Durability of Information Spaces, Part 1

Lessons from Architecture

Weston Thompson
Apr 12, 2015 · 4 min read

When Dan Klyn spoke at our 3/27 LA UX Meetup, he raised the question of durability. Dan commented that our design work for digital spaces is still nascent. Not only are our information spaces not so great for people, they are not durable. During discussion with the audience, Dan said that one kind of durability for information spaces might be avoiding entropy (which I think is an awesome idea). Another angle that came up was the notion of how a system’s data structures could transcend any specific UI implementation.

This is a fascinating topic and an important question for me in my work. It seems like a lot of ground to cover, and it might make for a series of columns. So let’s get going.

Of course, it all starts with architecture. And that means it all starts a long time ago. As early as the first century AD, Vitruvius noted durability as a key aspect of architecture, along with utility and beauty. Rumor is that Vitruvius disliked English, so he called those characteristics firmitas, utilitas, and venustas (Vitrivius in De Architectura by way of Wikipedia).

Vitruvius’ three principles themselves have been remarkably durable. In 1999, they became the basis for the Design Quality Indicator, a tool for measuring and evaluating the quality of building designs. In the DQI, durability appears as “Build Quality (firmitas) — the engineering performance of the building, which includes structural stability and the integration, safety and robustness of the systems, finishes and fittings.”

Poking around a bit, it seems that Vitruvius had a pretty straightforward intention with firmitas/durability: a good building should be built to last. It should have a proper foundation and appropriate materials. Joffre Essley comments that Vitruvius “is not really saying that all buildings must be built to last for many generations…. What he is implying here is that great buildings need to have permanence as one of their qualities and in designing for permanence you are performing one of the essential tasks of an architect.”

It’s interesting to differentiate that not all buildings need to be durable, and that may be a helpful idea when we turn to information spaces. I want to explore counter-examples in architecture: Maybe things like housing for nomadic people or the notion of disposable Japanese homes. But that will have to be a later column. For now, we need to return to Dan Klyn’s presentation.

As Dan moved through his four steps toward good structure of information spaces, he talked about the architectural duck and decorated shed. This comes from architects Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi. Their 1972 book, Learning from Las Vegas, includes an important observation about two different approaches to reflecting the strategy of a building. The duck’s physical shape directly embodies its strategy and clearly states the building’s purpose. The archetype is a duck-shaped building that sells eggs and ducklings. Contrast that with a decorated shed: The decorated shed reveals nothing of its purpose or contents until you place the proper external signals on it — the facade and signage. Scrape off that facade and you have an all-purpose shed ready to contain another enterprise. You just need to slap on the new sign. (Here’s a fascinating interview with Denise Scott Brown that includes a photo of the duck/shed spread from the book.)

Scott Brown and Venturi’s observation highlights the relationship between durability and other characteristics, such as flexibility. If your building is a duck, even if it is made of impermeable megatropic self-healing unicornium, the design ain’t all that durable if your business plan changes. However, your corrugated balsa shed will happily accommodate a new sign and will keep you going through many strategic changes (provided it doesn’t blow away). Or, another spin, is that durability of the design is not the same as durability of the building. And there might be an analog in there for information spaces. But let’s save that for later.

There’s one more concept from architecture that I want to bring in: architectural obsolescence. Sometimes, as needs change, it’s cheaper to demolish and start over. Over at Dezeen, Mimi Zeiger writes about NY MoMA’s decision to demolish its neighboring American Folk Art Museum in her column, We need to steel ourselves for more rapid architectural obsolescence. She points out that buildings have been spared the obsolescence cycles of other products, and that “this slower epochal cycle owes less to a belief in Vitruvius’ firmitas, utilitas, venustas than to the economic fact that buildings cost more than a Chevy.” Durability be damned if I have enough money. In that light, Vitruvius may have focused on the durability of the design.

By which I mean that I’m just getting started. Part two will turn outward to look at more general concepts of durability and also at durability in other kinds of product design. And then I’ll come back to the durability of information spaces. That might take us into part three. We’ll see.

About two weeks ago, I made a late-breaking resolution for 2015: to re-engage my mind with my profession. I set myself a goal to get busy writing and putting it out there to the community at a rapid pace. I’m making up for umpteen years of not blogging and rarely presenting. Don’t think of this as me flinging my pulpy drafts your way: think of it as a tasty morsel that sets the stage for more. Kind of like the cupcake approach to product strategy. This article is the first tiny red velvet cupcake. Or maybe it’s a funfetti cake pop!

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