Fear of Design

Not so long ago, on my personal site I posted a little entry on design. And a comment was made: “IA is not design.” This sentence has sat vibrating in my head for months. It speaks of bravado in the face of fear. But why should Information Architects fear design?

Every time we make something, we are leaping out of an airplane and all the research in the world is just us packing our parachute carefully. Information Architecture is design. We are afraid to admit it, but IA is surely design as much as Interaction Design is design, Architecture is design, and Engineering is design. In each of these activities we create.

The nature of design is to make, with its accompanying activities of refining, organizing and surfacing. We look at the world, we think, we call upon our trained gut and we make something. We then refine that little germ of a design through skills acquired over time, we organize the designs into a consistent whole, and we create a surface to make that whole palatable to the consumer. If you think IA has nothing to do with surfaces, think of labels or navigation structures. We may not always choose the color, but we are deeply concerned with surfaces because they are the final manifestation of our design.

Usability is criticism. It looks at the designer’s creations and says “I have evaluated on X, Y and Z and found it wanting in A, B and C” Then usability specialists are free to leave the room. They’ve done their piece; they can now sit back and wait for the next creation. It’s valuable, it informs and improves our work, and it’s safe – emotionally—for the practitioner.

User research informs design. You learn how people work, how they dream, their desires and fears and habits. A user researcher observes people’s behavior and then they write up a nice report: user x likes this, user y tends to do that. But someone has to make a leap from this information into an actual creation. Someone has to be ballsy enough to say “User Y tends to do that so the button goes HERE.” It’s the same with business analysts, or requirements gathering. However, at some point you have to leave the safe haven of information gathering into the uncertain grounds of design. At some time you have to screw up the courage and make something.

Why are we afraid of design? Because if we are designers, we will have to be responsible for our designs. Researchers and critiques can shrug and say, well those are the facts. But designers must stand tall and say, “That was the solution I came up with.” The designer and the design are not so easily separated. It takes an iron grip on one’s ego to take criticism on one’s designs, no matter if it’s a thesaurus or a front page of a website. Crafting a design is an attentive and loving act. It makes one vulnerable, and I suspect some IA’s think that by donning Jesse James Garrett’s Lab Coats , they can trick themselves into separating themselves from the design and getting emotional distance.

“I have studied this problem at great length and the solution is indicated by the data.”

My design is perfect.

Bullhockey.

The web is too new—heck, software design is too new—for us to say there is a clear and easy answer when we design. Every time we make something, we are leaping out of an airplane and all the research in the world is just us packing our parachute carefully. The landing will still be felt.

Graphic designers have fought this vertigo for years. They’ve learned to articulate a defense for their design in presentations, they learn to explain their rationale in hopes of slowing the free-fall and they even have protective gear for when they jump (lately seen outside a flash conference: a gaggle of designers all in horn-rim glasses and Italian shoes).

But they know and I know that bad landings happen. Designers get pulled off projects and their ego is bruised. Feeling hurt is how they should feel. If their ego wasn’t bruised, they weren’t trying hard enough. Professionalism means they don’t show it, but if they are good designers, they care. And caring means feeling pain sometimes.

So are we, designers of digital experiences, architects of information, ready to take on that potential pain in order to make good work? Are we ready to take in information, but not hide behind it? Will we be responsible for our creations, will we to put our ego in the plane?

Do we have the courage to design?

Posted in Big Ideas, From the Editors, Workplace and Career | 37 Comments »

37 Comments

  • Adam Greenfield

    June 3, 2002 at 10:21 pm

    (eesh…you’ve just summarized my book. Do I still have to write it?)

    Yes, IA IS DESIGN.
    And guess what? Increasingly, design is IA. Last year, this was the “5,000 foot view,” but it gets closer to earth every day.

    What do I mean? I mean that the methodologies we kludged together to account for a situation of explicit informational flow – a user interacting with the Web – also happens to be very useful for situations of implicit informational flow. Such as the interaction of a user with, say, a citrus juicer.

    You think I’m kidding? I drew up a persona, developed a (admittedly barebones) scenario bringing that persona into contact with a citrus juicer, elaborated a use case specifying each point of informational flow between object and user…the results were illuminating.

    If designers don’t learn to think this way, I’m betting they’ll be swept aside by those who do.

  • George Olsen

    June 4, 2002 at 11:18 am

    Back when I was in journalism there was an apropos phrase for the stage when you had to shear away all that beautiful prose that wasn’t necessary to the story. It was called “killing your babies” — and it _is_ hard to do.

    But it’s a skill the best writers, and designers, have to learn how to do. It’s the flip side of having the courage to make the creative leap.

