In TUG Talks
Summary: Information architects Dan Klyn and Abby Covert give a talk at World IA Day 2014 titled "Form Follow Forces."

2014 logo for world information architecture dayBelow is the second part of the joint keynote presentation that Abby Covert and I gave at World IA Day in Ann Arbor in February of 2014. You can read the first part here.


The world today is all about choices. Managing aspects and accidents. It seems that the quote used most often these days to describe the world of design is: Good, Fast, Cheap: Pick Two. I think that if we use this quote as a lens, we can start to break down the environment that designers are working in today. We can start to create a taxonomy of the forces that are at work in the world we work in. I have given countless talks now covering the context sensitive nature of design decisions and their outcomes, yet the single most common question I still get is something to the effect of: Should I make my website more like Facebook or Amazon or Something Else? I have endured countless circular conversations with other design-minded people about how hard it is to separate the opinions from the a**holes in a world where client services and lack of data collide.

But most importantly, I have spent the last few years not selling creative work, but instead helping creative people to prove out and communicate the value of their creative work. And in my experience, the spectrum of blanket uses for the concept of “Good” have risen up to meet this generation of designers. I want to unpack for you here the many varietals that we have created with the concept of good. Each stands as a little shelter for us to hang behind, shielding ourselves from diving into the complexity of deciding who we want to be when we grow up. Each stands in the way of consensus, collaboration and confidence in creative executions.

There has been a wind of change blowing through. A force that has many names, but is always centered on the same message: good enough is good enough. Students are taught that everything would have been better if you it released yesterday because you would have data today. We are holding ourselves less and less accountable to our intrinsic pride in our creative work and more and more to our deadlines and extrinsic motivations.

I have personally given and been given the following advice at an alarming rate in the last few years:
• Fake it till you make it
• Be Minimally Viable
• Live in Beta
• Fail Early and Often
These are all good pieces of advice for living in a world shaped by the force of Good Enough. But what does it mean for the next generation of designers? Should there even be another generation…

Remember when we could rely on a relatively small set of design standards to make a “website work”—well that time is not now. Today, things are changing literally while you are working. Because of this, the same rules do not necessarily always apply. What is appropriate is more contextual than ever before. And we have more people exploring the boundaries of the information medium than ever before. yet they are largely working without a net. And without a net, sites like get developed and then destroyed in a slew of articles that basically say: We don’t know what went wrong but it is all wrong.

In the mid-90s, anyone working on the web deeply will remember a term that they say was used for Information Architecture before IA was coined for the purpose. Well, “the pain with no name” is still alive and well, and its latest face is that of a lack of language, heuristics and poetics for the way we architect the information spaces we spend an increasing amount of time inhabiting.

On top of this lack of understanding what “Not Good” means, we are simultaneously faced with the fetishist design shower of shiny objects that rains down on the Internet daily. Products that are terribly architected, badly built or poorly designed are propped up by journalists. Never before have we had a community of criticism on the internet like what we see now. Yet these totems of awesome also lack language to describe them, data behind their magic or reasoning for what is “good” about them.

Very Good Examples stand on pedestals looming far over those looking for guidance and very good is aimed for. Meanwhile the contextual touch of good is missed entirely—design is prioritized over architecture, and imitation and un founded patterns thrive. We ask how can we be very good without asking what good actually means.

Anyone can tell you that we are moving fast. I think it is appropriate to look at two sides of the same coin when it comes to describing the force of fast on the design world.

People want information now, not in two clicks, not in “we will get back to you in 24 hours”—we live in a world where you can pirate any movie you want on or before opening night and the average article has a shelf life of less then 24 hours before it is forever buried in the stream.

Designers are constantly reminded that we live in an attention economy and their design is not likely to get much attention. So efforts are put into making things fast to sign up for, fast to learn, fast to use, fast to forget. The limited time that an average user will give an application or page to load is astounding considering we can almost still hear the screech of the dial up connection finally dying out, taking with it traditional media and advertising practices.

Today’s marketer needs to be a technologist. Today’s technologist needs to be a designer. Today’s designer needs to be a marketer and a technologist. The speed at which the internet is consumed has up ticked significantly and with it, the speed of production has had to increase all the way down the line.

Content Management Solutions sit squarely in the hot seat as some of the most powerful and money saving methods for bringing a business online, yet CMS is still a dirty word in most meetings and is the scope cut from many projects, where speed to release is prioritized over speed to refresh.

There are more cost saving and money centered talks afoot around information spaces than ever before. And the forces that have come out of the need for the commodification of design are undeniable.

A new breed of designer has emerged in the face of this wave of the cheap. The idea of a design unicorn is one person who can master any and all of the mediums involved in delivering creative services for a specific context. Finding that person who can design, build and maintain your website, mobile app, print materials and any other design-y nuggets your house might require to run.

The issue with this force is NOT that unicorns don’t scale. It is that unicorns do not exist. The classic “jack of many trades, master of none” statement comes in to bite the unicorn-wanna-bes that attempt to tackle larger projects, proving time and again that they are merely horses wearing horns. The best project for a jack of many trades is to kill what you yourself can eat. The complexities of today’s design world can not handle this kind of limit on collaboration and innovation.

