2017 Information Architecture Summit Closing Plenary Address
Allow me to begin with some thank-yous.
Thank you Susan Mercer, Dave Cooksey and Marianne Sweeney for the countless hours of hard work you put in so that the rest of us could enjoy this event together. I consider it an honor for you to have entrusted me with the task of closing it down for you.
Thank you to Peter Morville, for taking me on as a mentee 17 years ago, and for providing a model of what it looks like to be a professional information architect that I could learn from and follow. I got an email from him this morning wishing me luck with this speech, and he suggested that if all else fails, to consider taking my pants off.
Thanks and praise are also due to ASIS&T for its steadfast support of this community through eighteen IA Summits, and especially for having had the wisdom to select Vancouver as the host city for 2017. As a Michigander I’ve been a visitor in Canada probably a hundred times, and this was the first out of 199 border crossings that caused me to feel ashamed of where I’m from.
So it’s good to have had some time away from all of that, and to have been welcomed so warmly in this breathtakingly beautiful place.
The picture on the screen highlights the place I’m from. You would understand that the slogan on the t-shirt is a joke if you’ve ever been to Grand Rapids. Many people say that West Michigan is a good place to raise a family — especially if your idea of family values is synonymous with political and religious conservatism. Thanks to our local billionaire, Betsy Devos, having gone all in with Trump (becoming the least qualified Secretary of Education in history), we’re now synonymous with bigotry and malfeasance. It’s shameful.
The truth is, there’s more than enough blame and shame to go around for what’s come to pass in the United States. Along with my one waggy finger pointing at Donald Trump and Betsy Devos come several others pointing back at me. Pointing back at people like me, and perhaps at people like you: the people who do IA work.
It was people like me who designed and built the spaces and places where the falsehoods were made equally tap-able and swipe-able as the facts. We provided the schematics, content strategies and customer journeys that were used to populate and situate all those rectangles on all those screens without regard to the truth.
Instead, we made the experiences people had interacting with those rectangles consistent. Engaging. Delightful. We failed to make things be good, even while we made them more usable, and measurably better.
That’s what folks like us are rewarded on the basis of: more and better. More and better conversion. More and better targeting of recommendations. More and better taxonomizing. More and better adoption of and compliance with business and presentation rules across systems and interfaces.
I myself have not yet been asked by a client or boss for my work products to result in more and better The Truth. Facts about people’s use of certain products is more the nature of what they’re after.
I saw a movie a while back about the collapse of the US housing market in late 2007, and I liked a quote they used. It said that the truth is like poetry. And people fucking hate poetry.
Is the structural integrity of meaning across contexts any different?
The emergence and normalization of turns of phrase like “fake news” and “alternate facts” in these past months indicate — in my view — a massive failure in the structural integrity of meaning. It began with Brexit, and then spread to the United States with the rise of Trump-ism. I wonder if voters in The Netherlands who chose, for now, to reject ultra right wing politics did so on the basis of what they see happening in Washington D.C., where democratic institutions are buckling under the weight of unrestrained lies, unrestrained wealth and unrestrained greed. And yet, I suspect that information architecture figures into precisely zero of the truth-repair schemes that billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg are engineering for us.
One final bit of disclosure before I get on with what I came here to talk about.
It’s about privilege.
My access to opportunity in this field over the last 20 years has been virtually unlimited on account of my race, and class, and sex. Most of the people who’ve given a closing plenary address at this conference look like me, more or less. When you fit neatly into the dominant category your entire life, there is an ever-expanding risk of interpreting opportunity as attainment. I’m trying not to do that, but the confirmation bias is powerful.
And on top of all that privilege I’ve been the beneficiary of, here’s the kicker: the only reason I got to go to my 1st-ever IA Summit in Memphis back in 2009 is because I worked for a Betsy Devos-funded non-profit based in Grand Rapids.
Peter Morville had been telling me for years that I should find a way to attend this conference; but prior to working at a faith-based nonprofit bankrolled by billionaires, I’d never had the professional development budget. So I need to say thank you to Betsy Devos: I’m here today specifically because of the kind of generosity she and her family continue to bestow upon some (but not all) people back in Michigan.
