Before and after the artefact

In his amazing book "Dark Matter and Trojan Horses. A Strategic Design Vocabulary" Dan Hill quotes this sentence by Eliel Saarinen:

"Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context — a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan." 
— Eliel Saarinen

To me this sentence is pretty aligned with the way service designers work. A service designer, always think about what happens before and after a service. This after and before are important. They inform you about what matters in your service. What remains from your service after a user leaves it can be really small. Then, you should focus your service more on these elements. You should focus on the essential "features" that make sense to the user. Therefor, I would propose a new iteration of the original sentence by Eliel Saarinen:

"Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger and previous smaller context."  

The before and after of a chair.

The before and after of a chair.

Two practical examples

Before and after the chair

Let’s see how we could place this strategy in place for something like a chair. You have the task to design a chair. So what are the next and previous context of a chair? The next context is an evidence, it’s the room where the room is. A chair made for a specific type of room, can better suit the user needs with new form and functions . This is what happens for office chairs. An office chair is just a chair in a work context where people sit for long times. The larger context informs and inspires the use and design of the chair. 

Let’s see now the previous or smaller context. The smaller context could be in the case of the chair what happens on it. The typical thing other than your ass than sits is placed on a chair is your jacket. With this insight you could design a chair optimized for this special use. Like the one designed by Leon Li and Ryan Ran. This new chair would still be comfortable even with a jacket placed on the chair back.

Chair by Leon Li and Ryan Ran from the Unhidden furniture collection.

Chair by Leon Li and Ryan Ran from the Unhidden furniture collection.

Limit yourself

"Dig a bit deeper but don't dig your own grave by wanting to be too strategic."

As with any method to help you explore deeper your design context there is a limit to digging. As shown in the first sketch, you can be quiet crazy in this exploration. You could end up by researching the context of the whole world or universe for a simple chair. A good start is always to look for the next and previous context. If you have the time and money for a deeper research go one or two steps deeper. Going even deeper brings you the typical situation of the young  design students. You have too much information about something and not do not know how to handle all that data. Malcolm Gladwell in his book "Blink" expresses this fact in a compelling way. There is a point where you have enough data to take smart decisions. When you get over this limit you could arrive to a tipping point. There the quantity of data brings more uncertainty than clarity.