In IA Thought, Information Architecture

This post was originally delivered as a talk by Dan Klyn at the 2014 IA Summit in San Diego.

Hello: my name is Dan Klyn, and I’m a practicing information architect. Not a professional teacher. Nevertheless, I get to teach the Information Architecture (IA) course at the University of Michigan School of Information, and the story I have for you today is from teaching that class last Fall in Ann Arbor.

Part of why today’s round-table on teaching IA is so necessary has to do with the continuing absence of a consensus view, either from academia or from the community of practice regarding what those two words in combination ought to mean today. And while we all can likely agree that a course in IA needs to somehow address or engage with the works of Richard Saul Wurman, Peter Morville, Christina Wodtke, Lou Rosenfeld, and Jesse James Garrett, alignments between and among these pioneers and their ideas aren’t obvious. Some combinations don’t seem to work at all.

Teaching Information Architecture

One of the first-ever IA courses offered in a graduate school was invented by Amy Warner at the University of Michigan in 1999. Peter Morville began co-teaching with Warner in 2001, and the lecturer position I have at UM today is the one that Peter passed on to me in 2006 after I’d done some subbing for him in 2005. When I first started teaching the class, I did what Peter did: I used the Polar Bear book as the primary text. What made teaching from the Polar Bear book awesome was the way it offered a holistic approach to designing large scale websites.

The major project in the class as Peter taught it (and as I did the first few terms after taking up his mantle) was an “IA Strategy Report.” The take-away students got from the course was that IA is the tip of the spear and the driving force in how you design a large scale website—a way to structure a complex information space that’s driven by strategy. What the resulting structures look like and the “how” underneath the workings of the technology were understood to be subsequent to figuring out a good structural approach.

Polar Bear bookI think this is one of the reasons why the pivot I made in how I teach IA went backward in time, from the Polar Bear to Richard Saul Wurman, rather than sideways and forward in time to Jesse James Garrett. Like the IA of the Polar Bears, Wurman’s IA is holistic. Wurman’s IA is more than a way of seeing—he says it’s a whole way of life, and one that’s aimed at closing the gap between things that look good and things that are good.

Learning how to teach Wurman’s version of information architecture made it necessary for me to learn about his version of architecture, which is something he received from his mentor Louis Kahn. To learn Kahn’s teachings on architecture is not to learn what architects (generally) know and think about architecture. But it’s been invaluable to me in my attempts to interpret and teach from Wurman’s point of view, and also for understanding and interpreting the work of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, architects whose work I find entirely relevant to information architecture and who were also at Penn with Kahn and Wurman in the late 1950s.

Dan Klyn teaches information architecture at UMSI

Dan Klyn teaches information architecture at UMSI.

In 2009, a contest put on by the IA Institute (!) provided me with a venue for publishing the IA model I’d developed in my class at UMSI—a model that seeks to explain what’s essential to locating and understanding the information architecture of anything without getting into its definition. Where is the IA of any given matter or object we might be discussing? It’s in the concentric nest of meaning, arrangement, and interaction: ontology, taxonomy and choreography.

Putting meaning at the center of whatever it is we’re talking about when we talk about information architecture ensures a healthy if not hefty amount of ambiguity, abstraction and semantics in whatever it is we might teach. Meaning isn’t the whole story though. At last year’s IA Summit, Jorge Arango now-famously said that IA is the discipline that’s focused on “the structural integrity of meaning across contexts.” It was Jorge’s way of voicing IA’s raison d’être that inspired me to try something in my IA class at UMSI that seemed then and still seems kind of crazy.

Lessons from the Built Environment

If IA is all about structures that support meaning and allow it to remain intact across contexts, then one way to teach IA would be to learn about the ways that meaning and structure interrelate, right? And if you allow that architecture in the built environment provides lessons in the interrelation of meaning and form that are literally “writ large” in structures of stone, concrete, and steel—to the point where one can “read” a building’s structural form and map it to the beliefs and principles of a particular school of thought—then heck, maybe I could teach IA by having the students learn about structure and meaning in the architecture of buildings (?).

So that’s what I did: I put the students in groups of about 10 students each, and tasked each group with learning and then teaching the rest of us about a particular movement in architecture. The “tool” that each group used to learn about their particular movement in architecture was … wait for it: information architecture. I mapped team roles to the IA model I developed back in 2009 and then supplemented with a role called “media ecologist” and a role devoted specifically to design and architecture.

A quarter of each team’s project grade was based on their proposal for remaking Starbucks digitally in ways that would be rationalized and explained in terms of their particular movement in architecture. But the key to doing well on this assignment was two-fold: to understand the ethos and aesthetic and belief-systems behind their particular movement in architecture, and then teach it to the rest of us. Otherwise: how would we be able to say whether or not their redesign was good or not?

Most of the sessions last Fall were split in half, with me giving lectures in the first part and then the teams breaking out into their own workrooms during the second part of class. Each breakout session was devoted to the work and point of view of a particular role, and charged with the triple-purpose of:
– learning about their movement in architecture,
– building content for their eventual presentation, and
– building context for their eventual redesign concept.

The students did remarkable work—they taught each other and then taught the rest of us all kinds of fascinating things about these movements in architecture. The ontologists explained what each movement came to mean in its time and from a historical-critical perspective. The taxonomists mastered the vocabulary and took inventory of the component parts of each movement. And the choreographers helped their groups and the class at large understand changes within these movements over time, and something of the nature of the interactions people have with the buildings each movement left to history.

By focusing on structure and meaning, as opposed to websites and buildings, the students had room to innovate in ways that surprised and delighted me. One group designed a dating game activity for the audience as part of how it decided to teach us about structure and meaning in Modernism. The experience of working with one’s group to find and explain the relationship between meaning and structural form was instructive: but I think a lot of the learning and “aha” light bulb moments came from the opportunity to see and learn from contrasting values- and meanings-systems and contrasting ways of working out the interrelation of meaning and structural form.

Another benefit of the student groups was presenting in chronological order: the hero-architect of two weeks ago is regenerated as the inspiration for this week’s architect, even while being noted as a villain last week. The digital products and services re-imagined by my students in the style of their particular movements in architecture were a delight to see unveiled, and these new structures were quite effectively presented and explained on the basis of what each group had just taught us about the meaning underneath their movement.

The Postmodernists presented their work last. As they explained Venturi and Scott Brown’s Ducks and Decorated Sheds model as the range of how structural form and meaning can be interrelated in architecture, I could see the light bulbs going off in the audience—I had one going off too. In our four weeks of presentations, we learned about makers and buildings located allllll across that continuum—from structure that has unmistakable highly specific meaning to structures that are neutral and ambiguous in meaning.

If one were to offer criticism of this crazy approach to IA pedagogy, one might point to the cartoonish way that grad students can self-teach themselves about a movement in architecture in 10 weeks that scholars spend lifetimes trying to understand and explain. But I think this is a feature, not a bug. Cartoons, especially caricatures, teach through exaggeration. It’s not a photorealistic representation but it can get at a more vivid truth.

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