This is a significant debt of gratitude. Having been set up so comfortably with the funds, encouragement and time off to attend this conference changed everything for me. The learning I took home from Memphis changed my focus as practitioner. The friendships and connections I made at the IA Summit changed my frame of reference as a teacher. And the provocation Jesse James Garrett laid down at its closing plenary session sent me on a research trip that continues on to this day.
Because my work at this nonprofit encompassed all aspects of physical and digital distribution of books and films, and included the arrangement of people and processes in our warehouse, and the choreography of designers, producers, donors, lawyers, and customers in both physical and digital channels, my everyday work made it necessary for me to better understand and apply what one might call “the architecture part” of information architecture.
Through trial and error in my job, I was learning how the situated-ness of things in space governs what those things mean; and how they’re understood; and how they’ll work. At that time, I gathered that the architecture part had something to do with Richard Saul Wurman, and that conference for American architects he did in the 1970s called Architecture of Information. And I wanted to know more.
So I got to go to Memphis, and the first two people I met were Jorge Arango and Andrea Resmini — both of whom come from bricks-and-mortar architecture backgrounds, both of whom were practicing in the field of IA. They seemed to already know the kinds of things I sought to learn. And they just accepted me, and talked with me like a colleague. It was thrilling. Maybe some of you first-timers in the audience had that happen to you this week. I hope so.
And then at the end of that conference in Memphis, in his closing keynote, Jesse James Garrett said some things that irritated me.
In the way that an oyster might become irritated.
The thing that irritated me the most was when he said it is misleading to call what we do information architecture, and that progress in the field requires a shift in emphasis as well as nomenclature toward design and toward user experience.
Because we design things that people use.
I’ve been working to find a way of practicing and teaching information architecture that delivers on the architecture part ever since. To develop some layers of IA history and theory around this irritant of UX. And at some point, to address the honesty-in-what-we-call-ourselves piece, head on.
That’s what this is.
I’d like to report out a bit on where my research has taken me in the eight years since Memphis, and will invite you to re-ask Jesse’s question at the end. Is it dishonest to call ourselves information architects?
In Search Of The Architecture Part of Information Architecture
I’m certain there’s an alternate universe somewhere out there where none of my concerns about the architecture part of information architecture are a problem. In my fantasy world of alternate facts, the 1976 American Institute of Architects conference in Philadelphia would have redirected the interests of at least a handful of architects who, let’s say, were attending the conference as students. Information architecture might then have developed and matured in the practices of these pioneers, and in the circles they moved in, leading eventually to the growth of a new and verdant branch on the tree of architecture.
I can tell you what would have happened next, had we-all manifested on my preferred fork on the path among the many branching possibilities that spread out from Wurman’s conference in 1976. In that other world, the information architects in the late 1970s made understanding what happens in cities observable and comparable, using everything from the height of the curbs to the colors of the sewer grates and man-hole covers as an urban information and way-finding system. This essential work by these new kinds of architects would have ushered in a nascent era of “smart cities,” just in time for the personal computing revolution.
Information describing the public environment would have been made public — developed by information architects as a public utility in order to better enable an invaluable public amenity: making the complex clear.
Making human interests in any one city comparable with the same interests in any other city, on the basis of thoughtfully-structured information. Just imagine: in cities across the country, and eventually around the globe, the local development of the physical and digital nodes in peer-to-peer public information network; a federation of Urban Observatories where information architects work hard to protect and enrich the way people live by continuously improving maps and models of the information ecologies where people live.
I’d enjoy visiting the world of these alternate facts.
I would likely refuse to come back.
In a world like that, I like to think that I’d have keyed-in on the job of being an information architect as a schoolboy, rather than pivoting into it from graduate studies in library and information science, like many of us did back in the late 1990s.
But back to the real world — the one we inhabit together in this room today: as we all know, information architecture is not recognized as an extension of the field of architecture. And the reason most of us are here today isn’t because of architecture.
Architectural historian Molly Wright Steenson sees what Wurman did in 1976 as a crucial step in the development of his ideas about what it takes to do a good conference, and in many ways, Architecture of Information was a proto-TED. But the field of architecture was not particularly interested in maps, graphics and comparative urban information systems in 1976. Wurman got the AIA to pay for the conference, but had little regard for what the Institute and its audience might want out of their big annual gathering. He told me that in 1976, he was not looking to recruit or persuade anybody to buy into his ideas.
So they didn’t.
