An Opposite Truth

I love learning from the built environment.

I also love learning from and about architects. And without a doubt, the line between enthusiastic biographical research and guru worship can be thin at times.

Denise Scott Brown says guru worship is a kind of meta-pattern among architects. Particularly with architects: because of the enormous amount of ambiguity and seeming unmeasurable-ness that’s inherent to architectural enterprise.

In an essay about the male domination of the building trades called “Room at the Top,” she notes that architects use their gurus in precisely the same way that seafarers used figureheads on the prows of their ships in the olden times: as a way of navigating the unmeasurable by means of magic.

Photo by Amy Espinosa

My own attempts at figurehead-ing have been a source of annoyance to Richard Saul Wurman, inventor of the field of information architecture, as my research resulted in our spending time together with increased frequency.

Since there is no license that you can sit for, no credential that’s universally or even widely accepted as the correct one for information architects, I thought I could use him and his ideas to define what good means in information architecture.

I realize now that this was me trying to affix Wurman to the prow of my ship and simplistically do what he does: point myself at what he points at.

Of course, Mr. Wurman has zero interest in serving in such a capacity.

But it turns out that RSW himself relied on a guru during his formative years.

This is a picture of 28 year old Ricky Wurman at graduation in North Carolina; where his architecture students were getting their degrees, and where he had arranged for his mentor, Louis Kahn, to receive an honorary doctorate degree. He told me that after Kahn died in 1974, he no longer had anybody to tell his successes and failures to. And that from then-on, he lost the invaluable resource of being able to ask Lou if something was good, and being told the truth in reply.

A few years after Kahn died, RSW shut down his architecture practice, moved to California, and began a new phase of life and work, where the question of what “good” means would be asked and answered exclusively on the basis of self.

From the TED conference to his ACCESS guides, and across hundreds of printed artifacts like books and posters and websites, the publisher and the target market used the same return address. Continuing to this day, the standard for what “good” means to Richard Saul Wurman is Richard Saul Wurman. Or, he’ll sometimes joke, if the thing he made would make sense to a “reasonably intelligent twelve year old”.

I have to say, it was a little demoralizing to have dug in and done all this work to understand Wurman, with an eye toward “stealing from the best” (if you will), only to find that beyond any doubt, Wurman’s way of determining what “good” means in information architecture is completely, entirely subjective. The only way, so far as I’ve been able to determine, that RSW’s methodology is compatible with UX or user centered design would be if the user population for the product in question were comprised entirely of Richard Saul Wurmans.

RSW’s belief system, his cosmology, with regard to design as much as to life, is that there’s no right way.

There are good ways. But no right way.

This is why LATCH is such a critical tool in Wurman’s IA toolbox. Because if he is correct in asserting that the world is the kind of place wherein there’s no right way to structure information, determining which approaches to organizing will work more and less well will require iteration; and LATCH gives you your first five iterations. Five ways to consider the situatedness of the things being organized. Some always work better than others.

That’s the power of information architecture: when changes are made to the situatedness of things in space, meaning changes. What’s possible to understand is increased or diminished each time information is situated in space a different way.

Mr. Wurman would hate the way I just said that. He said it better:

The creative organization of information creates new information.

The mutability of the “there’s no right way” cosmology is one of it’s best features. We like its seeming egalitarianism, too: all may do as they like, so long as the user tests show it’s better than the prior way of doing.

Hey: I have a joke for you. What do you call a large group of UX designers?


It occurs to me that this is why it’s become de rigueur in UX design, to bring “users” into the process, and especially to take pictures of them doing the things that users are supposed to doing with the product or service: it’s that figurehead-ing thing Denise Scott Brown talks about.

In the name of user-centricity, we affix aspirational representations of people who are not us to the front of our process, to somehow better guide us through the unmeasurables and ambiguities of our project.

To make a thing that belongs (in a funny way) to someone called the product owner, and yet even that person is forbidden from weighing in on what’s good and bad about the thing on the basis of who they are and how they feel.

Because you are not your user.

That’s the profound truth of user centered design, right?

Which brings me to the title of this essay: which is based on one of Richard Saul Wurman’s favorite sayings. It was said by the Danish physicist Niels Bohr:

The opposite of a great truth is also true.

Today I’d like to share some experiences I’ve had with the opposite of user centered design’s great truth. An opposite truth that came to me through the sort of architectural research I indulge myself in, this time during a side trip at a UX conference in Japan.

