President, KSA Document Design & Research
The question, “What’s in a name?” provoked a number of interesting answers. Most addressed whether the field of information design should be renamed information architecture in one of two incarnations – one focusing on presentation suggested by Richard Saul Wurman and the other focusing on structure by Lou Rosenfeld. Other respondents, such as Bob Jacobson, suggested that using the name information architecture was passe and that experience design was more fitting for the field. Still others, such as David Sless, felt that information design already suits the field quite well.
In my mind, the name we choose should resonate deeply with those inside the field as well as with the field’s many stakeholders. Several years ago, I employed the term “document design” to describe the field broadly concerned with integrating words and pictures in ways that helped people carry out their goals for engaging with content (see Dynamics in Document Design, 1997: Wiley). Although document design fit the situation at the time, a more inclusive term would better capture what is going on today. Recent debate over whether information design is that more inclusive term has left some people uneasy about what the field should be called and about what they should call themselves.
Our concerns are reasonable for names do matter. Names are catalysts for the imagination. They trigger associations, memories, feelings. As members of a growing but relatively unknown field, we need to pay attention to the resonances of the name we choose for some names enable communication better than others. We need to listen to how the name we identify with identifies us.
An important question in choosing a name for the field is: “What resonance will it have?” And in the context of our discussion here, the question is: “Is the resonance of information design better or worse, more or less accurate, and more or less inclusive than information architecture or experience design?”
I’d like to suggest that the name of the field be chosen on how well it meets the following criteria.
First, most people in the field should identify with the name. They should be able to say to themselves, “that’s me” or at least “that’s the group that’s most like what I do or how I think (even if that’s not what I do right now).”
Second, the name of the field should be broad enough to include everything its members engage in, yet specific enough to exclude things members do not do. In other words, it should evoke the key activities of the field, but distinguish them from activities that are not part of the field.
Third, and quite important, the name should generate positive resonance. Upon hearing the name of the field, a potential stakeholder should say something like, “That sounds interesting.” Such a positive reaction opens the door for defining the field in ways that are sensitive to the context.
Fourth, the name should have vision. It should cover most activity as it is currently carried out but also be extensible enough to accommodate changes in activities.
Because neither information architecture nor experience design meets these four criteria, I do not favor these names over information design. Wurman’s characterization of information architecture seems to ignore the rhetoric of invention – imagining, representing, drafting visual and verbal content. He seems to suggest that the architect’s job is one of displaying already meaningful content so that it is understandable. We never learn whether the design projects he reifies in Information Architects work for anyone other than the designer. The consideration of stakeholders appears to be little more than lip service, lacking serious treatment of how one learns about what stakeholders need, want, and would get excited about. Current formulations of information architecture not only seem to ignore invention, but they also say little about revision and how one goes about getting good ideas for integrating word and image. Moreover, Wurman’s presentation of information architecture seems to overvalue the designer’s personal gift for communicating things that people will understand and undervalue the dynamic interplay between designer and stakeholders in the communication development process. Our field is not well served by outdated romantic visions of information architect as demi-god.
Experience design intrigues me because it takes us beyond traditional user-centered design (UCD). In the traditional model of UCD, the main concern was helping people understand. People were considered in terms of their thinking and performance. In contrast, newer models such as experience design recognize the need to consider people’s thoughts and feelings, that is, the interaction between cognition and affect. But the activities that comprise “designing experiences for people” do not need the label “experience design” to identify them. Information design (broadly construed) already covers the types of work he describes. The example Jacobson offers, building multidimensional learning environments, is being done by many people in information design. And while insinuating good design into the development of cutting-edge technologies and haptic experiences is very cool, these activities do not capture the heart of the field. It seems to me that experience design invites incorrect and unfortunate interpretations of the field. For example, my hairdresser believes that his hairstyles allow men and women to experience themselves in new ways; is he an experience designer? I guess I want to know who is not an experience designer? One thing though, experience design rings well on criteria four; it has the vision thing. But I’m still not convinced it is the best vision.
I’ll stick with information design–at least for now. Yes, these are interesting times. #