    The biggest difficulty I’ve had with younger designers (both print and web) is getting them to understand it that’s its not personal, since as John says, they’ve got their egos invested in it.

    However the same might be said of usablity folks as well. Sometimes usability concerns need to be balanced against other concerns, for example as Dan Shaffer talks about in “Building Brand into Structure.” But too often, I hear usability results presented as an all-or-nothing proposition.

  • keith bishop

    June 5, 2002 at 7:14 am

    I think IA can either be “design” or “not design”.

    As Edward de Bono once stated,

    “You can analyse the past, but you have to design the future”

    This relates to IA very clearly, on one hand we can come up with the deliverables for IA in a project by applying rules learn’t from past experiences (be it our own or other people’s). This approach would give us a technically correct solution based on tried and tested principles.

    But, that solution will not likely be very ground breaking or serve to push the development of IA (as a whole) forward.

    To do that we need to design, to use our intuition, to take risks, to discover new ways of doing things and perhaps be a bit crazy.

    So my boring conclusion is that there will always be room for both the “non designer” IA person and the “designer” IA person, just as some projects need a “standard” level of usability where as other projects may need a more “innovative” approach.

    The sad thing is, for me, is that the majority of people I have worked with in software development or web design, fail to recogonise the importance of IA or indeed how far it can (and must) develop.

  • dave parker

    June 5, 2002 at 9:56 am

    Of course IA is design, in the same way that many things we do throughout the day are design.

    Design is seeing a problem to be solved or a task to be accomplished and figuring out (or borrowing from established practice) the best way to solve that problem or accomplish that task.

    When you cook dinner–whether you make the dishes up yourself or follow someone else’s directions–you are designing. When you decide whether you will mow your lawn in rows or in a circular pattern, you are designing. When you drive to work, choosing the best route based on traffic and other factors, you are designing. When you take a shower and decide to put the shampoo on your hair before scrubbing your face, you are designing. And when you organize a Web site’s information and provide for a computer user the optimum path to get to that information, you are definitely designing.

  • Ralph Brandi

    June 5, 2002 at 1:28 pm

    I spent years feeling that the word “design” was so loaded that I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. I took any number of circumlocutions to avoid the word; adopting the title “Web Architect” in 1996 was one of my early attempts to get across the idea that I create web sites without being associated with the baggage that the term “design” carries. I spent a lot of time considering fields that provided an analogous experience to what I was doing.

    I had a conversation with Nick Ragouzis at CHI in 1998 about design. I denied that what I did was design, for exactly this reason. Call me a web architect, web cinematographer, webmaster, even a web engineer, anything but a web designer.

    I still have a hard time explaining what I do. There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s a creative endeavor. I make web sites (gee, that wasn’t hard). When I’m done, there’s something there that wasn’t there before, or there’s something there that’s better than what was there before. Is it design? I don’t know. I suppose so, especially if you define “design” the way Dave Parker does above. But I still have a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach knowing that the term is most often used to describe an approach to web site creation that, in my experience, has most often resulted in unusable sites that I’m then asked to tinker with to make them more able to meet the objectives laid out by my clients.

  • David Heller

    June 5, 2002 at 10:44 pm

    Congrats Christina for kicking us in the butt a bit. I think one of the reasons we are afraid of the design, is b/c our work isn’t considered design.

    I was just in one of those meetings with my boss telling him what I really want to do, and I said “I want to design. I’m sick of intuiting my wireframes. I want to use the design process to create informed designs.” Something that there is currently no time in the design process to do. Even when I was at an agency where I controlled the consulting gigs the best design process I was able to conjour was just doing wireframes.

    How many of us out there are in positions where doing interfaces is just about doing it? How often do we supply a client 3 versions of wireframes? I would sit in awe at how the visual designers get 3 weeks to not even come up with a final product and I would work my ass off to finish wireframes at 50 wireframes in 2 days.

    This mentality that interface design is a chore, and visual design is an artform is what we are fighting against.

  • David Heller

    June 5, 2002 at 10:49 pm

    The Usability Issue:
    Christina is right. I’m sorry I don’t know how you cut it, the heart and soul of Usability Engineering is to guide design, but not to design. They work with designers and they help them out, but in the end they are not designing. Their methods don’t employ a design process, but are much more analytically and data driven. This is a necessary piece of product development, it is invaluable, but it is NOT design.

    Christina (and myself) might be alienating a group of people in the BIG ia world, but lets please focus people about what IA is and isn’t instead of trying to fit everywhere, especially in places that have long been filled by good people doing amazing work.