There was no coalescing of like-minded practitioners within the field of architecture as a consequence of Architecture of Information. Making the built environment legible, measurable and more understandable through the situatedness of information in and about its spaces was Wurman’s interest, not the zeitgeist. And within a year of chairing his profession’s most prestigious annual gathering, Wurman was closing his nearly-bankrupt architecture practice in Philadelphia, and re-locating to Los Angeles.
So I don’t believe it is factual to say that the field as we find our belonging in it today is the progeny of Wurman’s conference. The reason we’re all here today is because the field of computing and the field of library science collided in the technology revolution around networked information systems, and the overlap was given a name and formalized as a methodology by Peter Morville and Louis Rosenfeld. We should and do celebrate this lineage and this heritage. And recognizing the outsized contributions of LIS and HCI in the development of our field, it is entirely reasonable for Jesse to have asked if people like us using the A-word in how we talk about ourselves and what we do is appropriate.
Lou Kahn’s Haircut
There was a time when Richard Saul Wurman worried about this, too. That the work he was doing with maps and books and exhibitions and conferences wouldn’t measure up to his mentor Louis Kahn’s expectations for what an architect is, and does. Because he revered Lou Kahn, and Kahn is the architect’s architect.
Last year he told me this story about meeting Lou Kahn for the first time. This is a transcript of what he said:
I was living out at Penn. I came home for the weekend, and I said to my mother and father, “I am telling you something that will have no meaning to you now, but I’m telling you this particularly for myself to hear it — something I’ve been thinking about but haven’t said out loud.”
“I have just met somebody who is going to become really famous someday. And he’s going to become famous because all he says is the truth. He is without style, except his own style. A badly tied bowtie, and an ill-fitting shirt. His face is scarred. He has everything going against him, except the power of the truth. And his power to me and to these other students, most of whom I don’t know yet, is our understanding — and understanding itself is power.”
“So, don’t do anything about this, I’m not inviting him for dinner. I just want you to know that I met somebody special today.”
Wurman would quickly become Kahn’s protege. He won the gold medal in architecture at Penn, and Kahn was his thesis advisor. Upon graduation, Wurman worked in Kahn’s office for two years before setting off on his own to teach architecture in North Carolina — at Kahn’s prompting — and becoming a partner in a Philadelphia-based architecture practice with John Murphy and Alan Levy. A practice that, not unlike Lou Kahn’s, struggled to get enough work.
With regular and not insignificant gaps in between projects at the office, Wurman’s interests in applying what he’d learned about architecture in the context of teaching, and books, and maps, and systems of urban information burned ever brighter. And he started to worry. He told me that he thought maybe Lou was disappointed in him, for not working on buildings so much any more. For not being a real architect.
Finally, on a cross-country flight, Wurman took the opportunity of a private and somewhat captive audience to ask Lou, point blank: are you OK with what I’m doing?
Kahn’s reply was:
Ricky, even when I’m getting a haircut, I’m an architect.
Wurman took and ran with this as permission to be an architect in all things. In his introduction to Information Architects in 1995, he says “I mean architect as in the creating of systemic, structural, and orderly principles to make something work — the thoughtful making of either artifact, or idea, or policy that informs because it is clear.” The medium isn’t what makes it architecture or not. It’s the systems, structure and order in space that makes it architecture.
It would be plainly false to say that Wurman’s way of talking about what an information architect is and does circa 1995 would be familiar to or accepted by contemporary architects working in the built environment. And yet, based on the haircut anecdote, I believe Lou Kahn would recognize Wurman’s conception of information architecture as his kin.
There’s a documentary film called My Architect that features some old footage of Kahn working in his office at 1501 Walnut Street in Philadelphia. If you look closely, you can see what appears to be a large map pinned up on the wall behind Kahn’s drafting table in a couple of those sequences. Mr. Wurman told me with much eye-twinkle that that’s a press sheet from his 1966 book Urban Atlas.
But we’ll never know what Kahn would have thought about Wurman calling himself an information architect. The earliest I know of him doing so is in 1975, in the lead up to his conference in Philadelphia. I think if Kahn had lived to see what RSW was doing with information architecture, he’d perhaps have wanted to simply call it architecture. For any number of reasons, including the fact that Kahn’s buildings are extraordinarily dense information spaces: dense with visceral information that people who’re in the space activate and decode on the basis of their embodiment.
