Durability of Information Spaces, Part 2

Lessons from Watches and Cars

Weston Thompson
May 2, 2015 · 9 min read

I’ve been working on this essay for a few weeks, and part of that time I was at the 2015 Information Architecture Summit. I had not been to the IA Summit since 2010. It was a great year to return, as the team put on a great conference, and I picked up on a new energy in the IA community. We have a renewed commitment to IA as the deep analysis and conceptual framing that sets up successful projects, products, and services. We have renewed efforts to build up the structures we need to continue maturing our profession. An aspect that resonated with me is the Reframe IA initiative to bring a language of critique to information architecture. In Reframe IA, I found a new context for my ramblings about durability. It turns out that I’m seeking a small part of a language of critique for information architecture: the critique of durability.

Recap of Part 1

In Durability of Information Space, Part 1: Lessons from Architecture, I looked at durability in architecture as a starting place for understanding durability of information spaces. I managed to get a few important concepts on the table:

  • Durability has been part of models for good architecture for a long time
  • A durable building has a good foundation and materials, so it is built to last
  • Durability also means designing for permanence, which does not apply to all buildings
  • The desire for permanence in a building might mark the domain of the architect
  • When architecture is not durable, the building may become obsolete due to a lack of flexibility
  • Buildings that are inherently inflexible, because they so closely embody their function, are sometimes called ducks and are contrasted with the highly flexible decorated shed
  • The cost of razing and replacing buildings may be the primary reason that they have been spared from the more rapid product obsolescence cycles we see in other domains

I’m especially interested in the separation of durability of the building from the architecture and the relationship of flexibility to durability. I only scratched the surface of those concepts, but I am going to forge ahead and explore durability in general and in product design more broadly. I want to keep gathering ideas as I look toward a model for evaluating the durability of information spaces.

Durability in General

According to Merriam-Webster, durable means “able to exist for a long time without significant deterioration.” We apply this to physical objects, like hiking shoes, and to concepts, like friendship. But this is primarily about physical durability. Even an invisible concept, like friendship, has a physical instantiation. If you just focus on the durability of the concept, you may end up with a friendship that exists only in word. Whereas a durable friendship results in physically tangible outcomes, such as your friend’s quick appearance in a time of need.

I started a taxonomy of durability, and it looks like this:

As with architecture, I also want to ask about obsolescence. Hiking shoes can become obsolete, though rather slowly. Hiking shoes probably won’t become obsolete until all the trails are gone (sad) or people can fly (wow) — or maybe until we all get Hobbit feet. For the friendship, though, obsolescence is a different thing. I’ll say an obsolete friendship is one that did not evolve as the people did. So your bonds with a high school chum, built around Late Night with David Letterman just don’t apply anymore when you’re dealing with mid-life career issues. Similarly, other kinds of concepts can be come obsolete when new data contradicts the hypothesis or enough data has accumulated to change the community’s acceptance of the theory or paradigm.

Durability in Product Design

Of course, durability isn’t an all-or-nothing attribute. I love my low-end Casio Illuminator digital watch. OK, I rarely wear it for work or date nights, but I’ve had one for twenty years (I actually own two). It’s so easy to use and durable. But the durability is very literally not skin deep: the crystal on that thing is prone to scratching and taking on marks, even though the rest of it seems indestructible. So it’s surely possible to have mixed durability in a given thing. It’s not one-dimensional.

The Casio watch is also a good example of durability in product design. By which I mean the design of the product, not the product itself. I was happy with the design when I purchased my first almost twenty years ago, and then when I purchased my second about five years ago. And I can easily imagine being happy with the design again in another ten years. Similarly, we talk about conservative wool suits and trench coats as enduring designs: they float above fashion trends and remain safe bets in the business wardrobe. However, they can become obsolete, just over longer periods of time. Workplaces continue to become more and more casual, so we need our wool suits less. It begins to sound like a durable design is one which puts function well before form: the hiking boot, the basic digital watch, the wool suit. You might call those timeless designs, but don’t tell Frank Chimero.

Porsche 911

Finally, I get to talk about cars! I’m a car buff of a certain sort. Not the mechanical sort. And while I do like driving the occasional zippy car, I love looking at cars. I appreciate them as design objects or art. And I have two autos in mind that exemplify durable design: the Porsche 911 and the Volkswagen Beetle. These two autos have had consistent designs throughout their entire runs. And we’re talking about some pretty long runs.

