What context is king?

I’m currently fascinated by a book about cities. Why they decay. Why they thrive. It’s called The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs (published in 1961).

There’s a point in the book where she discusses sidewalks. A sidewalk in a small town is very different from a sidewalk in a large city. Which makes sense intuitively, I guess.

But why?

In a small town, I’m likely to know many of the people on the sidewalk. In a big city, I’m not likely to recognize anyone.

This dramatically changes the experience I get from using a sidewalk. But this, and this is a really big but, has nothing to do with the sidewalk itself. Nothing. Nothing at all.

It has everything to do with the world around the sidewalk and how the person relates to that world. The way someone experiences a sidewalk can change dramatically from one context to another without the sidewalk changing its design.

For as long as I can remember, the phrase ‘context is king’ has felt right, but I’ve never been able to make much tangible sense of it. This is the first time it really stuck. I feel like I get it now.

I can see why context is king.

Now I like to think about the conditions where a design remains the same, but the outcome of using what is designed can be dramatically different.

That’s context worth looking for. That’s context worth making king.

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