I was compelled by this opposite truth after visiting a school outside of Tokyo that Christopher Alexander and many, many people involved with teaching at and operating the school built together, collaboratively, in 1986.

At the time I had this experience in Japan two years ago, I had read The Timeless Way of Building, and A Pattern Language, and had spent one or two class sessions at the University talking about the quality without a name.

But I never considered taking or teaching any of it at face value, because those books (especially The Timeless Way) are not compatible with the cosmology that prevails in the University. They claim the existence a solid, objective basis for the difference between good and bad. And my focus as an IA and somebody involved in UX and as a teacher and researcher at the University was all dialed in to the world of It Depends.

But my gosh. After contending with 80 hectares worth of places and spaces made on the basis of Alexander’s theory, I became convinced that if it’s true that we live in a world of “it depends” … this guy knows what it depends *on*.

I spoke with the vice principal of the school, and she told me that students today sometimes are upset when their parents choose to send them there. It was built in the 1980s, and there are newer schools in modern settings that they would prefer to attend. But once they come here, she said, they continue to come back. Long after they graduate. They tell her that it doesn’t feel the same “out there”, and they need to come back and reconnect with this experience their bodies have in the spaces of the Eishin campus.

She told me there are students who arrive at the school with behavior issues, and that these problems are resolved through spending time on the campus: not through “educational remedies.”

A few months after my experience in Japan, I got to visit another project by Chris Alexander and his colleagues, this time in San Jose, California. Built just after the school in Japan, in 1988, Julian Street Inn was created to be a shelter for the homeless mentally ill.

And it’s still being used for that purpose today.

I made an appointment to speak with the executive director of the organization that operates the center, Patricia Dolan from LifeMoves, and as was the case in Japan, I heard anecdotes about a real phenomenon in space where people who are disordered experience a re-ordering of themselves through spending time in these particular spaces and places.

Somehow, Christopher Alexander knows how to build in a way that that bolsters the humanity of people who use what he builds.

What’s Alexander’s explanation for the phenomena of wellbeing in a place like the Julian Street Inn,

or how it came to be that the people who’ve lived on this street in Lisbon have continuously made good choices about how to build and repair and improve and beautify their environment over hundreds of years, using thousands of different hands and hearts and minds in the process?

He says that these phenomena are evidence of the existence of a pervasive order in space that all of us access intuitively and instinctively, based on what he calls a solid, objective basis for the difference between good and bad:

The self.

And the synonymy of self with order in space.

“For the fact is, that this seeming chaos which is in us is a rich, rolling, swelling, dying, lilting, singing, laughing, shouting, crying, sleeping order. If we will only let this order guide our acts of building, the buildings that we make, the towns we help to make, will be the forests and meadows of the human heart.”

That’s the argument from The Timeless Way of Building in 1977, and Alexander’s full explanation for how this order of self and space seems to work was circulated in varying states of complete-ness as photocopies for many years until ultimately coming out as a self-published four-volume magnum opus in 2003–4 called The Nature of Order.

Computer scientists loved A Pattern Language, and they tolerate the poetic imagery of The Timeless Way, but I don’t know of very many who have dealt with or who could, honestly, abide The Nature of Order. Because it requires the ability to entertain (if not agree with) an alternate cosmology to the cosmology of It Depends. A cosmology where the maker’s self, and the maker’s feelings, are the source for decision making in design and construction.

Alexander’s cosmology posits that we live in a world — that this is the kind of place — where order is no different in our selves than in anything else.

And because space itself is made of what the self is made of, we have the ability — each one of us — to use our own selves to guide our decisions as makers in configuring space to be more beautiful, whole and alive.

When we work on the basis of the self, Alexander argues, all we’re doing — really — is helping things find the arrangements and configurations that space/self already wants.

In a speech at Harvard in 1982, Alexander claimed that:

Something within space and matter
can be awoken
by the presence
of the proper configurations

…which connects up with what he’d said about order in space a few years earlier in The Timeless Way:

This power we have is so firmly rooted and coherent in every one of us that once it is liberated, it will allow us, by our individual, unconnected acts, to make a town, without the slightest need for plans.

In conventional construction, where some specialists make a pile of drawings in one organization, and then some other organization submits the low bid and gets and finishes the job, you’d never find a bathroom so lovely as this one at the Julian Street Inn.

In conventional construction, not every part of the project gets the same amount of attention, and the less “important” areas of a building typically get less attention.