While more and more unicorns are filling more and more design jobs in small and mid size companies, specialists seem to only be employed by consultancies and large brands boasting big projects. Small companies report not being able to afford things like research, strategy and content development because that kind of expertise is expensive, as it is always an external resource. There is a distinct sense that only really big companies can achieve architectural soundness, while anyone else is just making stuff.

The thought that architecture can be achieved without architects or that research can be achieved without researchers does not seem to penetrate the unicorn fortresses and instead due to lack of alternative tools or deep expertise in anything but, pictures of interfaces are used to solve all problems leaving business people frustrated and users underserved. Because when you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail.


So! What’s it look like to do this stuff right? Not very good, or good enough … but good. How do we get beyond horsey horseless?

The standard I’d like to propose that we proceed from this morning in looking more closely at the things we make and assessing their relative goodness is one i’ve borrowed from William Hubbard at MIT. That makers and users alike find the forms to be appropriate, and that users’ reasons for preferring that the forms be the way they’ve been made lines up with the designers’ intentions. And just as a point of clarification—what do we mean by form? It’s more than what a thing looks like. And encompasses more than function. Form has to do with what the thing means because as Louis Kahn said, “Form holds the relation of its elements.”

Screenshot 2014-03-20 09.21.50A popular contemporary form that holds the relation of the elements on web pages and in apps is the form of the hamburger. The form of the hamburger that slides open the basement. This form has or had meaning. Quite modernist as I see it—form following and indicating function. It used to mean ‘the navigation for our mobile experience is just a tap away.’

Screenshot 2014-03-20 09.23.07But not anymore. Increasingly, the desktop and tablet versions of sites are embracing the hamburger. Here on the recently- redesigned the hamburger is presented as simpler navigation. And in mobile contexts, that’s what the hamburger delivers. Here less is indeed more.

Screenshot 2014-03-20 09.25.51

But now, when used on desktop and mobile …. what does this mean? Is the form working with or against what NBC intends and means? Is the reason why we as designers might recommend doing it this way the same one users would cite as the reason why they prefer this approach?

Screenshot 2014-03-20 09.26.34

Here, the hamburger does not actually deliver on its promise of simpler navigation. It delivers wall to wall navigation. And non-navigation also—these feature-tile things from the homepage are recursive here in the so-called simpler navigation. (“Yo dawg, I heard you like tiles so I brought some into the nav that I hid under the hamburger so you could concentrate on the tiles.”) Because we don’t know why we’re using this form, we break it as we build it.

The next structural form for consideration this morning: the stream. People—civilians, regular folks—spend three hours or more per day online. A week or more each month, in many countries and cultures. A lot of that is spent in places dominated by the structural form of the stream. The stream is the structural form for news and social media outlets who’ve given up on or have been overwhelmed when striving for “everything in its proper place.” MLive here in Michigan has replaced multiple uniquely-presented and organized local news presences with one approach to govern them all: a stream-based way of letting some loose business rules “curate” what shows up in the stream. The rule here seems to be crime and weather first, and then a blend of schools, politics and more crime to follow. Instances of what’s in the stream are localized, but the stream itself is both placeless and all over the place. What those who’ve embraced the structural form of the stream seem to have missed is that the nature of stream isn’t an even predictable flow.The nature of stream is lack or loss of control. The nature of stream is stuff floating by from upstream that we didn’t expect …. That we don’t actually like.

You can’t actually control a stream—its nature is to meander. To spill over what had once been edges. Which may be the unconscious motivation for designers and users alike in accepting and even embracing the stream—because “it means whatever it means ”—which I might read as a postmodern rejection of fixed meaning in the tradition of Peter Eisenman, or an embrace of “it’s only meaningful to me,” in the tradition of Frank Gehry. In both cases we take comfort in the non-controllability of the stream.

Screenshot 2014-03-20 09.41.18Except when we don’t. Except when we get some on us—when what we thought was secure gets swept out into the flotsam. Twitter is an example of a stream-based digital place where the stream means whatever it means. It used to be strictly chronological. Now: Because the stream means whatever it means, design changes can be proposed and tested solely on the basis of hypothesis testing. “The people might like it, let’s see…”

For example, changes they’re introducing on the iOS platform are making it easier to post photos than text. And a stream that’s more full of pictures is a different place than the stream that’s more full of words. One that competes better (maybe) with Instagram and Pinterest. The penultimate structural type to consider in our contemporary context: the MVP and its evil twin, the pseudo MVP. If you’re truly a start up and truly need to have a product out there to discover market fit ASAP because you truly cannot afford research and planning and your dev team consists of a unicorn or two: fine. MVP is an almost an alright way to derive the form of your thing. Godspeed. In many ways a startup’s MVP is form-following-forces—what’s holding the relation of the elements together are the forces of time and function and money.