In Lou Kahn’s buildings, the spaces themselves provide information about what’s more and less preferable to be doing there, as a function of what’s afforded by the arrangements. Kahn architected the kind of information that is decoded in our emotions, and made understandable through our feelings. Information as a language of object-relations in space that goes as far back in the human chronology as homo sapiens goes back, or farther.
There’s a Zen saying that’s relevant at this point the arc of my story, which I assure you will end sooner than later. Its wisdom is recounted by Alan Watts, and it says that a student who first attains enlightenment flies to hell as straight as an arrow. Earlier in my research process, all hopped up on the wonder I was experiencing in visits to Lou Kahn’s buildings and in trips to the archives that hold his papers and drawings, I fancied that I had become enlightened, and understood what he was doing and saying. And the straight shot to hell I experienced at this juncture, circa 2011, came when I trotted out my freshly-minted knowledge of the ways of Lou Kahn with some practicing architects.
I enthused to them about Kahn’s concept of the existence will of materials in space — that you could ask brick how it wanted to be set up, and it would tell you. And about Kahn’s saying that an architect does not simply accept the client’s program of needs and requirements in the way that a pharmacist fills a doctor’s prescription. And Dan-splained to them about what I’d come to appreciate in Kahn’s attitude that immediate end-user needs are not where one begins the process of architecture. And, most orthogonal of all to these architects’ ways of thinking: that architecture is not the same thing as design, because it is not primarily about problem solving.
These Kahn-isms about architecture are 100% compatible with RSW’s practice of information architecture. And my research suggests they’re largely incompatible with how the architects I know were taught and how they work.
Perhaps this is why RSW says, in the introduction to Information Architects “I don’t mean bricks and mortar architect.” Because he knew as an expert what it took me seven years or so as an amateur to get clued into: that architecture as taught and practiced by Lou Kahn has precious little in common with bricks and mortar architects. That architects as a rule are not actually all that interested in making the complex clear through the legibility and tangibility of relationships in space.
When considered from this vantage point, it appears to me that what we can lay claim to as an inheritance through Wurman has nothing to do with his 1976 conference, and very little to do with contemporary notions of architecture. What we can claim as information architects, through this line of inheritance, is a practice in which The Truth is a first principles-level concern.
Which is the opposite of a practice that works on the basis of “It depends.”
In a special issue of Design Quarterly from 1989 called Hats, Wurman says “only one what, but many hows.” When you work on the basis of The Truth, “the what” in your endeavors isn’t fungible. Kahn said what will be is what has always been.
The architects who make buildings today have a different answer to “it depends.” It’s got nothing to do with The Truth. They call it parametricism, and with the power of computing, the nearly-infinite array of variables involved in making a building are flattened into parameters whose ranges are all endlessly adjustable in a near-infinity of build-able configurations. TheGrid.io proposes to do the same with the variables involved in making websites, and provides a glimpse of what may soon become self-designing digital environments. Jason Fried calls this “an obvious, natural progression just waiting to happen.” A solution that will soon come in search of the problems people like us are paid to solve.
Finding Solutions instead of the Truth
My favorite saying of Richard Saul Wurman is that the classic, pervasive seduction to designers is to find a solution instead of the truth. In the transcript of the story he shared with me about meeting Lou Kahn, I’m struck by how potent and central the word “truth” is to young RSW’s enthusiasm. During the time when he ran TED, Wurman was aptly described as an intellectual hedonist. It becomes clear when you do the biographical research that hedonism was an active and operative force in the life and work of Lou Kahn, too.
Louis Kahn taught Richard Wurman to practice architecture as an hedonic and — consequently — inwardly-oriented pursuit of The Truth. I suspect that’s one of the reasons why both men’s building-making businesses were rarely solvent. And that this is also an explanation for why Wurman’s ways of architecting information have been so unevenly and intermittently encompassed by our field as we find our belonging in it today: it looks like there’s no user centricity involved. And it won’t stop talking about The Truth.
There’s a terrible saying in popular culture — that you must “kill your darlings” — in order to keep progressing. To keep evolving.
Sometimes, your darlings just die.