  • Elmi van der Dussen

    June 6, 2002 at 2:26 am

    The usability issue:

    I found that often usability engineering is equited to a compliance audit. It might be the way it is sold and practiced. This might be a result of the emerging nature of this discipline, and opportunists climbing on the bandwagon after they’ve read three sets of guidelines.

    To design (structure) an information space, or web space, and the nvaigation within this space, as well as the look-and-feel of ti, is multi-dimensional, and requires a combined skill-set. The most visible result is the look-and-feel – so graphic designers can sell themselves more easily as being required in the design process.

  • christina

    June 6, 2002 at 8:58 am

    Thanks, Steve, for the distinction between *roles* and *people.* Information architecture is design, Usability (testing evaluating, etc) is evaluation. Usability people may design (though it may also lessen their famed objectivity) and Information Architects may evaluate (also potentially biased). Design is always “dangerous” and takes courage no matter who does it.

    Also, please understand that when I say IA, I also wish to include all the structural design professions that may wish to hide behind a scientific objectivity, including Interaction design, interface design and information design. It’s all design.

  • George Olsen

    June 6, 2002 at 5:20 pm

    Creation/evaluation — This parallels Scott Berkum’s argument about the need to both prove/disprove your design.

    Whether it’s done by different people depends on the temperment of the people involved and the context.

    In “traditional” graphic design, one of the things that elevates you to senior designer or art director is developing the ability to look dispassionately at your own designs, which is something that generally only comes through experience.

  • Seth Gordon

    June 6, 2002 at 6:07 pm

    Am I afraid to place _my_ work out in the open for review, compliment, and complaint? Nope, not at all. As long as I am completely responsible for it.

    But, when working on large projects, rarely is the work that I present my pure vision. When that’s the case, I am the spokesperson and whipping boy for what amounts to a team effort.
    Even though I’m presenting the work, what’s on display is usually a compromise of my original vision, smeared with input from just about everywhere, including my own team members and client feedback. It is not uncommon for me to have to incorporate suggestions for reasons other than the fact that they improve the user experience.

    Getting to a presentable IA/design is almost always a reconcilliation and a negotiation process.Just as I wouldn’t take full credit if everybody loved it, I don’t eagerly accept full-blame for any shortcomings (but for the sake of professionalism, I grin and bear it).

    So, unless I become a one-person show or work in a vacuum, I don’t ever expect to have 100% control over my final deliverable – which means that on an internal and personal level, I won’t ever accept 100% responsibility for it.

  • jjg

    June 6, 2002 at 7:31 pm

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: IA IS NOT DESIGN.

    Design involves creative problem solving; however, this does not mean all creative problem solving is therefore Design. Amazingly, I have never met a Designer who was able to grasp this distinction.

    Designers see Design everywhere. Every time they have to exercise a little creativity to solve a problem they say, “Look at me! I’m Designing!”

    Don’t fall for it. There’s no such thing as Designing a route to the post office, there’s no such thing as Designing the arrangement of books on a shelf, and there’s no such thing as Designing an information architecture.

    However, your main point, about being willing to stand behind our work, is totally valid.

  • erin

    June 7, 2002 at 8:31 am

    I have to jump in here – as a designer turned IA turned product designer – I must say that in all my work – whether it be designing a logo or organizing a set of content in a way that makes sense – DESIGN – is happening. The act of solving the problem and then putting things in an order and stating that this is the way that makes sense is Design. Whether it has color or a certain font is beside the point. An IA is crafting a path, a way of looking at things – information or process that inherently is not the natural way things fell out. It is designed. It bears the leftover marks – scent – of the person who created it and their experiences and biases. Other people may come along and add to the experience which often masks th initial work that the IA did in terms of what is often accepted as design, but their work is still design.

  • W.H. Bardel

    June 7, 2002 at 1:31 pm

    I also disagree with jjg. It’s not clear-cut.

    Design is a truly broad term. Abstract dictionary-speak it’s anything involving the conception and construction of something according to plan. Which inherently includes problem solving as part of that process. In contrast, the common everyday-person perception of design is that it involves making things “pretty.” With such a range, it really depends on what you think design is and involves. To some particularly usability-minded IA people, I think “designer” is a dirty word they fear to be associated with because of the perception of “designer” as “artist.” That latter word grates against their methodical, user-centered sensibilities. (No offense to usability people, without which a lot of things would be worse off).

    I can only speak for myself. I work as both an IA and as an Information Designer. From these vantage points I’ve seen similarities between what most call IA (with its various applied methods, including usability testing, modeling, etc) and its cousin Information Design, which is really a form of visual design based on many of the methods & principles of IA.