But big companies and consultancies with big teams are embracing the mvp as their form-giver … The big d-up-front-is-a-waste-so-figure-out-what-you’ll-make-by-making-it-in-quick-iterations crowd say this will be an evolutionary progression from minimally viable base robot forward into. Wherever the sticky-noted stories say we go. Hell, we started with a toaster. With the pseudo MVP, what’s holding the relation of the elements of a product or service together is fear. Fear of getting too far in front of what people can tell us they want. Fear of burning too much of the budget without proof the thing works. Fear of deciders changing their minds before we had a chance to realize the thing they said they wanted before they changed their minds.
The form we give these products and services is pre-figured to follow organizational dysfunction. What good means is that it shipped.

The camera on my phone can’t shoot panoramas without me activating that app. Nor can it trim video. Because theres an app for each of those discrete functions. Because we shipped the minimally viable 5 times instead of considering an integrated approach. Have you ever handed your iPhone to somebody for them to use an app without first activating that app on their behalf? No. Because it is unreasonable to expect anybody but you to be able to sort through your phone’s vast sea of app icons. And each new app you load pushes your other 876 apps a bit farther from your grasp.

Why? Because realizing the minimally viable is (seemingly) less risky and easier to be rewarded for than attempting to realize the maximally valuable. Making a thing that’s pre-caveated as minimal and viable, where requirements are simple or simplified is less daunting than architecting a system. Form can simply follow function. You don’t need an architect, or research. Just a unicorn. To make a uni-thing. A monolith. There’s something absolutely beguiling about a monolith. Something awe inspiring about a perfect slab. Its discreetness. The totality of it. The simplicity of it. The way there’s no question about our relation to it or its rationale for being formed the way it is.

Screenshot 2014-03-20 09.44.56Surely this is what’s behind the mass adoption of single-page parallax-scrolling “interactive storytelling.” Approaches like what Sony is doing here. Last year they might have realized this same set of objectives as a mini-site or a micro-site.. We like these better …. And we might even like them as designers for the same reason people like them as users.

Sometimes, monolith is good! Pulitzer-prize-winning good. Make the hairs on your arms stand up in awe, good.Relative to our standard, that makers and users alike find the form to be appropriate, and that users’ reasons for preferring that the form be the way it is lines up with the designers’ intentions. Boom! This story lends itself particularly well to verticality. And linearity. Because its content is all mountains and vertical drops and the lines traced in recollection and in the snow by the characters and their skis. The way its been realized and the way its meaning and effects are maintained across devices and modalities is marvelous. This may be the finest work of information architecture that’s visitable in your browser.

In the year that’s passed since snow fall, “to snowfall” has become a verb in the online news business. The nyt has done a number of other feature stories using the mono-slab-logic of the parallax scrolling page, some better than others. Not to be outdone (but sadly, they remain outdone), the Guardian adopted the structural form of the monolith for a story on Edward Snowden and the disclosing of once-secret NSA files. The contrasts here are vivid. And emblematic of the difference between form following forces, and form flouting them. Or worse: form following fashion.

The forces that are operative on a feature story like that of pro-skiers in an avalanche and the year-long investigation of how and why it happened…. Totally different than the forces operative on a “pizza box” story like Snowdon that’s transpiring in real time. Real time is horizontal, not vertical. And a breaking story like Snowdon is riddled with holes from what’s not yet been revealed—the act of reading is more like connecting the dots than tracing lines. I suspect that somebody important at the Guardian told the team to take this story and ‘hit it with the Snowfall stick.’ Form following the forces of fashion.


Dan and I spent much of this talk talking about things that with your help can be the path we collectively don’t take. Before we get on with this fabulous day, we have a few takeaways in terms of the counter forces we could introduce to course-correct this world of ours.

“Users” need to be humanized in the mind of businesses, technologists and designers. “Businesses” need to be humanized in the minds of designers, technologists and users. We must apply a deeper level of ethical inquiry into what it means to add to this information overload we are collectively experiencing. We need to recognize the magnitude of the importance of differentiating architecture work and design work, as well as the recognition that our differences are less a land war, and more a miscommunication of intent.

Without working together, the integrity of our work will continue to suffer and our clients will continue to not understand. We can only change this from within our own walls, and through our own jobs. We need to learn from the lessons that have been forged in the creation of places over centuries by architects and planners that have made this world truly remarkable. The digital world we increasingly live in could use some slow reflection on where we have already been and the ground we have already started to cover. There is good stuff in there.

Let’s stop reinventing the wheel so we can start making hover cars! We need to work cross functionally to talk about and better define what “good” means when it comes to the structural integrity of meaning. Simple as that. If you are redesigning your whatever and using excuses like “it just seemed like time” or “because its not pretty enough” please take the time you need and come up with the right direction. You may be surprised how it affects your output, your strategic planning, even your org chart.

We have never had so much complexity to unravel. We have never had more battles of misunderstandings to battle. The global community of IA has never had so many reasons to shout proudly from the proverbial rooftops about the powerful effect our methods and tools can have on real people’s real problems in their real lives.

Gone are the days of us being a “forward thinking, up and coming industry”—the world has caught up to our hopes and dreams for the information we would have to architect. Now they just want to know what’s next and we think it is our job to help guide the form that this world takes next. We hope you are up for the challenge.

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