Alexander and the team who made this bathroom faced and answered each decision about how to situate their materials in space in the same way they’d go about making the front entry to the street: by asking which of the possible next steps in the construction would result in more of their own deepest selves manifesting in the work.

When approached on the basis of finding more of the self in each step of transformation, one of the solutions that came back to the team who made this was to make the partition facing the hallway a few inches shorter in vertical height than the wall on the opposite side of the toilet. Creating this beautiful cascade of shapes that’re all the more coherent on the basis of this graded, nested hierarchy in the space. There’s a taller order, and a shorter order, echoed by the shadows on the shower curtain.

Had there been a drawing to specify the making of this bathroom, I think the draftsperson would draw them at the same height. It’s easier to draw that way, the drawing looks more “correct,” and it is more straightforward to build things that are made of equally-sized-and-shaped parts.

In the four volumes of The Nature of Order, Christopher Alexander identifies fifteen geometric properties — like the different levels of scale, gradients, and echoes we saw in the picture of the bathroom at Julian Street — that correlate with more wholeness, beauty and life in the things that people make. Alexander uses photo comparison to illustrate the ways that these fifteen properties are present in many of the things that people made, up until, say, 300 years ago. And largely absent in the objects, places and spaces we’ve built since then.

The fifteen properties are easy to find in what nature makes.

Ramray Bhat (2014)

Alexander’s contention is that these fifteen properties are, essentially, the different ways in which space can be glued together to become whole. And that the works of men that are the most profound tend to be characterized by an ever-denser layering and inter-dependence of these geometric properties.


This cosmology causes one to have to re-assess what we mean when we talk about the works of men that are the most profound. Because the kinds of objects and places that have this deep structure are very frequently some of the most ordinary.

The goodness of this modest group of buildings near where I live is connected to their ordinary-ness. And the methods for making these kinds of structures are available to anybody. And accessible to everybody.

Seldom do the kinds of places and spaces built today get valued on the basis of how accessible and sustainable the methods of their realization turned out to be, as the thing got built and launched.

Screen shot of accessibility and build quality problems with the New York Times interactive story Snow Fall

I wonder if you remember an interactive journalism experience from The New York Times called Snow Fall?

When it came out, way back in 2012, the sense was: “wow: here at last is something digital that everybody agrees is good.” Insanely great, even.

People in the news business soon began using “snowfall” as a verb, commanding their minions to come up with user experiences that would measure up to what the New York Times was able to do. “Let’s snowfall this story!” they’d say…

In an internal report on innovation in digital journalism conducted by the staff at the New York Times, some of the very people who made Snow Fall cited it as an example of why there was (and is) a pretty dim future for digital publishing at the scale of the New York Times. To do a story like Snow Fall, producers had to divert resources away from other parts of their digital ecosystem, and had to break the governance and content management rules that apply to ordinary stories in order to achieve these insane heights of greatness. In the end, the creators of Snow Fall predicted that a sustainable ordinary way of doing their jobs was made even less likely in an environment where editors selectively choose to hit this story but not that one with the Snow Fall stick.

The reason I think it’s worthwhile for us to consider Alexander’s opposite truth — the one where what “good” means is ordinary places made with extraordinary care, in which I can see my own deep self — is that the ordinary digital places of today’s world built on the basis of the prevailing It Depends cosmology seem particularly, heinously bad for us.

For people.

How did it come to pass that the most ordinary digital places, like Facebook or YouTube, inhabited by the greatest numbers of humans, engaged in the most acts of content creation and interpersonal connection in the history of mankind, are also the most awful?

After fame and fortune come regrets. Mr. Williams is trying to fix some things. So, in different ways, are Google and Facebook, and even Twitter. This is a moment for patches and promises.”

Patches and promises is all they’re able to give us, because their business model is predicated on there being no right way. And on you not being your user.

I’d like to challenge each of you to try this out, in your work or in some side project or craft you’re making. The opposite of user centered design: Abby- centered design. Brenda-centered design. Richard-centered design.

With each decision you make about how to situate stuff in space: can you see more *you* in the thing if you do it that way, as opposed to some other way?

We have this expression in English about how when we’re ashamed, we say we couldn’t face our self in the mirror. Alexander’s opposite truth says that there’s a mirror of self in everything we make.

Now seems like a good time for digital designers to find a way to face the mirror of self in the experiences we make; in the choices we make about which things to put together, and about how to put things together.

I think this could be the only design process that can scale up to and include all 7 billion of us.

And it’s the opposite of what most of us, including me, will be doing at the office tomorrow.