    Both IA and Information Design involve using problem solving to crafting usable structures for communication & interaction, with the key difference being the hierarchy level (macro or micro) at which the planning & shaping is taking place. Typical IA crafts macro-structures (like a web site, system organization, etc.), typical Information Design crafts on a more micro-level (page layouts, tables, charts, forms etc…. Hmmm, that sounds pretty “designer”-like to me). They may use different skills and work at different levels, BUT both IA and InfoDesign. involve creating organized “structures or maps of information that allows others to find their personal paths to knowledge” (oops, isn’t that the first definition of IA by Wurman?).

    Which really illustrates my original point that it’s not a clear-cut issue, so don’t fall for an absolute statement either way. The skills, tools, and means involved in IA and “design” can vary or differ completely (making them by all appearances seem totally different), but at the same time there can be significant overlap (as in the case of Information Design), where the means, goals and methods can be nearly identical.

    If you surveyed everyone you know, you’d find “design” is broad and vague. So to for “IA.”

  • udanium

    June 7, 2002 at 3:20 pm

    I have to speak up as well…First, as an interaction designer who does IA, UI, and ID, am NOT afraid of “design” and in fact welcome it as a process of exploring and solving problems from a human perspective, vested with values like usable, useful, and desirable. I agree with erin and whbardel totally…design is a broad term encompassing many activities, much of which involves organizing, structuring, researching, analyzing, and sometimes digital production, too (the most commonly visible expression of design, though not the totality of it) for a wide range of artifacts: logos to parking garages to restaurant menus to cell phones.

    Second, I believe IA is design and deeply involves design thinking at multiple levels, including for artifacts like those I just mentioned. I’d encourage people to read RSWurman, Shedroff, Clement Mok for further insight.

    Third, to respond to jjg: creative problem solving is manifest in a variety of professional domains and may be regarded as “design thinking”, whether it be business strategy, engineering, software, etc. See Herb Simon for further discussion on how design, interpreted as a “science of the artificial”, may be critical and evident in all human endeavors featuring intentional planning and creation of artifacts/services for use.

    Fourth, usability engineers typically should have a bilateral dialogue with designers, informing the process with their evaluations and maintaining a presence throughout from begin to end. I hardly think there’s a time for them to “leave the room”, even in stages of early innovation and brainstorming.

    Simply put, design (thinking) is quite broad and embodies varieties of interpretations, in IA and elsewhere and should be respected as a pervasive and influential discipline with (symbiotic) ties to other domains; not feared because of blase pop cultural suggestsions of what “design” connotes or being mocked as “designer”.

  • David Heller

    June 8, 2002 at 10:36 pm

    How are we defining design? The definition at http://www.m-w.com is very broad … but is still a definition. What is ours for this discussion?

    — dave

  • jjg

    June 10, 2002 at 1:57 pm

    You guys are just proving my point. What on earth makes you think that all creative human endeavor can be subsumed under Design? It’s a manifestly absurd position, and one I can only assume results from overexposure to design school.

    And I thought IAs had a penchant for landgrabbing. Designers put us to shame.

  • Andrew Hinton

    June 10, 2002 at 2:06 pm

    I’ve been design this way: the creation of a thing for use toward a purpose beyond itself.
    I confess, I didn’t even look this up. But it works for me insofar as defining “design” over-against “art.”

    That said, I still suffer from the name problem:
    I hesitate to call myself a designer, or what I do “design,” because so much of what has passed for design over the last century or so is crap. My “designer” clock radio (one of those Michael Graves objects from Target) is kinda cool to look at, and crap to use.

    I’m not sure, but I suspect it was an unlucky confluence of advertising and academic aesthetic instruction that conspired to turn “design” into a pejorative misnomer. It shouldn’t be, because we’re lacking other words for what it was.
    Saul Bass was a great designer, we hear. He came up with some fabulous logos. But this was graphic, corporate identity design, a very rarified and subjective form of design that’s more linguistic and aesthetic than functional.
    For me, some famous “designers” that did stuff that seems more like what I do would be the Eameses, Buckminster Fuller, Mies van der Rohe, or Raymond Loewy. But even these had their gaffes and misfires, their moments of aesthete’s narcissism.
    Now I’m finding out that famous architects have been up to the same malpractice for years. Architecture schools are often found as part of a College of Fine Arts (e.g. Carnegie-Mellon). But, I’m wary of any architect who thinks what they’re building is a “fine art” — if it’s fine art, it’s sculpture. If it’s something I’m supposed to use as shelter, it’s architecture. But hell, maybe I’m just stupid?
    On the other hand, I don’t like ugly stuff either. And to paraphrase a supreme court justice of long ago, I know what ugly is when I see it. :-)

    Oh, George’s comment about “killing your babies” is often attributed to W.H.Auden, as saying “murder your darlings” — i.e. slaughter without mercy those often generative pieces of language with which you fell in love in the first place, in order to let the rest of the poem breathe and evolve. However, the quote originally came, strangely enough, in a discussion of *Style*! Which is getting awfully close to aesthetic concerns….hm…. it’s from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863–1944).  In his treatise On the Art of Writing.  1916.

