Conference Wrap-Up: “IA in Germany – Chances and Perspectives”

“The German Internet and IT industries have not noticed or otherwise acknowledged IA.”It seems that field of information architecture is picking up again in North America after the dotcom bust. For instance, Lou Rosenfeld wrote in a recent blog entry “…I’m optimistic. The field seems healthier than it was four years ago…” (see Happy Time for IA?, Mar 2005, http://louisrosenfeld.com/home/bloug_archive/000351.html). And Andrew Dillon declared in his closing keynote speech at the Montreal IA Summit (2005) that IA was entering its second phase. IAs are seeing more and more job opportunities as well as more professional recognition, and the field itself seems to be progressing.

Not so in Germany.

Here, IA is barely on the map. The German Internet and IT industries have not noticed or otherwise acknowledged IA. Other northern European countries, such as Holland and Denmark, seem to have far surpassed Germany in establishing IA as a recognized profession. There are some encouraging signs though: The German Digital Business Group (Bundesverband Digitale Wirtschaft: http://www.bvdw.org) identified IA as an upcoming trend in Germany. Perhaps that will assist the fledgling field. Still, the current situation for those who consider themselves IAs seems bleak on a whole.

In an attempt to bring IAs in Germany together, members of the IA Institute organized a small conference in Frankfurt on Saturday and Sunday, May 28-29, 2005. This was the first such event exclusively for IAs in Germany. The theme was “IA in Germany — Chances and Perspectives.” Nearly fifty participants came from all over the country—from Munich to Berlin to Hamburg—to take in a total of nine talks and discussions. Aside from the planned sessions, IAs networked and spent time meeting new people with common professional aspirations.

Saturday Sessions

We were extremely fortunate to have Eric Reiss, principle of e-reiss consulting (http://www.e-reiss.com/) and author of Practical Information Architecture (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0201725908), as the keynote speaker. In his speech “The business value of IA” Eric highlighted the fact that there is often a big disconnect between how IAs talk and what business managers really want to hear. In addition to learning how to talk business-talk, we should also be learning how to listen to business managers better.

A panel discussion followed Eric’s presentation. This 90-minute session began with a discussion of definitions of IA in Germany. (No, this topic is not dead yet here and is actually much needed—the parameters within which IA exists in Germany are different than in the US and elsewhere.) The four panelists each gave a perspective on what IA in Germany is and why it hasn’t yet taken a broader hold. The second half of the session evolved into a workshop where the audience gathered to share their possible definitions of IA. This revealed a wide range of varying opinions and perspectives on IA in Germany.

Steffen Schilb, the creator of CardSort (http://www.cardsort.net/), spoke to a very interested audience. He has been actively talking about this software (a card sorting program developed as part of his thesis work at the University of Bremen) at conferences around Europe. With CardSort, users can sort virtual index cards per drag-and-drop and save the results in a file. In his presentation, Steffen carefully walked through different analysis techniques, including distance matrixes and dendograms.

Next up, Sabine Stössel gave a case study of the IA process during the launch of www.prosieben.de, one of the largest German TV stations. Attempting to represent a large, fractured concern through a single web interface exposed the many practical difficulties of IA as a process. Sabine shared a wealth of deliverables with the audience, as well as war stories and organizational challenges. Overall, this injected a heavy dose of practical realism into the conference program.

The sessions on Saturday concluded with a brief summary of some of the highlights from the IA Summit in Montreal (2005). Deborah Gover, Piet Kopka and James Kalbach each picked two key themes from the Montreal meeting to relay to the German IA public in Frankfurt. Topics included global IA, enterprise IA, IA as “craft,” folksonomies, and faceted classification.

Sunday Sessions

After an obligatory cup of coffee or two early Sunday morning, Birgit Nussbaum regaled us with a broad overview of IA and its relationship to social classification software. A case study analysis of a client’s intranet revealed the situations in which social classification systems are appropriate and in which situations they are not. A key take-away was that new types of social classification do not necessary replace traditional IA systems, but instead complement them.

Following Birgit’s fascinating talk, Andreas Lechner and Wolf Noeding discussed the advantages of IA as an integral part of the overall development process. Within their own team, they have worked out a detailed, iterative process for IA work. The overall advantage of such a process is an increase in product quality and a decrease in overall work effort. The process is still being refined, but initial feedback from clients and from other team members is positive.

Piet Kopka then discussed a more abstract topic regarding information spaces and how content is bestowed with meaning. Large information spaces are n-dimensional and can’t be easily represented in two or three dimensions. IAs must therefore resist adhering to physical principles of organization. Piet advocates adopting a new personal attitude, one that fosters the development of self-similar principles in information design. Furthermore, he explained that there are fundamental decisions in creating information spaces that can have long lasting effects. This recalls Stewart Brand’s notion of fast and slow changing layers of building architecture.

The Sunday sessions wrapped up with a report about a new IA program just getting started at the University of Potsdam, near Berlin. Professor Danijela Djokic and Professor Boris Müller discussed the challenges and problems of setting up such a program. Overall, they have adopted a more Wurman-like definition of IA, what some might call “information design,” including a great deal of information visualization. Danijela shared a wide range of student projects, demonstrating fascinating new techniques in displaying and visualizing information.

Overall, the meeting was quite successful and far surpassed prior expectations. We exchanged ideas on a technical level, networked with others, and made concrete steps towards a formal organization of IAs in Germany.

A special thanks goes out the financial sponsors of the event: the IA Institute (http://www.iainstitute.org), Publicform (http://www.publicform.de) and Spirit Link (http://www.spiritlink.de).

Of course, the hours and hours of work that went into planning the event should also be acknowledged. The organizers were Britta Glatten (sinnFormation), Deborah Gover (Siemens VDO), Jochen Fassbender (Indexetera), Piet Kopka (Publicform), Wolf Noeding (spriritlink) and myself, James Kalbach (LexisNexis).


James Kalbach, assistant editor, holds a degree in library science from Rutgers University, as well as a master’s in music theory and composition. He is currently a Human Factors Engineer with LexisNexis.

Posted in Conferences and Events, Reviews | 1 Comment »

1 Comment

  • Henrik Arndt

    August 11, 2005 at 8:56 am

    James Kalbach has probably not noticed or otherwise acknowledged the German Internet and IT industries that are engaged in IA.
    Every foremost internet agency in Germany has a highly productive information architecture department. For five years I am working in several of these agencies with the title “Information Architect” on my business card, before that I was doing pretty much the same work, just calling it something else. Starting with the help of Rosenfeld’s and Morville’s great book we meanwhile have enhanced their methods and techniques to meet today’s requirements of large website projects.
    Most client-side Internet Managers in the automotive, medical or fashion industries can explain the business advantages of information architecture better than almost any Information Architect.
    The biggest issue I can see is the gap between the quality of current university education and the skills that are needed to fulfil the role required of an Information Architect in today’s and future internet and IT projects. In Germany there is a demand for excellent Information Architects but they are as yet hard to find.

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