In 1974, Lou Kahn died. And then just a year later, Eugene Feldman died, too. After that, Mr. Wurman told me, he felt that he had lost the only two people he could tell his successes and failures to. The only two people who would tell him the truth.
Prior to Lou Kahn’s death, RSW had been giving half of his time to doing work on behalf of what he called the public environment. At the 1970 International Design Conference in Aspen, Wurman gave what he says is the only speech he ever read to the audience off from a prepared text — a speech championing the development of the public environment as a public amenity. I’ve got my students at the University of Michigan examining the text of that speech in class this term, and what’s so compelling about it to me is to see Wurman making such an impassioned effort on behalf of what one might call “the good of humanity.”
I think we’re all more accustomed to the latter-day, more abrasive, “this is not for the good of humanity” side of Richard Saul Wurman. The “I’m not a model. I don’t have a so-called philosophy that is worthwhile for anybody” Wurman who insists that he only does work that he’s interested in, and that if his work has effects that people think are virtuous or helpful, that that’s fine but not his aim. That’s the Richard Saul Wurman many of us met at the IA Summit in Phoenix. He accepted our request that he speak at the Summit in 2010 because, he said, it was his 75th birthday year and he was going to say yes to everything. Today is his 82nd birthday, and if we were to ask him what he intends, and what he’s aiming for, as an information architect, he would say: to do good work, and to have an interesting day.
And that there’s no right way.
When RSW says that there’s no right way, I think he means there’s no moral imperative for one particular solution over another. That the “how,” is fungible. At the same time I think Wurman operates on the basis of an ethical imperative to tell The Truth. And that “the what” is in service of an ethical imperative against falsehood. Because honesty can’t be arrived at just any old way.
Earlier in the week, Dan Ramsden asked “what’s the point of information architecture?”
The point of information architecture is making the complex clear. But not because clarity. Because The Truth. The point of clarifying complexity is for there to be more and better The Truth.
In her talk at UX Week in 2015, Abby Covert said that “without a name for this important practice, people can’t get better at it.” I’m accustomed to standing on her shoulders, and shall extend her argument to address, at long last, the honesty-in-what-we-call-ourselves piece.
Yes, information architecture is a thing in the world, and many people called by many names are involved in making architectures of and for information. That’s a good thing. But I think we still need to have a job called information architect.
Not because that’s helpful in appropriating or defending territory from some other field or discipline, or because we benefit from the sound of prestige and authority that comes along with the word “architect.” We need to have a job called information architect so that somebody can be specifically accountable for the structural integrity of meaning across the myriad contexts humans find themselves in. Not simply or even primarily to preside over the many variables and parameters involved in what gets built: to be accountable for what happens to The Truth. All along the way. Across both diamonds.
I want to be called information architect because I want to be accountable for the closeness or far-awayness that products and services I work on — and that people use — have relative to The Truth. I want to make things be good, not make more and better things for the sake of thing-making. And in order for the things we make to be good, there need to be consequences when they’re not good. It’s like what Peter Morville said in Ambient Findability: the reason failures occur is because when everybody is supposed to be responsible for something, nobody’s really accountable for it.
Accountability for the wellbeing of people who live in the environments that builders build may be the reason why people needed to begin writing down laws in the first place. In the Code of Hammurabi, when a structure fails and kills somebody, the penalty for the builder is death. Because more and better The Truth. Because otherwise: it depends.
Cause and effect are perhaps not as cut and dried today as they were in ancient Babylon. Centuries of “it depends” have calcified around and have occluded our ability to understand certain kinds of processes in the service of smoothing them over. Proprietary ones are especially opaque in the contexts of end use, today. And of course, making the complex clear is impossible without making the processes in the environment that are active in encoding and decoding information visible and observable in the contexts of end use.
In this analysis, Google is one of the worst examples of information architecture out there. It occludes the process by which the cause of typing into the box results in the effect of good information in the results set.
It hides what happened in-between, on purpose. Subtracting what embodiment would otherwise start allowing people to understand about the path from not knowing to knowing.
The results that Google gives are meant to replace a person doing any of their own assessment of just how good or not good the information in the listing is likely to be. Instead of partnering with people in the process of decoding information and engaging with meaning on the basis of what’s true about the connections and relationships encoded in the environments, Google strip-mines those environments and re-presents some but not all of what’s meaningful in a spatial hierarchy that’s impossible to reconcile with The Truth.
