How to ask a better question

21st July 2015

“Never ask for the meaning of a word in isolation, but only in the context of a proposition”

Gottlob Frege


One of the most important principles of a Business Design strategy is the concept of context. Context is everything. The context principle was one of Gottlob Frege’s fundamental principles for philosophical analysis, “Never ask for the meaning of a word in isolation, but only in the context of a proposition”.


In an essay on ‘The Theory of Knowledge’, the following question is raised as an example of the value of context:


“What is the opposite of light?”


Some may interpret the question in the context of illumination, and their response may be ‘dark’ … but others may interpret the question in the context of weight, and their response may be ‘heavy’. Two very different answers to one simple question – so how do you align two mis-aligned viewpoints such as this?


You ask a better question.


Context is invaluable in Business Design, it helps you to ask better questions. It helps you to understand misaligned viewpoints and how to resolve them.


Another example of the importance of the concept of context can be seen in modern scientific linguistics. Ferdinand de Saussure argued that the ‘sign’ of a word is arbitrary, it is the attachment of meaning that is put upon it, and the acceptance of the society to adopt it, that makes it meaningful. Therefore it only has meaning in relation to other words – a dog is a dog because it is not a cat or a mouse or a horse, etc. In other words, a word can only be understood if it has context and viewpoints on what defines a ‘dog’ are all aligned within society.


Artists use a similar concept in the construction of imagery, negative space is used to shape the positive. Chiaroscuro is a beautiful example of this, where the contrast of light and dark are used to create volume, shape and detail within an image. The master of chiaroscuro was the Italian painter Caravaggio, who used this technique to create depth by using the dark as a reference point and contrasting it with the light. Without the dark, the light would have no power and vice versa.


Without context there is no way to assess validity of a vision – a product cannot enter an unknown market without knowing the context in which it is going to exist. Who are the customers and how do they behave? Who are the competition? Is your product going to align with customer expectations? What are the market trends? Is now the right time? Is your business prepared? Does everyone know their role and are working towards the vision?


Business Design was born from deeply-rooted concepts like this. The importance of context is to shape a landscape and provide a reference point from which to extrapolate solutions. It is more than just a process, Business Design methodology is built from transcending concepts that permeate through from macro to quantum levels and still remain relevant. Pillars that we can rely upon; that we can trust; pillars that allow us to define who we are; define our vision; define our values and ultimately allow us to pursue our goals.


Richard Botting

Partner | Creative Strategy