King Content & Queen Context


Everyone talks about how content is king.

And it is. As hard as it can be for some young designers to admit, the design process can’t happen until content decisions are made.

For some in design, the word content basically means “Not my job.”

But I would argue that there is another element to the content process that we should definitely be involved in; we might even have a good amount of insight on it.

Just as the content influences the design itself, context will affect both the content and design.

So why are designers so equipped to discuss context?

Through the practice of design, we develop a focus on the end-user—building a relationship, understanding who they are and what they want. A logo mark is a specific insight into the day, lifestyle and interactions of those who come into contact with it.

And we don’t just read the context of our audience, we create it.

A good storyteller envelopes the listener like two kids giggling under a blanket fort. The world around them, as they knew it, fades away just beyond the strung up fabric. That’s the point where imagination takes over, creating a new context. The only thing that matters right now are ghost stories, baseball cards and comic books. Forget the world of parents, chores, and to-dos. We’ve reached Neverland.

In that moment, we engage with the jokes, ideas and stories unlike we would in any other environment. Telling them in another time or place would have an entirely different reaction.

Design itself is context.

Depending on your definition, content without design is straight text. It isn’t until we start to apply emphasis that we clearly see relationships begin to form.

Not all elements are created equal.

Hierarchy sets the context within a design the way that good dialogue and cinematography creates more compelling stories. They convey the order in which the plot should be seen and understood.

The art of map-making can teach us a great deal about context. You cannot create a path until you have defined the landmarks, directions and destinations. Cartography establishes the relationship of those elements using distance and scale.

“A map does not just chart, it unlocks and formulates meaning; it forms bridges between here and there, between disparate ideas that we did not know were previously connected.” by Reif Larson

Beginning with the foundation of context will clarify the content which then clarifies the design.

You have to know where you’ve been to know where you’re going.

Age-old adages have different ways of saying the same concept: your past experiences will guide you for the future ones. This can help us understand where our audience is coming from so we can better direct them.

If you are targeting, for example, new mothers to use your web app, you can trace their steps—following their path of what they know and what they care about. Most likely, they will neither understand nor care about the technical aspects of the application’s underbelly.

But they will have pain points that they want addressed.

Bound by unconditional love, those mothers are held to their beautiful context of diapers, crying, and drool. And all of the good parts of parenting too. Every positive and negative compiles to establish and reinforce the background they are in.

Setting the stage and understanding the mindset of our audience will create insightfully applicable design.

To the designer that doesn’t think they have a role in the content, begin thinking how you can incorporate it into your process. Here are a few tips:

  • Ask “why?” A lot. Revisiting reasons will enforce the decisions made.
  • Create a detailed map of the brand.
  • Step out of your own perspective.

Ultimately, we are seeking to create effective design that lands on our audience in a compelling way. Those goofy moments of being a kid at 2am, finding everything funny, are memorable because of the context. We can Intentionally create a scene that surrounds us in the story of our message. We can simplify the world.