To GK, with love and squalor

prelude GK Patterson offered to let me participate in “structured” conversation with Bob Goodman and Joshua Porter, both people I quite respect and I said yes. The I read Unidentical Twins. And then I decided to pass on the structured conversation. I can’t be caught up in a long defining the damn thing conversation again. But now, some days later, I find myself haunted by what died in my outbox. On the off chance anyone finds it helpful, here is my response, which, after sending, decided to kill. unedited, half-baked, but hey, it’s a blog. Enjoy.

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Well, if you thought I was angry before… I cannot tell you how badly this pains me, being included as an indicator of something wrong with IA. I had a point, and apparently I didn’t make it at all, and here it is, if you want to know it:

Designers tie too much of their identity into their profession, and this makes it hard for them to progress in their careers. IA and Ixd is design. And as such, IA’s and interaction designers get caught in the same trap. They say I *am* an IA rather than I practice IA, and it’s more than linguistic shortcut, it’s a statement of being.

This is particularly difficult if your name and reputation is intertwingled with that previous career. It’s the equivalent of Todd English starting to love fixing old cars, repairing them and rebuilding their engines, and finally saying he has become a vehicular chef instead of admitting he’d become a mechanic. Nothing is wrong with cooking, but he had grown into a new shape. I have grown into a new shape.

As long as folks try to reshape their profession instead of relabeling themselves, they are going to feel constrained. And probably angry. My problem was I was trying to turn IA into a profession that included all the activities of entrepreneurship, instead of admitting I had changed careers. Once I realized I wasn’t an IA anymore, life went on and I was much less angry that IA’s didn’t care about what I cared about. Of course they don’t! Why should they?

So I suppose the question really is, what to think about IA. Honestly, I really do not understand why people attack it, and most of the attacks are bizarre and ill-informed. I just reread all the supporting material (including my own) and bah. I love you Josh, I love Shirky, but I don’t see why you guys think IA is stagnant (more on that later.)

I had not read Unidenticle Twins, and now that I have, I deeply regret agreeing to respond to it. Too late now; I’ve lost the bulk of a Saturday morning writing this.

Response

I cannot believe an intelligent person has to cloak his ideas in inflammatory language. On top of it, GK, you have footnotes that go to nowhere! You make claims with no supporting material to prove your point! I’m upset and angry and disappointed and annoyed. And I haven’t been an IA for years!

“This is a difficult story to tell in this format and one that is unlikely to appear on any of the Information Architecture-driven blogs.”

Why do you say that? It speaks of prejudice not fact. As far as I can tell, IA blogs have done a great job of citing forebearers and embraced controversy, from Adam’s posting of Not IA to Erin’s Malone’s design history work. I’ll cite mine, if you cite yours.

“While the Information Architecture community of today is notorious for having a short, inwardly focused, airbrushed historical memory, it is well known that contemporary Information Architecture practice and the Information Architecture community began years before the dot-com era arrived (as did the Experience Design community).”

Again, offensive and inaccurate (not to mention self-contradicting). If you make claims like this, I really wish you would provide supporting information.

“Richard has written many books (70+), including the more widely known Information
Architecture, published in 1996.”

The book is actually called “Information Architects.” It’s now worth 70 bucks and up used on amazon, which I think is kinda cool in a world where many formerly critical works are now available for pennies. I had it on my canon on my site since I first had a booklist, and sometimes commenters would suggest it was outdated. But RSW’s work and book is still useful as well as beautiful and his mantra “make the complex clear” is as true for Information Architects now is it was then. And complexity has not lessened.

However, it is a book on information design, not on strategy as you suggest later.

“That other unidentical twin moved in a radically different direction embracing all and more of the original intention of Wurman’s Information Architecture. Since those early days, that unidentical twin, Strategic Information Architecture, continuously transformed itself and spawned many diverse children: Innovation Architecture, Innovation Acceleration, Strategic Design, Transformation By Design, Strategic Sensemaking, etc.”

Perhaps as an insider, you knew of RSW’s grand designs that would lead to such brilliant innovations as TED. The book doesn’t make that case. It simply says that the world is complicated, and some people are gifted with skills to make it make sense, and thank goodness that’s true.

“While absconding with Wurman’s higher-order name but only a fraction of the original focus, content, intent and knowledge, Findability Information Architecture went on to create its own world that it conveniently, some would say presumptuously and inappropriately, depicted for many years as Information Architecture.”

So my argument would be that Lou and Peter, not sitting at the knee of RSW, went on to expand that early vision into the newly born internet space, and grew it with the tools they had at hand: LIS (library science.) What you and others forget is someone else was making loose and easy with the IA name: Clement Mok. Designing Business (sadly for him, fortunately for the rest of us, available for 13 cents on Amazon.) is a lost IA historical text. In it, IA is defined more or less as the process of making site maps from strategy, and remarkable numbers of IA’s still work like this. Far more, sadly, than those who actually know how to make a taxonomy. But reading it, you can see what resulted of taking RSW’s work and turning it into a discipline. These folks became content strategists and strategy folks. Some learned about metadata and deepened their IA knowledge, some focused on usability, and some became interaction designers. Around 2001, some became waiters. I got a job at Yahoo working on search.

