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Background Stories: Building Context Connection
Sarah Rich, 6 Mar 07


One of our running themes at Worldchanging is the importance of knowing the backstory of the things we use and buy. There's no better incentive to be a responsible consumer than seeing previously invisible (and frequently unsavory) aspects of our commodities. At Doors of Perception, we met a participant who has applied design thinking to backstories. Within the context of this year's food theme, Arlene Birt has begun designing communications campaigns for edible products; specifically, she has dragged the lifespan of a chocolate bar into transparency, from unharvested cacao bean to first delicious bite, by designing an easy-to-decipher graphic label for the interior of a chocolate bar wrapper. She summarizes her project, Background Stories, like this:

Corporate violations of social responsibility have threatened consumer trust, leading to a greater consumer demand for information, which thereby causes increased transparency on the part of corporations. But current systems of consumer information and labeling are also inadequate for the increasing focus on transparency among companies that are striving to do business more sustainably. Information disclosed by companies (via CSR reports and Life-Cycle Assessments) is not consumer-friendly, and provides no direct link between consumer and product...
Communicating a product by describing the context of its background can become a learning tool, as evidenced in the food-labeling cases of Nutrition Facts and dolphin-safe tuna. Over time, educational communication can change consumer purchasing patterns.


The theory Birt addresses is called context connection -- a fairly self-evident name for the process of helping consumers establish an understanding of the big picture from which their products come. By using well-designed, brand-aligned graphics, that education arrives in the consumers hand in a simple, digestible (so to speak) form. To deepen the mini-lesson on the wrapper, an affiliated website provides clickable pop-up details on each element of the picture that will link you even further, to resource pages on drying and fermentation processes, and even the websites of the shipping and trucking companies who transport the ingredients to the factory. So far Birt has designed labels for Dagoba, Green & Black, and Hershey's. She has a number of others listed that haven't yet gone live, and two gorgeously designed papers in downloadable PDF form that illustrate backstory with brilliant creativity.

chocfairtrade.jpg Background Stories is a graceful and spot-on response to the prompt offered by the Doors of Perception this year (though her project was born before the conference, as her thesis for a Master's degree from Design Academy Eindhoven): How can we strategize radical transformation of food systems that facilitate action at different scales, from the individual to the corporate to the governmental?

Birt's stories make you think before you bite. My only question with the design would be in the fact that the story is on the interior of the wrapper, which looks great, but means you have to have bought the chocolate before you can read the story. I would want to read the stories first so that I could monitor my purchasing choices and know that the chocolate I'm eating is the one I feel best about in terms of taste and history. Nevertheless, I love the aesthetic of the design; it perfectly matches the mood of the product and manages to offer a lesson with enough style and levity to preserve the pleasure of the experience.


[images from Arlene Birt's website]

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Beautiful !

Posted by: Serge de Gheldere on 6 Mar 07

Background or context is critical as we share knowledge inside companies as well. The ability to understand the design history of a product helps other designers not make redundant errors and learn from past designs, provides insights for sales people as they talk about their product in comparison to others and helps employees understand how a project got to be where it is today. There are practical, impactful uses for contextual connection and Knowledge Management professionals should be eating this up!

Posted by: kathy hagen on 6 Mar 07



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