Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Context, context, context

This picture probably doesn't create much of a reaction in the viewer as it is. It is almost boring with how commonplace it looks. A stark, leafless tree in front of a house on a bright sunny day.

As a designer we are always asked to take the boring details of life and arrange them in a manner to give them new meaning, or a deeper meaning. We are asked to put things 'in context.'

Back to the tree... to add context to the tree I can tell you that it was brought to Venice Beach by the grandfather of a long-time resident of this neighborhood. His grandfather moved here from Louisiana and wanted a little reminder of his roots. So he brought a sapling pecan tree to California and planted it on this corner where it still stands 50 years later. The tree is a testament to the man now long gone.

That story has put the tree in context. The picture comes alive. It could be so much more now. If we added type to the picture we might think about fonts and colors that evoke the feel of the bayou. Or we may find the words of a Louisiana ballad long lost and overlay them faintly on the image of the tree to integrate the history into the picture.

Whatever we do we have added context to this picture and forever changed how it will be remembered and perceived. How we juxtapose elements and create meaning with symbols, pictures, words and color is one of the more subtle elements of design.

There is a show on television where celebrities take everyday jobs and see if anybody recognizes them "out of context." I thought about that and decided I would probably not trust my instincts and trust the context of the situation - meaning I would not see the celebrity for who they are but rather the job they were doing. The juxtaposition of ideas is a powerful framing tool that designers have at their disposal.

A good designer can make or break an idea just through the visual choices they make. There is no rule with how to use context - only to be aware of context. Hence you can't always judge a book by its cover - or can you?

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