You may complain that IA’s are unaware of strategic work, but I would argue that many strategic IA’s are woefully unaware of the body of knowledge that resides in the information retrieval community. I recall working with a former employee/disciple of RSW’s who suggested we add search to a consumer photo site. “What would we search,” I asked? “The photos.” “There is nothing to search,” I replied. “No, you just search, you know, dog, and the dog photos come up.” “No, nothing comes up.” The infrastructure of search– that it works by searching for words and words do not magically attach themselves to images– was beyond this person. This self-proclaimed “IA” did not know the materials s/he worked with, moreover s/he didn’t think it mattered. S/he was “strategic.”

Those of us who were part of the IA community since the beginning have heard these arguments before: they were called “Big IA” and “Little IA.” Big was strategic, Little was executional, Big thought it could be a “conductor” on web teams, and pull the disciplines together to execute strategy. Little know a lot about how the information world actually works, and how you could search photos, how you could make it possible for people to find things they were looking for, use the data they collected, create the things they dreamed of. Little in its little ways helped users in myriad ways do the things they dreamed of, and little IA’s, like the biblical meek, inherited the world. Big IA’s discovered that between Product Managers and Design Managers, the job they wanted was already taken. The smart Big IA’s traded in their job titles. The others whined they could do it better if someone would just listen to them.

This attitude of arrogance coupled with ignorance seems prevalent in some “Big IA” practitioners still swaggering around consulting rounds. They seem disinterested in giving up their wireframes-and-a-sitemap solution they’ve been hawking since ’99. Bullshit artists, too lazy to learn retrieval techniques, too caught up in their identity to study Mintzberg and Drucker, they are noisily spoiling the landscape for the new generation of IA’s. But don’t be fooled by these blowhards! IA is alive and well and in the hands of folks too busy adapting and inventing to whine about who invented what.

Nform’s Gene Smith, for example, just published a fantastic article on social software and is about to write what will be the definitive book on tagging. Thomas Vanderwal’s work with Infocloud is getting a ton of attention at senior levels. Emanuele Quintarelli is finding ways to merge folksonomies with taxonomies into more useful retrieval tools. Stacy Surla is working IA in Second Life, and Bill DeRouchey in smart furniture. Moreover, Mags Hanley has made metadata sexy for executives everywhere, because it actually *does* help achieve strategic goals. IA dead? Dead like a caterpillar in a chrysalis, maybe. IA is incorporating, adapting, expanding but still staying with its core value proposition. What is that value? I’d state it is the same as Google’s — “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” And like Google, IA is adapting to new technologies and behaviors to be more relevant than ever.

“Some folks writing on this thread really need to go and do some reading work. Get out there and go to some non Findability Information Architecture conferences. Go and learn some history.”

Some folks writing about IA should go read some IA history, and understand the discipline before making calls based on occasional perusal of a blog. I’ve just come back from my sixth conference this year, and not one is as innovative, as strategic or as educational as the granddaddy of all “findability” Information Architecture conferences: The IA Summit.

Maybe you should go to the summit, and learn something about the creature you criticize. I’ve found your tone so incredibly offensive and dismissive, I can barely bring myself to say I agree with a single point you make. A few other disturbing moments:

“the iPod-driven huge wave of interest in “design thinking” that Findability Information Architecture leaders still seem to be struggling to react to, airbrush over, write themselves into and reorganize around.”

Are you speaking about Victor Lombardi’s blog, an early and well known IA who is now on the Business Week’s favorite list for his posts on Design Thinking? He’s hardly struggling to react to anything; he’s actively and successfully defining it.

“this became known notoriously as the “drunken sailors containment strategy,” also lovingly referred to as the “blue collar containment strategy.”

What is this, where did it come from, can you please cite where you see IA’s using this language or approach? You say it’s a phrase from outside the IA community, but then manage to suggest IA’s do it.

“Whether everyone likes it or not, the future of Strategic Design … Information Architecture are all merging into the strategic space, evidently at different speeds.”

I imagine the folks who like it least are those senior business strategists who have been practicing for many years, and see a bunch of arrogant and undereducated folks telling them what to do when they should be listening and bringing their skills to the table. Hopefully enough of those from the design professions will go humbly and thoughtfully and merge their insights and approaches with business strategy that new ways of practicing will occur. Hopefully there won’t be so much infighting those who hold the reins won’t simply dismiss “those darn creatives” from the table entirely.

GK, I’d like to challenge you to rewrite your article with citations and without insulting generalizations. Then, you might actually change the IA profession rather than be dismissed as a resentful designer, which is what happened on private lists.

