A conversation with Jorge Arango

Jorge Arango is an information architect with 20 years of experience designing digital products and services. He’s a partner in Futuredraft, a digital design agency based in Oakland, CA.

Jorge is also a co-author of Information Architecture for the Web and Beyond, the fourth edition of O’Reilly’s celebrated “polar bear” book, and has served the global UX community as president and director of the Information Architecture Institute as well as the managing editor of Boxes and Arrows magazine.

At EuroIA 2016 he will hold a workshop called “From Strategy to Structure (and Back Again)” on Friday (23rd of Sept). He will also be speaking about the practicalities of placemaking as a tool to help people understand, and ‘frame’ information (and products), with his talk “Lands, Hubs and Wienies: Placemaking Lessons From the Magic Kingdom” on Thursday (22nd Sept).

What do you love about the job you do?

There are two things: there is a kind of conceptual thing that I love about my work, and then there is the ‘being there’ part of the job.

The ‘being there’ part is about the people that I work with. I’m very fortunate to work with a team of people who are not only my friends and fabulous people, but are also brilliant designers. It’s a great feeling to go to work everyday with people that are your peers and who challenge you to do your best.

The ‘conceptual’ part that I like is that I think that we are part of a profession that is slowly -and sometimes not so so slowly- remaking the world.

There was an article a couple of years ago by Marc Andreessen -I think it was in the The New York Times- that said “Software is eating the world”. Everything is being refashioned as software somehow, and we are the part of that system that is responsible for making the context in which people will experience that software. In a way, it’s like we are remaking the world. And that is very exciting to me. I studied architecture, and I feel like the stuff that I’m doing now is as much about placemaking as if I was doing physical architecture.

What are you going to be focused on for the rest of 2016?

I see my work as a slow burn; by that I mean I feel I’ve been working on the same things for a long time and I’m going keep working on them.

The aspect that I am focused more right now is, as a designer, bridging what we do and the purposes of the organisations that we do it for. What I mean is that as designers, we tend to be very focused on the way that things get manifested in the world; you know, user interfaces, the shiny stuff, the labels on navigation systems, the tangible things. And often we get distracted by those things and we tend to lose the connection with what it is that those things are in service to.

At the end of the day the organisations that we work for have purposes, the reasons they are in the world, and I’m very interested in bridging that, in finding ways in making that more explicit so that designers can understand what they are in service to.

How difficult is it for clients to understand that?

It depends on the type of clients; in my career I had clients that were Fortune 500 organisations that you read about in the newspapers, and those folks often times they play the ‘cog in the machine’ type of roles, and it becomes less clear in those organisations where the connection lies.

Whereas I’ve also had the experience working with small non-profits in the developing world, in my country of origin. In organisations like those, where everyone is closer to the things that make that organisation different, I think the connection was more palpable.

For most people we go about our work without thinking so much about what we are in service to; but I think as designers we can help make that clear and more explicit, make sure that the connections are there and are palpable.

What advice would you give your colleagues to prepare for the future?

The advice that I find myself giving over and over is: be more conscious about what you are doing.

It’s easy for us to become swept up in things that attract us, the “new shiny”. I think that having a project — and by that I mean a career project, what you are trying to do with your own ‘work’- I think many of us don’t begin by knowing what that is, but we discover it little by little. I think it is very important to be conscious that you are on a trajectory, and to be conscious that there is something you should surface and nurture and keep working on.

This is true in general for everyone, but for information architects in particular, the advice that I often tell people is to learn a second language.

It’s not only the practical aspect of learning a second language, as so much of literature [in our field] is in English, but the reason that I keep giving this advice to people is that there is an angle to it that is less pragmatic. Language is such an integral part of our context and being that we take it for granted, and we don’t have to stop and think about what we are doing when putting things into words.

When you learn a second language it forces you to acknowledge that your own language is contingent: it’s not God-given, its’ not part of nature, it’s not the way things are and forever more. It’s kind of a series of accidents, and there are other languages and other conditions and other series of accidents that made them what they are.

I think that learning a second language makes it clear that language is a tool: a contingent tool. It’s something you can’t read about in books, you have to experience, and it’s critical if you’re doing things like creating information environments which are, in a way, places made of language. To understand language as a prime material you have to come to this realisation that it’s a contingent thing.

You’re giving both a talk and a workshop at EuroIA 2016. Why is it important people listen to your talk?

Both the talk and the workshop are related. As designers, not just information architects but designers in general, we are creating information environments; we are kind of refashioning the world, the way people experience the world. The things that we make are types of places, where people go to do certain tasks.

These places that we make should serve the underlying purposes of the organisation that has hired you to make them; but in my day-to-day work I often found that we as designers kind of approach this task unconsciously and without really understanding what purposes it is that we are serving in the places that we make.