As far as Google is concerned, the first result at the top of the spatial hierarchy is the best one only to the extent that it is the one that is most likely to be engaged with in a way that promotes value extraction.
Wurman’s book Information Architects is dedicated to Muriel Cooper, who passed away the year before its publication in 1994. He got to play around in Muriel Cooper’s Visual Language Workshop at MIT, and I have seen much twinkle in his eyes when he talks about that experience, and about “flying through information.”
The reason he loved doing that, and wants to do it some more, isn’t because of flying. It’s because of information. Visceral, embodied information, where in the act of flying, one is able to see and follow as many of the connections between the things in the space as one’s curiosity demands. To appreciate differences in the texture of the different materials the information is encoded within, and appreciate how the situatedness of things in space — be they dogs or hats or nodes in a taxonomy — changes and affects what those things mean, and what access might be afforded to The Truth.
That’s what LATCH is for. It’s not so much for organizing information: this is one of the many brilliant things I’ve learned from Kat King. She says that what LATCH gives us is a set of “moves” to use in pushing on the things in the space. That we can achieve more and better understanding of what things are by playing with their situatedness in literally a handful of ways — five ordinary ways that things abide with us in space. All five are categories, ultimately, but they’re each doing something different in and with space.
Some but not all of those ways can help make the complex clear.
They’re all “hows” and they’re meant to help you find The Truth about something by being dumb and playful. The dumbest and most ordinary arrangements are, oftentimes, the most profound.
An ordinary way. As opposed to an insanely great one. That’s Christopher Alexander’s life’s work: an ordinary way that all people can use to make more wholeness, beauty and life in their environments. Because I knew that he’d worked on some repairs to this famous restaurant in California after a fire, I recruited Christina Wodtke and David Peter Simon to accompany me to Chez Panisse for lunch. The menu there is designed to be “appropriate to the season and [is] composed to feature the finest sustainably-sourced, organic, and seasonal ingredients including meat, fish, and poultry.”
It was Christina’s birthday, so I didn’t feel too badly about the splurge. And what was edifying to me as a lover of The Timeless Way of Building was to be in a place where the aim is to find an ordinary way. Because how you do anything is how you do everything.
The story arc of the meal and of the service disrupted the pattern I’d brought in with me, which is that fancy dining is a series of delights that build in a crescendo, possibly punctuated with surprises along the way.
That’s not what they’re aiming for at Chez Panisse.
Instead, the aim is to make everything they serve be good. Where the use of every ingredient is on purpose, and where the staff’s working methods and the kitchen’s relationships with farms and growers are deemed good when they can be repeated without much “it depends.”
It was a good lunch. But I must admit, I was a bit underwhelmed. I blame the context priming from every other $300 meal I’d had up until then. The cost was insanely great, so I expected something insanely great. Instead, it was consistent. All across the board.
Also: what they’re doing at Chez Panisse is not sustainable.
Not on a human-centered scale. A sustainable business that serves the rich isn’t human-centered: even while it may be admired for many reasons.
If as information architects we want to do human-centered design, this means working in terms of health and wellbeing in the overall ecosystem as a consequence of our actions. Approximately 6.99999 billion people today have no access to IA methods, and ways of seeing. And they’d never get in at Chez Panisse, not even on a Tuesday.
If IA is going to deliver the goods in a way that can be legitimately said to affect the structural integrity of meaning at the level of overall ecosystem — at the level of something like emerging world culture — then we need to attain to the dumb, and to the mundane. Presently, our work is oriented to attaining the insanely great.
I saw a story the other day, and to the best of my knowledge it was not fake news; it was a story about the CEO of one of the richest companies on the planet predicting that peoples’ experiences with his company’s Augmented Reality products will soon become as ordinary as eating three meals a day.
What’s ordinary to privilege, like eating three meals a day, or getting asked to give prestigious talks at important conferences, isn’t actually ordinary. It’s insane. It’s great. But is it good?
Very good is less than good.
Thank you for your extraordinary patience in listening to what I said today. I cherish the pearl that I was able to form around an irritant introduced in a room like this, by someone like me, to people like you-all back in 2009. I’m especially interested to hear from those of you who aren’t like me, and/or who’ve become irritated by what I said today.
But not now. Let’s talk after 5 minute madness.