    Here’s part of the quote in full: “…if you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’ ”

    That is, whenever you think something you are about to write is pure genius, go ahead and get it out of your system, then burn it. If it was that good, it’ll come up again later in a better, less self-serving context.

    Holy cow, that was long.

  • Andrew Hinton

    June 10, 2002 at 2:32 pm

    Um… forgot to preview that above. I meant to start by saying “I’ve been defining design this way…”

  • David Heller

    June 11, 2002 at 10:37 am

    JJG, are you saying that since a definition of design could be the conception of form + function to create experience, that IA (little version) is just concerned with function that it is not design? I can see that if that is true.

    Andrew, I don’t get what you are saying here. Are saying that if I am too concerned with form than it isn’t design? That design has to include function and that it has to be included at a certain level in order to be considered design?

    What gets me here is that it sounds like you are confusing bad design with whether or not it is design at all.

    — dave

  • jjg

    June 11, 2002 at 12:01 pm

    David, I agree with what you’ve said, although it’s not quite what I was saying. My basic objection is to the impulse to broaden the definition of design to incorporate any kind of creative problem-solving activity.

    I’d go into more detail, but I have to finish Designing the text of my book, right after I Design myself some lunch.

  • Andrew Hinton

    June 11, 2002 at 1:16 pm

    David:

    I’m actually working on an article now to explain some of this better, rather than littering yet another B&A comments page with more than a few thousand words at one swipe.

    But to answer your questions more directly:

    “Are you saying that if I am too concerned with form than it isn’t design? That design has to include function and that it has to be included at a certain level in order to be considered design? What gets me here is that it sounds like you are confusing bad design with whether or not it is design at all. ”

    If you’re making something for someone else to use for a purpose beyond appreciation of the object itself, then yeah, you’re designing.

    Are you intentionally designing? i.e. do you even know you’re engaging in an act of design? Only you know that. If you’re not doing it consciously (with rationale) then chances are greatly reduced that you are designing *well*.

    Gray areas? Yeah, sure. It’s as messy as anything else.

    If I create a toaster that works pretty badly as a toaster but that looks freakin’ cool and I put it in a gallery, it’s art. But if I mass produce them and put them in Target, it’s bad design. Same object, different contexts.

    If I created a toaster that is both freakin’ cool AND extremely great to use, then it could be fine in either context. In one it’s art, the other it’s design. Context is everything.

    If the toaster is designed to be bought in Target not to be a good toaster but to get people to think you’re cool because you have one, then it might be a good design. Not as a toaster for toasting, but as a toaster for being cool.

    Sometimes, the beauty of a thing comes from its function, or its innovation, or its uniqueness, or its cultural baggage. Sometimes its usefulness comes from those things too.

    Form vs. function is a false dichotomy. A hammer is nothing but form. It’s a stick with a hard thing on the end. But I’ve used some crummy hammers (and have bruised thumbnails to prove it). Anything that functions has form (even calculus). Anything that’s form for form’s sake is art. Not design.

    This is how I have personally sorted out the world, so that when I use these words they have some kind of definite meaning. Nobody else is required to agree… but it works nicely for me, so I figure why not share? :-)

  • udanium235

    June 11, 2002 at 10:25 pm

    Perhaps we are confusing design as a paid profession and design as a commonplace term typically used in daily language? Also of to note to remember is design as an formal discipline studied at universities worldwide, to foster lucid, informed, and intelligent discussions.

    Afterall, one can’t profess design “knowledge” simply by picking up rapidly published books at the local Barnes&Noble.

    And on that point, just to clarify– just because a design program is part of the “college of fine arts” (like Architecture or Design at Carnegie Mellon, as mentioned above), that doesn’t mean the students coming out of there consider themselves artists. Such departmental setups are mainly for administration and financial purposes, or even historical lineage (think Yale or RISD). Be assured the curricula are quite different for the fine arts majors and the design majors (and architecture, too). And the kind of thinking is quite different as well.

    Funny somebody mentioned “toasters” as a design example. Toasters and posters…

  • udanium235

    June 12, 2002 at 8:56 am

    I agree with dave parker–the “design is everywhere” concept is an enlightened observation of our daily lives; not something beaten in thru “overexposure to design school”. It also helps (for credibility, at least) that such observations are nicely articulated and developed by eminent thinkers/creators from Moholy-Nagy, Eames, H. Simon, J. Dewey, kenji ekuan, to Clement Mok.

