Patrick Quattlebaum: Hi Dan. You’re doing double duty this year with both a talk, Make Things Be Good – The Five Essential Lessons from the Life of Richard Saul Wurman, and a workshop on IA for UXers.
Let’s begin with the talk. What started your interest in Richard Saul Wurman specifically? Because I know you’ve been doing some research for five years or so?
Dan Klyn: Yeah, it’s been a long time and I think my interest went from curiosity into something more urgent after I attended my first IA summit in Memphis in 2009 and two really strange things happened there for me at least. The first thing was having been introduced to Andrea Resmini and Jorge Arango who are both architects by training. Then attending a closing plenary by Jesse James Garrett which was an amazing talk. It was challenging in so many ways that it fired up my interest in exploring the architecture side of information architecture.
I had just begun digging into Wurman because of teaching at the University of Michigan the question would always come up: “We’re getting the information part, what’s the architecture part?” So it started in a very sort of amateurish kind of way of – there’s an architecture dimension to this because we call it that.
Apparently there is this weird architect guy who had some things to say from an architectural perspective and just as I started getting a taste of how powerful Wurman’s teachings seemed to be, meeting these guys and then having this challenge from somebody who I respect so deeply at this IA conference, my community saying, “Should this even be a thing anymore?” Profound.
So that set me off on a through the backward – what does McLuhan say? We go forward through the rear view mirror.
DK: Initially I went back to 1976. That’s a fairly well-known time when Wurman introduced the idea of the architecture of information at this conference that he was the chairman of in Philadelphia but then going further back from there the artifacts become increasingly more difficult to get your hands on and yet the payload for how it could influence how we do our work today gets richer and richer.
He wrote his first book in 1963. I have a copy of that and will be bringing it with me to UX Week and showing it off because it’s extraordinary. He wanted to teach architecture students about cities and found that there is no rendering of the plans and maps of cities that were all at the same scale to allow easy comparison. So how would you understand them relative to each other?
He had his students build models all at the same scale and then photographed them from the same height in a copy stand what you end up with is the city, form and intent, being a collection of the plans of 50 significant towns and cities to the scale of one to 14,400 inches.
So what he’s doing as a 26-year-old turns out to be pretty much what he’s doing as a 76-year-old which is using a couple of really powerful approaches to complex information to make it understandable, with clarity being sort of the primary method making the complex clear but the purpose is for understanding.
PQ: Fascinating. Wurman is a prolific writer and thinker. How have you boiled it down to five essential lessons?
DK: Mr. Wurman is fond of fives, and since most people don’t know anything about his work other than maybe TED and Information Anxiety, my proposal is to start with the five most potent and powerful things I’ve seen emerge as patterns in his life and work over a period of 65 or so. The audience for this book project (and my talk) is “do you make things, are you involved in the making of things?”
If you care about making them be good things this man has a set of practices you’d benefit hugely from learning. There are things expressed in his work and in his life and the line between those is pretty messy but there are some through lines once you have access to his full work. The reason why nobody else has these principles, has dug them out, is because all these books are out of print.
UX Week is this is the first time I’m presenting the five principles. The goal is to share a set of practices for how to approach the making of products and services based on Wurman’s life and an accessible kind of good where you could know if you were doing it right or not. I think that’s the other big benefit that I’ve gotten from these teachings myself. What a wonderful gift to have a way to know if you’re doing it right or not.
PQ: As you talk about his books and the principles it reminds me of Edward Tufte…
DK: Yeah. I’ve visited his gallery a number of times but he’s never been there but I would like to talk with him about information architecture and why is it that he identifies as an information designer. I don’t think Tufte has ever been called an information architect and Wurman certainly has been called an information designer in certain circles. I’ve asked Mr. Wurman about his opinion of Tufte and there’s sort of like a grudging respect but he doesn’t think of Tufte as somebody who’s doing the same things that he’s doing. I think the key difference between them is that Tufte wants to teach people things. He intends for what he does to be understood and followed and Wurman doesn’t.
PQ: It’s great that you’re able to take from his work and put together this talk to help people understand not just his thinking but how to apply that to the work we all do.
Let’s turn to the workshop. I’m excited about the description that you had about the workshop because, as you know, I have a similar view of information architecture that you do and have the same respect for the people like Resmini, Arango, Andrew Hinton, and others bringing new thinking to the practice.
Let’s start with the title: “IA for UXers.”
DK: The inspiration belongs to Chris Risdon for that. When I had a conversation with him about what the range of possibilities might be for teaching we quickly arrived at an agreement of who it ought to be taught for: UXers missing a set of teachings about information architecture that they didn’t get in school. Abby Covert, who teaches at Parsons, has learned a ton about what UX practitioners want to learn about information architecture, and the curriculum she’s developed there and at General Assembly has shaped much of my thinking on how to give this kind of workshop.
UX, if you follow the development of it as an idea, as a community of practices, a set of things that we do, one of the ways to tell that story is that it came out of a community of practice that was called information architecture. So to be saying this is a workshop about information architecture that is meant for UXers… hopefully some people are gonna hear something weird in that like, “Hey,” like, “What the hell? IA is part of what we do.” Absolutely but there’s a lot of people who are UXers who have been trained in various ways over the last, let’s say, five years, and some of them may have missed specific instruction about information architecture.
