Author, Experience Designxx
San Francisco, CA
There has always been a difference between presentation and organization, though in my experience, this is a difficult distinction for many people.
All information architecture (or design, if you will) focuses first on the organization of data in order to transform it into information. It is this act that builds context and understanding. The design of the presentation is a separate act that can’t be done well until the organization (or, structure) is first completed. Presentation can take many forms and there are definitely serious decisions to make, but mostly designers take this opportunity to decorate instead of inform.
Presentation is simply presentation, it’s close to graphic design but, by no means is it information design. Much of information design has been perverted into “prettified” charts and graphs but this is no more than traditional graphic design. Of course, this isn’t to say that information design (or architecture) can’t be beautiful, but that its focus is on the function or communication and not the form of presentation.
Personally, I see no difference between the terms “information design” and “information architecture” and I find the hoopla around the terms to be not only a distraction but a waste of time. While we’re splitting hairs over definitions, there’s still so much work to do to communicate and teach what information design/architecture is in the first place.
Since information design/architecture is primarily conceptual, the medium doesn’t matter at all. There are always differences between media that will bear on the solution, but all of the important decisions are still media-independent because they bear on the experience and the understanding of it by the audience. The only difference between print/IA and any other kind of IA are the limits imposed by the medium on the presentation of the solution. #
Visiting Research Fellow, Coventry University
Director, Communication Research Institute of Australia
I considered myself greatly privileged when I was invited by the late Ron Easterby to attend the first information design conference in the Netherlands in 1978. It was an occasion that gave rise to a great deal. The formation of the Information Design Journal, the Information Design Association in the UK, the eventual publication of many papers from the conference [Easterby, R. and Zwaga, H (1984) Information Design. London: Wiley.], and a great deal more by way of lasting friendships and associations.
Of the many things that we all argued about and discussed at the conference, there was one thing on which I don’t recall any argument, and that was the central thing that had brought us all together – designing information for people. I don’t recall anyone arguing whether designing forms, signposts, symbols, maps, text, instrument panels, or whole systems of these things were legitimate concerns of information design. Nor do I think we were in any disagreement about the central purpose of information design, which was to help make information in all its many forms more easily usable by people. We did, of course, argue about how to go about such a purpose, and we still do.
I mention this event, its consequences, and my recollections of it simply to say that I have not felt any discomfort with the term ‘information design’ or my association with it, nor have I ever felt a need to reinvent myself as a graphic designer, technical writer, or information architect. Nor have I felt slighted by people who think information design is anathema to the free creative spirit of design, a pretend science, or a tool of dark capitalist forces.
But I do feel a certain antipathy towards the term information architects. Let me explain why. I first came across the term in a flier from Graphis Press announcing a book of that title that Richard Saul Wurman had put together. Two thoughts struck me. First, Graphis Press has a well deserved reputation for putting together books that celebrate the flair and creative expression of individual graphic designers, and indeed there is much to celebrate in the world of graphic design. Was this going to be another celebration? Much as I enjoyed such celebrations, they always struck me as superficial. Because the central purpose seemed to be to valorise individual talent – turning people into heroes – the celebrations were always a little light on critical thinking or analysis. I always wanted to know more-about techniques, methods, difficulties, what the wonderful work had achieved in the world, and how did we know these things. I also wanted to know what it was like to read these wonderful works, use them to do practical things etc. Framed as they were on a beautiful page, these works of great designers remained mute on that subject, as did the accompanying text.
Was Information Architects going to be yet another puff piece from Graphis?
The second thought that struck me was based on what I knew from my research into architectural design methods and my first hand experience of architectural education, architects, and architecture. In my view, the last century was not a good one for architecture generally. This is not to say that there were not individual works of great genius. Every century throws up a few. But there were far too many architectural works that were and remain difficult to find ones way around in, unpleasant to work and live in – which seem to insult our humanity rather than providing us with spaces in which to enjoy our lives – and yet which received architectural awards. Moreover, the accompanying rationale and grandiose claims seem to have more in common with the flimsy justifications used for megalomania than a serious and sensitive engagement with humanity. Was Information Architects going to offer such grandiose claims?
I awaited its publication with interest. Sadly, it met my expectations.
Now it may be that the next work on information architects will be different. But until then, I shall carry on calling myself an information designer. #
Carbon IQ, San Francisco, CA
Information architecture is not about what medium we work in, it’s not about what title we are called; it’s about making complex information and difficult tasks manageable for human beings.
When I was in art school, we were expected to choose a department – the equivalent to a college’s major. I was perplexed at the thought of choosing between Painting, Sculpture, Ceramics or Photography. I was being asked to select the medium I would work in for the next three years, which seemed very odd. I wanted to use my art to reveal how people remember their lives, but I didn’t know if this was a clay problem or a paint problem. Three years later, I graduated with the realization that I wasn’t a painter or a sculptor, but an artist.
Now I see a similar division occurring in the web community. We are starting to be able to name the different aspects of a web design process: Information Architecture, Interaction Design, Identity Design, Information Design, Interface Design. And as we name the aspects, it seems perfectly logical to also assign unique people to each role:
“To build the new Bank of the City site, we’ll need to hire an information architect and a interaction designer. What, we need an infographic? Okay, let’s put an information designer in the budget too.” the Project Manager might say.
But people aren’t components. There isn’t a tidy one-to-one relationship of roles and people. Instead the Project Manager says something like this:
“To build the new Bank of the City site, we’ll need Information Architecture, Interface Design, Interaction Design and a couple of infographics. So – Joe’s great at IA and he makes a mean infographic, and Sarah’s amazing at interaction design. Joe and Sarah it is.”
Maybe Joe’s title is IA, and Sarah’s is graphic designer, but this doesn’t matter. A smart company will look at their people and build a team in which the members support each other. A dumb company won’t look beyond the org chart, and will start hiring people for the skills they already have.
When I first read Richard Saul Wurman’s Information Architects, I was taken aback. I don’t make subway maps or diagrams of weather systems. Then – as I worked my way through the book, lingering on the descriptions of the problems these Information Architects were solving -I started to realize the medium didn’t matter much. There is something unique in the way an IA thinks that allows them to act as a translator of complex data to facilitate understanding.
So who is an Information Architect? I am. My partners at Carbon IQ are. One was a designer before he was an IA and one was an editor. I used to write HTML. Despite the fact that we have come from three very different mediums, we’ve all chosen Information Architecture as our art. In the end, it doesn’t much matter to the companies who hire us if we are called Interaction Designers or Information Designers. What matters is that we help their customer understand complex information and accomplish difficult tasks without pain. We’re all Information Architects. #