    Thanks for the clarification too, that there are little and big “design” and “IA” offering multiple viewpoints from either end. Only serves to enrich the discussion more…and enhance their connections.

  • christina

    June 12, 2002 at 11:39 am

    I think Zap’s presentation,
    http://www.asis.org/Conferences/Summit2002/john_zapolski_IAsummit02.pdf
    while theorectically only on deliverables, addresses the relationship of design and IA rather nicely.

  • W.H. Bardel

    June 12, 2002 at 1:03 pm

    To JJG: Characterizing all creative human endeavors as Design is not a “manifestly absurd position,” as you put it, unless what you’re suggesting is that we are confined to just ONE functional role at a time (which really IS “manifestly absurd”).

    It’s an “and also” situation. You can very easily be a “Designer” AND something else (like an IA), just in the same way I can say that right now I’m a “Writer” AND a “New Product Developer” at the technology firm where I’m typing this up at the moment. Does this mean I’m a Writer all the time or that it’s a subset of my product development work? No. But if I feel I wish to characterize myself as one while I’m doing it, then I can if I chose to. I fail to understand what appears to be a dead-set attitude of perceiving roles as an either/or situation. Nothing is being “subsumed” under something else. No one is getting Design thrust upon them unwillingly. That perception is self-imposed. I see IA as an “and also” design activity because it INVOLVES design. I fail to see any way to rationally deny that fact. Give us a clearly compelling example where creative problem solving is not an act of design, if that’s what you’re stating. This is why I think people appear to be upset when you say “IA IS NOT DESIGN”. Such an absolute and overly simplistic statement appears to assert that IA doesn’t involve ANY planning & conceiving stages (according to a dictionary definition of design as an act, not a discipline).

    Which may get to the heart of the issue, namely communication clarity. I agree with others that I think we are confusing Design as a discipline/profession and design as a commonplace term. JJG, give us clear, specific definitions of what you perceive these words to mean. Detail what you feel is involved in IA & Design (especially outside just the limited context of web design). As I see it, there’s the discipline of Design and the act of designing (kudos to Dave for beating me to the punch with the big “D” and little “d” argument). Addressing “what on earth” makes me think that all creative human endeavors can be characterized as design (not Design) is that, in the same way as IA, all creative endeavors heavily involve the act of design in their processes. They all involve a planning and conception phase to some degree unless they’re truly spontaneously chaotic.

    To be clear, here’s my general definition for the act of designing:
    “Design (little d) is an activity that involves a process of conceiving, planning, shaping and ultimately executing an artificial form that intentionally responds to a need. A simpler definition is that when someone designs, he/she creates forms that communicate an intended idea, to which others assign their own meaning and value. When someone designs, he/she acts as inventor, planner, negotiator and manager between possibility and reality, working to create something they and others find meaningful both in form and function.” For many, “design” is perceived as meaning solely visual “graphic design.” This is inaccurate for much of today’s design work. Designing can really involve any number of mediums, forms and senses, such as sound, touch, smell, taste, etc.”

    By that definition, yes, anyone can be a designer. The act of design or Design isn’t owned by a bunch of people clothed head-to-toe in black. You don’t need a degree (but, JJG, contrary to what you think or may have experienced, some design schools are places that work on clarifying the relationship what is Design and what isn’t). The act of design is a circumscribed, planned form of creativity (I agree with Wodke in the initial article to this discussion thread, “the nature of design is to make”) and as such is an everyday act. So any field, be it IA, ID, UI, or even something as simple as BSA (book shelf arrangement) can be characterized as a form of Design because it involves “design” as part of its practices or activities. That doesn’t mean Design is in everything, but that many things involve what can be characterized the “design” or creative process. But so what, who cares! You don’t have to accept it, you can call it something else if you like. Call it whatever, call it IA, call it IA AND Design. In fact, as I think of it, even Design could even be considered a form of IA, as in the case of Information Design, because it involves IA practices (creating structures for information). See my last statement. These are all very undefined labels we’re talking about, no need to stress out about it so much.

    Finally, for what it is worth, here’s my attempt at a definition for the formal discipline of Design.
    “Design (big D) is a discipline that studies and applies how the conception of products and devices can support and enhance interaction and communication. It applies a system of methods and means for developing products that respond to needs. A professional Designer’s work is informed by an understanding of the cultural, social dimensions involved in a problem and ideally involves creating solutions that respond to these dimensions. As part of this, Designers uses the act of designing. They prepare preliminary sketches & plans for their work and in particular plan form and structure in ways that communicate a definite purpose or idea. They converse with the materials and mediums for the purpose of findings effective ways communicate ideas. Whereas design as an act can be performed without conscious thought about the activity, Design involves a degree of introspection on the part of the Designer (examination of one’s thoughts and feelings). It involves self-reflection about both the design process involved and the impact the designed products have on the Designer’s own self in addition to the world around him/her.”

