Making Places: Key Ideas from Midwest UX 2013

I had the pleasure and privilege of attending Midwest UX 2013 from October 17-19 in my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and was pleasantly surprised by how many information architecture relevant themes, thoughts, and calls to actions were woven throughout the sessions, keynotes, and side conversations. After a whirlwind weekend of learning and thinking about the theme of place and placemaking, my brain was exploding with thoughts.

Keynote for Midwest UX - Abby Covert

Abby Covert, Opening Keynote – Midwest UX 2013

One of the best things about Midwest UX for me was that the speakers, by and large, didn’t just speak AT the audience – they asked their audience members to actually DO something following our collective Midwest UX experience. As many of the talks were directly relevant to the practice of information architecture, their call to arms had my undeniable attention. As an attendee of MidWest UX I will answer the call to arms by applying three new perspectives in my work:

1. I will discuss place both with my professional community, and with our clients, because placeness is important and too frequently avoided. Abby Covert, a world class thinker, dynamic teller of tales, and inspiring IA kicked off the event with a talk outlining a practical and easy to use taxonomy of placeness loosely based on Eames’ Power of 10 work. In her talk she argued that even though placeness is complex, we as practitioners should absolutely be including it in our talks with one another, and furthermore with the people we work for and with. Covert suggested a controlled vocabulary through which we can have these discussions – at once encouraging us to talk about place, and also giving us a great tool with which to do so. Since the conference I’ve had no fewer than 5 conversations around this topic using, or at least referencing, the framework Abby outlined in her opening keynote. Thanks Abby!

Taxonomy of Place as outlined by Covert

Covert’s Framework for Taxonomy of Place

2. I will be more aware of the impact of language used because language is infrastructure for the places we make. My fellow TUGger, Andrew Hinton, was another speaker who got me riled up. Andrew is an intrepid, deep, and thorough thinker, and I love the challenge of keeping up with his brilliance at TUG on projects as well as when he gives talks. I have a running joke that I gauge my professional success based on how much I understand from his lectures. At Midwest UX he spoke on the importance of language in creating both placeness and context – a message particularly relevant to IA practitioners. Furthermore, I enjoyed hearing Andrew talk about, very practically, the importance of things traditionally called “IA” to what was ostensibly a group of multivariate designers.

Eizans & Covert applaud Andrew Hinton at dinner

Midwest UX Keynote Speaker Abby Covert and TUGger Daniel Eizans telling Andrew Hinton exactly what they think about him and his brilliance at dinner Saturday night.

His talk on the role of language in placemaking inspired me to think about how the links, labels, and taxonomies are not flat two dimensional trees, but actually create context and place in physical and digital spaces, as well as in the intersection of these places as we move towards instances where ubiquitous computing will require pervasive IA. Andrew’s call to action for me went beyond just the awareness of language though, and uncannily rhymed Abby’s talk on the taxonomy of placemaking. Andrew closed by encouraging us to not just consider language, but also to invite everyone on a project to the table to tell their story and use the team’s collective language to develop the business requirements that will eventually shape the placeness of a particular product or service.

3. I will strive to make good places, because places make us. Christina Wodtke, Saturday evening’s keynote speaker closed with a talk walking us through an exploration of placeness as seen through the formal elements of place: space, site, speed, views, servant & served spaces, movement, structure; and concluded with a meditation on the conceptual aspects of place: emotion, personality, and poetics. The talk was beautiful, complex, inspiring, made me cry at one point, and left us with what was possibly the most important thing for any Midwest UX attendees to think about in the days following the conference. Wodtke ended her talk with this thought: “Places Make Us. Make Good Places.”

Places Make Us. Make Good Places.Though not as straightforward as my other two action items from the conference, of my three key takeaways from Midwest UX, this is the most compelling for me as a practitioner. Furthermore, as a human acutely aware of the impact and potential gravity of creating digital places, this is also probably the most intimidating of all the calls to action, and therefore the one I hope to work towards the most during my career as an information architect. Thank you for the words of wisdom and kick in the pants, Ms. Wodtke.

Thanks for reading! I’d love to hear your take on anything covered above, or how you are changing your personal IA/UX practice after attending Midwest UX.

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