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And in response to something Josh said

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I think we agree that once something is big, it’s more big than it is IA (and big D design is design, and Big IxD would be design and so on… ) Occasionally IA is engineering, but most of the time it’s design. Where Josh and I part company is on “little”‘s health and well being. “Little” means specialist IAs whose subset of the world’s design problems has to do with making the world’s information accessible and useful. Taxonomies and so on are merely tools, and as new tools come along –such as folksonomies– the good IA’s pick them up and incorporate them into their practices.

When cars showed up, most blacksmiths stuck to horseshoes. A few applied their wheel straightening abilities to horseless carriages as well as the horsed ones, then branched out to stickshift making. Eventually very few horse shoes were made. What we don’t know is if taxonomies or horseshoes or wheels; i.e. will they make it into the next generation of usage or get hung on the wall for luck.

I’d say it’d be unwise to retire them too early. If you know something about search and retrieval, you know there are things you can do only if you have lots and lots of data. Too many folks plug in the Googlebox and are surprised it doesn’t work as well as the website. Well, you can’t use pagerank algorithms as effectively in a closed system like an intranet, because you just don’t have as rich a set of data to base relevance on. Perhaps the rising popularity of “enterprise” IA reflects that fact. Tags, search, dynamic linking etc work better in a large data-set, large -index world while handcrafted “best bets” and navigation systems are required in a smaller and more closed systems.

To return to the blacksmith metaphor, we notice there are very few blacksmiths around today. Eventually wheelmaking was standardized to the degree it could be mass produced. I think it’s premature to say that information architecture is sufficiently solved that craftsmen are not required. It’s possible that day will come, but new techniques keep popping up, so I’ll go with “not yet.”

And finally, regarding the IA “land grab” – the WORLD is becoming information rich. Why would the people who know how to make information palatable to humans stay in the internet, when even the internet isn’t staying in the internet. Is itunes a application or a browser? How about songbird? Your phone and other devices are hollow shells holding information, and every street corner holds a kiosk providing a portal to the information world.

I’m actually somewhat upset that interaction design is a has made a comeback, because I’d like to see interaction designers and information architects merge (and I really really don’t care whose title is used.) Like peanut butter and chocolate, they are two great things that taste great together. Unlike peanut butter and chocolate, they are growing increasingly more bland without each other. Finding information is lovely, but cooler yet is storing, sharing and remixing. And I challenge you to find one application on your desktop that doesn’t have an information component. You can no longer have one without the other.

In my fantasy world the IAI and IxDI merge. Sadly, I don’t think most folks egos and sense of identity would allow it.

3 Comments

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  1. 1
    George Girton

    My smart furniture is telling me it’s time to lie down and take a nap. I lie back and gaze at the infoclouds that dot the blue sky and think of how to create a desktop application without information. “It’s information free” I begin to dream and a series of exclamation points stretch out to the sunset horizon.

  2. 2
    Lou

    Of course, the term “information architecture” predates RSW: John Zachman. GK has never heard of Zachman, so he should be ready to write a bloated diatribe against practitioners of the Zachman school of IA.

    GK, are you reading this? I sincerely hope you go and diss the Zachmanites. As is apparently your forte, you can fabricate stuff about another group of people you know nothing about and embarrass yourself publicly a second time. Then congratulate yourself on a blog that, no matter how much you call it an institute, remains what it is: your narcissistic blog.

    All the best…

  3. 3
    Andrew Hinton

    As for IxD & IA: I think the two practices (which are still nascent and really fluid anyway) have ‘domains’ that are distinct enough that they do need their own conversations. We just need more conversations between them. Mixing them is great on occasion, just like mixing peanut butter and chocolate makes yummy Reeses Cups. But that doesn’t obviate peanut butter or chocolate. (Not a great metaphor, but it allows me to think about chocolate.)

    As for big & little IA — the distinction always bugged me, because it does seem demeaning in some way to the ‘little.’ But isn’t it a fals distinction anyway? At least for me, “little IA” is essential to executing strategic IA… doing little-IA stuff without a strategic idea seems to me quite a waste of time and hard work.

    The style of Big IA fell victim to a very human flaw — once you get a new great idea, it’s hard not to turn it into a religion. And the Web doesn’t help things: it makes *everything* seem so very very connected to everything else (because, now, it really is). It’s easy to rush headlong with that momentum for a few years — which many of us have done — only to discover that you’ve stepped on a bunch of toes.

    Problem is, as I mentioned, all this convergence and crazy linking of things in the world is making the dance floor feel a lot smaller. Everybody’s getting on each other’s toes … it’s just easier to blame it on the newbie (i.e. the IA community as we know it).

    I feel your pain and frustration, btw, as you know. Mostly because I feel like people we know are being maligned and insulted, and that stuff like GK’s and Josh’s posts feel like they’re taking us so much further backward than forward, as well as the responses many of us give (including myself) out of our own feelings.

    My hope is that eventually we can all have more calm, less dysfunctional conversations about this stuff. Because no matter how much time we take bitching at each other, there’s still a world of good design work that needs doing.

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