In IA Thought, Information Architecture

This talk was given as part of a conversation on the future of Information Architecture and Interaction Design between Matt Nish-Lapidus and me, hosted by IxDA Grand Rapids on March 20, 2014.

Scrabble tiles that spell information architectureHi, I’m Dan Klyn. I’m an information architect at The Understanding Group, and I teach information architecture at the University of Michigan’s School of Information. I love IA. Part of the reason we’re having this conversation is because the meaning of the combination of these two words, and how that meaning relates to other words like Interaction, Experience and Design has become unclear. For a variety of reasons, people in this industry are not willing or able to take the meaning of the combination of these two words at face value.

I’m the outgoing treasurer of the IA Institute. Matt Nish-Lapidus is the incoming VP of the Interaction Design Association. There’s been a history of factionalism, maniac froth, and nuttiness between these organizations, and part of our shared purpose tonight is to see if we can bring clarity where there’s previously been confusion.

Polar Bear information architecture bookIn its opening pages, the Polar Bear book tells us that the architecture of the built environment is “a powerful analogy for introducing the complex, multi-dimensional nature of information spaces.” The book goes on to invoke librarianship and merchandising as complementary analogies for understanding what it takes to design large-scale websites. But within the first three pages, the book tells us architecture is just an analogy, and even warns us not to get trapped in it.

As with the Polar Bear, most of the available books that talk about IA do so in terms of designing websites, and use the words “architecture” and “design” more or less interchangeably.

What if information architecture was taken at face value? Didn’t an architect invent it? So I set out in search of the “architecture” part of information architecture.

More than a Metaphor

I think the architecture part has been and is becoming more than a metaphoric framing for web design. IA is part of architecture, but would never have emerged from the architecture of Le Corbusier and the High Modernists, whose focus was volumetric form and its proper relation to function. Louis Kahn shifts the frame from Correct Volumes in Light to the Thoughtful Making of Space. Volumes in light can be a metaphor for how one might approach the design of a digital product or service, but the thoughtful making of space doesn’t need any metaphorical wrapping to “just work” in terms of a book, or a website, or even a CRM system…

Richard Saul Wurman adds “place” to Kahn’s “space” and in so doing, sets himself on a trajectory toward the application of architectural thinking across modalities and media, where place-making approaches in three dimensions can be cross-applied to sense-making in two dimensions.

Richard Saul Wurman's Sand Castles

Richard Saul Wurman’s Sand Castles

The meaning and nature of the contrasts between Wurman’s information architects and Argus Associates’ information architecture was not as apparent at the time as would have been helpful. It gets vivid when you go deep into Wurman’s work in print, which can be seen as continuous with and following directly from his buildings.

What Versus Why

The Kahn-ian distinction between architecture and design sees the action of the verb “to architect” and the action of the verb “to design” as a duality. To Kahn and those of his school (including Wurman and Venturi), Design is how you realize the “what” of Architecture. And the reason these folks don’t call themselves building designers is because the building isn’t where they start their work, nor where it ends.

The animating instinct and impulse for architects in the tradition of Louis Kahn is to go backward from what’s been stated as the problem. To locate what’s been stated as the problem within an order or series of orders, and to develop a meaningful society among the members that are at play within the order. To quote Andy Fitzgerald, architecture is an over-arching argument about why space ought to be ordered this way instead of that. To Kahn and his followers, “form” isn’t the shape of the building—it’s the idea that holds the elements of the program in relation to each other. This is one side of a duality between architecture and design and I’ll be delighted to hear what Matt thinks of this dialectic.

To the extent that we’re now spending a work-week or more each month in places made of information, shouldn’t we insist on those places being architected? Just like a new city hall or town square would be architected?

All of these digital experiences have an architecture, and they’re all designed… but so many of them do not appear to be architected. In UX, the idea is that you start with design, and then design all the way through.

We start with architecture, and following a process taken from architecture in the built environment, work our way from program into analysis, and then from analysis into design. Along the way we do increasingly less architecture as we do increasingly more design, and then increasingly less design as we crank everything down into specification.

Ultimately, architecting + designing / structure + interaction are inseparable, and inter-essential. I love interaction design. And I think it benefits from good architecture as much as good architecture benefits from good design.

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