we passively receive, accept, or endure, I believe that life is something we generate… Style is a decision about how we live. Style is not superficial. It is a philosophical project of the deepest order.” To Mau, then, all design is contextual design (to greater or lesser degrees). To put any design into the world at all is to alter the world that contextualizes it.

The professional (and ethical) question remains — are we purposefully seeking to design the contexts that exist around our designs? Such contextual designing is an admittedly challenging and complicated task. Ideally, it means being involved in the creative process throughout — from product prototyping to branding, marketing, development, post-production, and distribution. It means engaging in cross-disciplinary research and collaborating with experts in other fields. Above all, contextual design means thinking beyond the borders of our gridded templates and out into the messy, daunting, and intricate world in which we live.

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