The purpose of the talk is hopefully to help make designers more aware of the things that the places they are making are meant to do. That is the goal of the talk; the reason why people should come to it is because it’s about Disneyland, which is a lot of fun, and so I think it should be a fun talk to come to!

And what will people learn from your workshop?

The idea is very similar: the purpose that I mentioned earlier, organisations have a strategy. The workshop aims to, very practically, help designers understand and articulate that strategy and make sure that the information environment that we are creating is structured in a way that enables the organisations to pursue that strategy.

What are your expectations about EuroIA, being the first time you are going to attend it?

I’ve been wanting to go for a long time, so I’m very excited!

Rennaissance Hotel, Amsterdam

I’ve been working in information architecture and talking about it and writing about it for a long time, but I’ve mostly been involved in the community here in the US.

The interactions that I had with colleagues who are not in the US and in particular with colleagues in Europe, and also to a certain degree in South America, make me think that folks there have a different understanding of the role of information architecture within the industry of design. And in many ways, I feel like it’s kind of a more serious take on what information architecture is, but also more open-ended.

I’m very excited just to talk and hang out with colleagues there, just because I have this expectation that the understanding of what information architecture is and the role it has to play is different.

These year’s theme is “Connected things amongst us”. What’s the biggest opportunity for the Internet of Things?

I must admit I’m still trying to come to grips with this idea of the Internet of Things. Every time a new technology appears we tend to think of it in terms of the technologies that came before it; so the cliché is to talk about horseless carriages when the first motor cars came out. People would think of them in terms of ‘this is like a carriage without a horse’. People would try to do things self-imposed like keep the same speed limits that they had for carriages also for cars, because this is the way things were done.

I got this sense that a lot of understanding what we call the IoT is based on thinking of these devices and smart environments as the same things we had before, only somehow cheaper or faster or with different features. For example, I was having a conversation a couple of weeks ago about smart locks; this idea that all of a sudden we have a lock of our house that somehow we manipulate with an app in our phones. We tend to think of it in terms of this is just a lock, like the mechanical lock, only now we can do things such as unlock it at certain times of the day or control it remotely so the door is unlocked by the time I get home.

We are particularly bad at being able to predict what the systemic results are going to be of unleashing these new capabilities in the world. I say that because I am very cautious about what we’re calling the IoT: in my mind it’s such a big change to the way we currently interact with the world, and I get the feeling we are much too cavalier about the way we are going about it. So the smart lock that we’re implementing now could all of a sudden become something that does things like lock us out of our houses if we’re late on our mortgage payments. Because some other entity, that currently has no direct ability to act upon our mechanical lock, now can act upon it since the thing is networked.

I don’t think that what I’m stating is science-fiction; you might have heard about these cars with remote control ignition that do things like preventing people from driving outside a certain geographic region because of constraints that creditors are placing on them.

I’m not answering the question about opportunities because the opportunities will emerge as long as we understand what these things are good for; right now, we’re caught in a cycle where there is a difference between viability and desirability. The fact that something can be done does not mean that it should be done. I think that we’re heading really fast in the viability angle without stopping to think about desirability.

I remember reading this AirBnB house post- usually when you check out, there’s an instructions sheet that tells you what you should do with the house- that had a whole instruction sheet just to tell you how to turn on the lights, because there were smart lights everywhere. So, step 1: download an app… you know, you failed! Lights are something that we have agency over right now; you flip a switch and within a very short span of time the light goes on. If you have to download an app, when you’re stumbling in the dark holding groceries, well, you failed.

So I think we have a long way to go with the IoT, and I think that is very exciting for us as designers because it means there is a lot of work to do. Again, this is part of refashioning the world and here we are literally doing it. But we also have to be very conscious about what we are doing and about what we are giving up in the process of enabling these things.

As designers, I think we have this ethical responsibility to make things better, and not just different, for the sake of technology.

What question haven’t we asked you which you think we should ask you?

Tim Ferris, the guy who wrote “The four-hour work week”, has a podcast in which he interviews people who have been top performers in different fields, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Marc Andreessen that we mentioned earlier. At the end of the interview he always asks a set of questions, and one that I really like is that he asks people ‘what is the book you have given away the most’. Which is a different question from asking what is your favourite book, because I have books that are my favourites but I don’t think that other people would enjoy. This, instead, helps spread ideas that I think other people should be aware of.

So, if I had to answer that question, there is this small book called “Rapid problem solving with post-it notes” (David Straker, 1997). For all these talks about technologies and doing things with computers, I still find that the whiteboard with a set of sticky notes is one of the most effective way to get people to collaborate on solving problems together. This little book provides an operating system for the whiteboard: it gives you patterns you can use to sort ideas, find relationships between things, is really useful.

EuroIA 2016 will be held in Amsterdam on the 22–24 September. Learn more about the conference and get your tickets now.