    So based on all this, as I see it: IA IS DESIGN (little D) in the sense that much of its initial work involves the act of designing (again, little D), IA CAN BE DESIGN (big D), a person can be both an IA and a Designer (big D) at the same time (I’m proof of that), and finally semantics –the meaning of words- while painful are critical because they comprise the established base that is necessary for communication on matters such as these. I think the arguing so far in this discussion proves that last point.

    Sorry to everyone that this is so long. I’m enjoying this discussion, it’s getting quite interesting.

  • udanium235

    June 12, 2002 at 9:56 pm

    Exactly…. I think Bardel’s explanation iterates what we’re all struggling with, the differences and complements between “acts of design” and “design as profession”, and tying that with IA in practice.

    Any attempts to simplistically declare “either/or” dichotomies is “manifestly absurd” in my view, too. Instead what should be valued are the various kinds of relations between design AND x (whatever x is: IA, UI, ID, BSA, etc.) as Bardel advocates and nicely described. To suggest there is no connection is frankly delusional and indicates one should re-evaluate their relevance as a design professional in our modern, pluralistic world. Otherwise, moving from toasters and posters, how would such a person deal with systems, services, processes, and other artifacts at more abstract levels, if you can’t see those connections??

    Re: design definitions (which is a huge thing, i know!) I just want to cite R. Buchanan, PhD, from a recent essay in Design Issues: “Frankly, one of the great strengths of design is that we have not settled on a single definition…definitions are critical for advancing inquiry, and we must face that responsibility regularly…even if we discard one to introduce a new one.”

    And just a bit more: ” definitions serve strategic and tactical purposes in inquiry. They do not settle matters once and for all, as many people believe they should. Instead, they allow an investigator … to clarify the direction of their work and move ahead.”

    I offer that as advice for us to continue meaningful, intelligent dialogue to advance our thinking and practice of design/IA/UI, etc. , devoid of simplistic overtures based upon conceited misconceptions.

    Or as Morpheus said to Neo, “I can only show you the door, you’re the one who has to walk thru it”. So, let’s walk thru the doors, these transitional spaces between domains/disciplines and see the connections and apply them in our IA/design work!

  • Uri Ar

    June 14, 2002 at 7:06 am

    There’s no such thing as usability. There is only design. If it is not usable, it is something else, not design. If it is only usable, it is already designed. But then again, Jakob Nielsen and the likes of him have to justify their existence somehow.

  • kalmness

    June 18, 2002 at 4:52 pm

    I am stunned at the hubris of the “there is no such thing as usability” comment. The concept of “usable” isn’t binary, it’s a continuum that measures how well a design meets the users needs, desirability and effectiveness.
    In general you are not a good judge if your design is usable since you have emotional energy wrapped up in it. That is where the usability profession comes in.

    I know that I don’t know. I don’t know exactly how the user thinks, I don’t know everything that effects how they chose, I don’t know all of the factors that come to play when they are trying to complete the tasks I am allowing them to accomplish….I am not omnipotent. Neither is usability…but it helps us craft the questions that can bring us that much closer to understanding how make our products. Usability determines if the design that sprung from our minds is viable to our users. Not believing in usability is any or all of arrogant, sanctimonious, and/or supercilious.

    As professional domain usability supports design by providing data as to the design problem’s scope as well as efficacy of the solution. And while I may not feel Jakob Nielsen has been as rigourous in his research as he once was, he is generally a positive public proponent of issues about understanding the artifacts that design creates.

  • Brendan Hamley

    June 19, 2002 at 10:03 am

    W e a r e U – d e s i g n i t e c t s .

    Design is about the distilation of ideas. It is not just the primary domain of visual people. If you’re modelling something conceptually then you’re still designing – but without the crayons.

    Usability is about that distillation process itself. a movement toward purity of utility. We judge and sample the quality of the process against benchmarks of instinct and need – usually similar to our own.

    Information Architecture is about providing the right apparatus and space for such processes to happen within.

  • vijayendra

    June 24, 2002 at 4:30 am

    IA is design…usability is design…because design is not just creating eye candies…its innovating….
    usability tries to find a structure behind a design it tries to validate it…without which its not design it becomes a piece of art full of an artists’ fancies which has got different manifestations for different people.