The Porsche 911 has been around since 1963. Throughout it has evolved in many ways, and Porsche has sold many variants of the model, but the basic design has remained remarkably consistent. NOTCOT nicely documents an exhibit from the Porsche Museum that highlights the design consistency, reaching back even before 1963 to the 911’s predecessor model 356. And Car and Driver documented the evolution of the 911, including specifications for key model years.

As an admirer of automobile designs, I claim this as one of the most durable designs around. It has looked good from the start. How can they keep making the same car for so many years? Yeah, yeah, the technology changes, the body has tweaks, and they give you umpteen variants. But it’s still a 2+2, flat-6, ovoid thingy. (I have been looking around for what to call the shape of its profile. If you abstract it a bit and flip it over, it’s a bit like a santoku knife.)

I guess the folks at Porsche know what they want to make and just keep making it. They hit on the target, and it’s a durable target. The consumers have a consistent need. I love how they have avoided, or at least minimized, car bloat. That’s my term for how a model tends to bloat over the years. Jalopnik has noticed this same thing, which they attribute to a combination of “tightening safety regulations, feature bloat and heightened demand for cars that consumers perceive to be safer (i.e., larger ones)”. Look at something like a Honda Civic. From 1973 to 2008, its length grew from 139.8 inches to 168.1 inches. The width grew from 59.3 inches to 70.3 inches. It’s not that the 2008 model is a bad car or a bad Civic. But it hardly seems like a Civic. Or, rather, the definition of the Civic changed, so the design changed to meet the new definition. By comparison, the 911’s length changed much less from 1965 through 2012: from 168.9 inches to 175.6 inches, according to the Car & Driver article. Only 8 inches over 48 years. I guess the definition of a 911 changed less, so the design changed less.

The notion that Porsche found the right target before making the first design, such that they could basically keep the design constant, reminds me of things we talked about in the Practical Modeling workshop I joined at the recent IA Summit. In the workshop, we practiced the art of making models of information problems. The point being to understand the problem better before you set out to solve it. And our crack team of instructors kept at their refrain: Do more modeling so that you can make the right design more quickly. Spend more time in the thinking and modeling phase of your work, so that you have to do less in the design phase.

VW Beetle

This is a similar story to the 911. The original car was made from 1938 to 2003, though not sold in the US that entire time. The styling was virtually unchanged during that run. With the introduction of the New Beetle model in 1998, the design was updated, though still close to the original. And there were modest changes again in 2012. GQ has a nice overview of the three design milestones for the Beetle.

The visual consistency is on par with the 911. However, there were bigger changes under the skin: starting with the introduction of the 1998 New Beetle, the car became front-engine, front-wheel drive, instead of rear-engine, rear-wheel drive that the original Beetle always had. That rear engine was rather iconic. A friend of mine with a mechanical background, said that when they moved the engine up front it broke the lineage: it was no longer a Beetle. I have asked around with friends and found a variety of responses, which start to line up based on how much they care about mechanicals versus the visual impact or personality of the car.

One more thing about the Beetle: I think that the Beetle is a duck. I’m going back to the architectural concepts of duck and decorated shed that I referenced in Part 1. The Beetle’s design says what it is. It kind of looks like a Beetle. And it has been around so long, with such a distinct look, that it is an icon — it became the definition of itself. This photo of Bugzilla shows how far some of us take that notion. And when it’s a duck, it’s easy to agree with my friend that you can’t move the engine. Ducks are supposed to be fixed and unchanging. But maybe they can change if the change does not actually alter the visual (still looks like a bug) or degrade the experience (actually drives better now). Can different consumers see different ducks? To someone like me, a Beetle is a beetle-duck and what I care about is whether it still evokes a six-legged beetle. To my mechanical friend, the Beetle is a rear-engine-low-tech-duck. Will he feel the same way if (when?) the 911 goes hybrid, even if it keeps the enduring body shape? It makes sense that different consumers focus on different aspects. So too, I imagine with information spaces.

What I’ve Learned

This little journey has given me another half-dozen ideas to gather up along with those inspired by architecture:

  • Durability is not one-dimensional
  • Even for concepts, there may be a physical instantiation of durability
  • Durable designs may put function before form
  • Durable designs may have found the right target before the design was set
  • Perception of the design’s durability may vary based on the consumer’s perspective or expertise
  • Sometimes a duck is not doomed to immutability

Next time I want to start exploring these in the context of digital spaces.

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