Designing within context

So I've been thinking a lot about design this week - What makes a successful design, and how to go about achieving that.  In the past, I've talked a fair amount about how design must be wedded to story and serve the story as a whole.  After giving it a lot of thought though, I don't think story is necessarily the right word.  I think a better one is "context."

So, long before I was an artist, I was a game master for tabletop RPGs.  I have created countless worlds and NPCs for my players to interact with.  Unlike film or books, gaming doesn't always have a nailed down story.  Your players are going to do things you don't expect, and if you create locations and people that are too tied to what you think the plot is going to be, you are going to be caught flat-footed when the story doesn't work that way.

Instead, you create them based on *context* - I don't need to know how a PC is going to interact with a shop keeper to know that the merchant lives in a city based on 9th century Norway, that he cheats his journeymen and beats his apprentices too much, and is having a secret affair with the wife of the head of the city guard.  That is CONTEXT, not story, but it tells you who they are, and what they are likely to look like and do.

Up until this week, if I were designing that character, I'd read the above paragraph and then try to draw and paint someone.  Now, I've got an additional step:

Before I create the character, I think of three 'pillars' that represent what the character represents.

In the case of our shopkeeper, maybe those three pillars are:

  1. Strong
  2. Conniving
  3. Charming

Now, figure out which of those three needs to be the first thing you think of when you see the character.  Which is second?  The third, you keep in mind, but don't really focus on.  Now you have success criteria to measure your character design.  It's not just "cool" or "readable" or "interesting".  You can say, "Of this page of thumbnails, this one looks the most conniving, and this one reads as him being the strong guy."  You can try different combinations of the pillars and see which one fits best into your context.

The context is super important - I'm not going to make my Norwegian shopkeeper and give him Polynesian tattoos, not matter how cool I think those are....but after the context, the pillars you choose are going to represent who that character is inside the framework of your world.  The pillars formalize 'drawing' into 'design' - You are consciously picking and choosing to create something that both has the instant read you want from a character and has the authenticity of their context.

Clearly, this process also works for buildings, props, all all the other components of your world.  In each case, think of 3 one-word descriptors of what the audience should instantly get when they see the object, and then adjust which of those 3 comes to mind first.

Thanks for reading!  How do you think about design?