  • jz

    June 26, 2002 at 10:04 pm

    A friend recently reminded me of this definition of design, which is certainly not the only one but is one that I like quite a lot. I’ll submit it as my only commentary on the relationship between “design” and “IA”:

    design is “a plan for arranging elements in such a way as to best accomplish a particular purpose” – Charles Eames

  • Ron Pinder

    August 12, 2002 at 6:14 am

    Yes, IA is design. Most would agree the Human processor is not perfect. It’s funny that we rarely test the design on the human processor – the design rationale, if compelling, is good enough. But a design rationale is, at best, just a hypothesis. No guarantees.

  • ville

    September 21, 2002 at 7:50 am

    …on that note…what makes something (a product, web site, building, advertisement etc) well-designed? And what about that specific object makes it well-designed, both visually and intellectually…

  • Gene Bowley

    July 25, 2003 at 5:12 pm

    I am very grateful for the existance of this web site. I say this because I think I was lead to it. I have found a place where I can learn and share my vieWS in a thoughtful, meaningful and professsional way. From what I have read from those who have posted here, information architecture isn’t just a job alone but an unexpected passion that perhaps you just flowed into and you don’t know why it hold your interest in the way that it does.

    I am not a formally trained Information/It person but I am drawn to the larger fundament issue and challenges of in the conept of information. Like beekeeping that I do for a hobby, I am drawn to the certian niche challenges and questions that IT, IA, System integration and manufacturing processes and so many other disciplines share in common: “How do I get the intellengence I want about an physical or non physical object (by object I mean any detail of reality I want to know) that is both accurate, accessable, quick to get to, matches my intent of reason for wanting to know, and rewards me with a 100% sense of satisfaction that entices me to use it again and again.

    I’m not so much worried about doing four levels of normalization on database tables to make the perfectly effiecient in the context of their information use. Rather, that I understand the fundmental principles and the related forms of organization that can allow me to solve some problem

    Please don’t misunderstand my intent, I am a curious man. Not really the master of any one discipline because of the range of my interests or knoweldge needs; however, to redeem myself I am the guy you want to have around to fix something or figure out why something doesn’t work when a master of the discipline isn’t required.

    Discovering this site has been an exciting event for me. I did not know it when I started my colledge carrer that I have natural intuition and bothersome curiousity about the process of information and the creation of intellegence or maybe more accurately put enlarging intellegence. The information here has enlarged me for it made me more confident in my instincts and more trusting of my powers of oberservation and capacity to achieve accurate conclusions and made me greater hope that I may be able to bring to the information community something that is real, truthful, accurate, useful and raises the bar a whole maginitude in terms of understanding truth.

    repeatedly, I sensed a sincereity in these writings as I moved about the site, it wasn’t just a management level of techno mumbo jumbo, I felt connected to the authors for similarly I have reached the same types of understandings on specific principles or concepts. I hope to be able to share my insights from experience or study that have with time either proved themselves to be principles of truth or good estimations about what the truth may be.

    With regards to this article, my opinion the skills of a IA or UI are an excellent user interface designer should understand all of the fundamental principles that provide the discipline to be a information architect (IA) and vise versa. Why? Because really they are the same job, One is specifically handles Metaphoric Graphical information Architecture (I just made that name up but I believe it is acturate title and description.) In otherwords, depending on what is required of a process or system of processes, the UI person needs to understand and and try to match the process requirements to Artistic and Practical design considerations while facilating a positive, effective, efficient information experience.

    Please forgive my consitantly long sentences. grammar is a discipline I still trying to master. I trying to express my information awareness experiences after the manner they have affected me and effected change in my life. This is how I think, talk to myself, talk to others (poor souls because I can be very hard to follow)

    I have a somewhat unique perspective regarding information and it management. At a later time where it is appropriate and allowed, I will share a small body of concepts that are core to my cognitative ability for designing and analizing information and information relationships and resultiant enlarged intellegence. The concepts will seem obvious but to connect them in the way I have needs a reality check. Honest directed feedback is what I crave. To be so close to this topic and concept I cannot always judge unbiasedly accurately if my opinion and conclusion are truthful or accurately expressed.

  • Travis Morgan

    March 24, 2004 at 1:29 pm

    Its all a matter of perspective…

    “…in the eye of the beholder”

  • alan madsen

    October 23, 2006 at 9:15 am

    is someone who works laying brick using mortar an architect?

    is an architect laying brick using mortar working as an architect?

    the frameworks and the objectives are different

    a theorist may easily feel fear when the aggregate of his or her understanding is put to a test, but, if the frameworks and objectives are different, is that aggregate ever but tested so?

    best regards,

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