And so I’m hoping that there are some people who are signing up to attend UX Week who already have sort of a sense that, “No, I would benefit from strengthening my ability to understand and use structural, architectural thinking and principals in my work.”
PQ: Good. I interview and talk with many practitioners coming out of design schools who focused on interaction design, and the trend is a lack of understanding of what information architecture is and how to apply the practice to their work. Which is ironic given the increasing importance of information architecture in the design of cross-channel and service experiences. As you put it in your description: “the structural integrity of meaning across contexts…”
DK: Those words are from Jorge Arango’s talk at the IA summit this past year and that has been a breakthrough for me in explaining information architecture. If we’re talking about the structural integrity and meaning across contexts there are some different kinds of viewpoints and different kinds of tools that you need to address that than just the making of interfaces.
The work of designing user experience is such a broad continuum of practice. Architectural thinking and design thinking have to work together and it’s about integration, not about drawing a boundary and saying, “Okay, we’re gonna clue you guys in to where the new boundary is for what is and is not information architecture.”
DK: Information architecture is pre-modality. I think a lot of the value of what people will learn, and this might be a bug, not a feature, is information architecture is the stuff that is never rendered in pixels and it’s never rendered in code. Information architecture is about creating a marvelous set of abstractions that enable so many things. At my firm, The Understanding Group, we’re not making interfaces, and increasingly we’re not even doing wireframes.
The design approach and the architecture approach need to be blended. They need to be like a Mobius strip. I write ‘design’ on one side of this piece of paper, ‘architecture’ on the other side, twist it and tape it. I now have a Mobius strip where sometimes there’s an inside and sometimes there’s an outside but sometimes you can’t tell.
One of the ways we’ve started to characterize what’s distinctive in the architectural viewpoint when compared with a design viewpoint is that if we started as designers, we would want to get a straw dog on the table as soon as possible and then do our thing to make that an increasingly more literal dog until it’s the dog that we want. The architectural impulse is to resist even the making of the straw dog to be asking, “Does it have to be a dog?”
PQ: I love the Mobius strip analogy for such a complex relationship between architecture and design. What aspects of that relationship will you be tackling in your half-day workshop? Will UXers leave armed and dangerous to bring information architecture principles and tools into their everyday practice?
DK: Three hours is a short time! I can do a lecture for three hours that I don’t think anybody wants the second two hours of but my intent is to teach and there’s a hands-on component to this.
What I’ll be doing is breaking participants up into pods and doing some lightning exercises. There’s basically two parts to the workshop. The first part is about planning, and about the relationship between language and meaning. We’ll do an activity to generate a particularly meaningful bundle of words to model the intentions for a plan.
Then the second half is about making things, and understanding the range of what’s possible with encoding meaning in structure. Once we’ve figured out the way that meaning and language interrelate and the architecture of that then we’ll make structures — the pretext to interfaces — site maps, relationship diagrams and the like.
The first half of the day I teach a tool from Wurman from 1972 called Performance Continuums which is a tool for figuring out what good means, and then the second half of the day I teach about a tool developed in 1972 by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. It’s a way to describe what’s possible with the relationship between architectural form and meaning, a range they described as going from “ducks” to “decorated sheds.”
So on one end of the continuum is a duck-shaped building that sells duck eggs and on the other end of the continuum is an undifferentiated rectangular structure that has pictures of duck eggs on the outside or perhaps words plastered on the outside but the meaning is not embedded in the structure and provides this wonderfully rich, really easy to understand way to dig into the relationship between the structural form of something and what it means. It’s a pretty big topic to get into in an hour and a half, but that’s the second part of the workshop.
PQ: Interesting. That approach to the session will be quite an experience for designers. Meaning, structure, and expression can get so conflated in the design process…
DK: I had this amazing conversation at a coffee shop with a friend of mine who is a graphic designer. We started enthusing about Snow Fall feature that The New York Times did over the Christmas holiday. It’s a harbinger of a kind of world where we’ll have successfully architected and designed the structural integrity of meaning across contexts. We just went on and on about how great the structure of the story, the structure of the layouts, the structure of the way of the graphics, the info graphics were unfolding, the choreography of all that.
The most extraordinary thing about that New York Times piece was that we’re just raving, all hopped up on caffeine about this great Snow Fall thing, and a client of my friend, a non-UX guy, over hears us. He’s like, “Oh yeah, yeah, hi, I’m –” he introduced himself to me. He already knew my buddy and joins the conversation, a trio enthusing about this thing. And just as we’re ending the conversation about this great thing that we all loved, some little thing, some little note came up like, “Wait, you read the paper version!”
PQ: Oh, wow!
DK: It was in the Sunday magazine and so all of the things that we were talking about structurally that made it magic, the relationship between the graphics and the text, the pacing of the way that the story is told, the way that it works across devices. I think it was at the end we were talking about devices and then, “Oh yeah, no device.”
That’s the kind of thing that I think is possible when you separate what you’re going to do from how you’re going to do. I think architecture is a lot of the reason why that thing was great and the more we can understand how that works and work it into the stupid broken crap we all have to work on every day, imagine what we can do.
Check out uxweek.com for information on Dan’s talk and workshop and everything else UX Week has to offer. Use code BLOG when registering for 10% off.