The Making of a Discipline: The Making of a Title

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This year I published a book, titled ‘Experience Design‘, based on not so much an emerging field but an emerging mindset: a growing awareness that the most powerful experiences cross traditional professional boundaries, and that we as designers of experiences must pursue our work with the big picture in mind. Indeed, effective Experience Design encompasses myriad fields, from online to desktop, from print to exhibits, from interaction design to copywriting, from brand management to theme park ride design.

Information design was clearly a brave, new field—and the new titles—“instructional designer” or “interface designer”—sounded perfect for the future of the Information Age.

The shining examples of pan-media experience design—Disney, Nike, Coca-Cola and Star Trek to name a few—might make this seem straightforward. However, many people who work within the design field have had a hard time assimilating the full scope of Experience Design—and a harder time accepting their niches within it. The reasons for this resistance uncover much about the state of design as well as the state of identity—that’s personal identity, not corporate identity.

A title is born

A little history might help here. Around 1989 or 1990, back in the days before an interactive media industry—yes, before QuickTime even—there was a very small community of information designers. Most of these people came from the print world. They worked on a variety of projects, including complex signage, directories, catalogs and information systems. Many of these designers bore the titles “instructional designer” or “interface designer.”

The larger design community had trouble understanding and accepting this field, as it was decidedly more obscure and conceptual than traditional graphic design. However, information design was clearly a brave, new field—and the titles sounded perfect for the future of the Information Age. The more savvy traditional designers learned new techniques and applied them to these new concerns, but many others simply adopted the titles without learning much of anything.

Unfortunately, this was not the last time designers would update their business cards without a commensurate upgrade in skills.

The information design community owes its founding largely to Richard Saul Wurman. He was the first to identify the issues of clarity, meaning and understandability in the print world, as well as some of the techniques designers could use to organize data and create information (as in informing). He communicated these principles both inside and outside the design community, and he firmly established information design as a measurable benefit to both communication and business. Through his company, TheUnderstandingBusiness (which was established in 1987 and where I was fortunate to work for a few years) he and his designers defined many of the techniques and processes that would become information design.

The inclusiveness of the term Information Architect was illustrated by the diverse collection of media, styles and techniques in Wurman’s book by the same name.

To be sure, there were others practicing what can be considered information design. Siegel & Gale, a design firm based in New York City, was redesigning and rewriting documents and forms—even tax forms—to make them easier to use (they called this approach “plain English”). Edward Tufte had written the successful book, “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information,” and Massimo Vignelli had declared himself an information designer as well. Things were looking good—or maybe “clear” is a more appropriate word here.

However, fairly quickly, many visual designers who merely wanted to decorate data (think chartjunk) also declared themselves information designers. As I remember, the information design world was fairly accepting. If there had been an information design table, places were available for everyone who wanted a seat. Information designers didn’t exactly equate visual styling with hard-core information design, so they might have seated visual designers at the end of the table. But at least everyone was included at the table.

About this time, Wurman started using the term Information Architect, a rearrangement of the phrase Architecture of Information, which he coined at the 1972 Aspen Design Conference. In terms of skills, practice, process and expectations, the term Information Architect described the existing fields of information design and visual design. It was simply a new label invented for the purpose of elevating the profession as a whole in the eyes of a population that wasn’t particularly design savvy. The inclusiveness of the term Information Architect was illustrated by the diverse collection of media, styles and techniques in Wurman’s book by the same name.

About this time the internet started commanding the majority of work in the interactive industry. Luckily, my company, vivid studios, as well as a few others (such as Clement Mok Designs) had already translated our information design skills from print to interactive media. Information design was already part of our development processes. Of course, we had to teach every client what information design was, what it accomplished, and why it had to be in the budget. We published widely on our sites not only our job descriptions and processes, but also our theories. This is how information design crossed into the interactive world, where it was wholeheartedly accepted and has been firmly rooted ever since.

Gold rush

It didn’t take long for people with innate skills and applicable experience to find their way into the interactive field, but it was still one of the rarest of professions since no one could find classes, let alone degrees, in information design. Eventually the flood of dotcom startups required so many information designers that anyone who could draw a flowchart was soon hired and given the title (to the eventual dismay of many clients).

It’s a sad state of affairs when each company—and potentially each freelancer and consultant—reinvents a new vocabulary simply to call their own, while further confusing clients and the world-at-large just at the moment we should be clearly communicating who we are and what we do.

I guess it’s inevitable with a fast-growing field that the very people who were pouring in from other places began to rapidly mark not only their turf, but everyone else’s as well. About two years ago, the slight schism between visual decoration and information design opened into a gulf between the information architects, who claimed the best, most strategic and most cognitive aspects of information design, and the information designers, who were relegated by these titans to follow tactical instructions, perform menial tasks, and, generally, make the least contributions to the structuring of information and experiences. Make no mistake here, this was a political and strategic attempt to elevate a strata of people who would, hopefully, become the elite of the information designers: The architects were to designers as traditional architects were to interior designers.

I have witnessed many times the attempts of information architects to trump information designers simply by title alone—as if anyone actually understands the difference between the two. In fact, almost all processes, techniques and tasks are shared. (The only useful differentiation between the roles occurs at the personal level, where each person’s skills must be weighed against a project’s requirements. This, of course, is exactly the point where differentiation makes sense.)

There seems to be an opinion that information architecture applies exclusively to online media, that offline media can’t possibly pose problems as complex or as important. For sure, many large online projects can get complex, but I have yet to encounter an online project as complex or important as some of those I saw at TheUnderstandingBusiness. I also see information architects rushing to define the field in steps and techniques that are tactical at best. Most of the designers I worked with—and was taught by—at TheUnderstandingBusiness still approach problems from a higher conceptual level (and generate much more sophisticated and original solutions) than most of the architects in a hurry to separate themselves at the top of the profession. And most in this former group still go by the title, information designer.

That brings us back to Experience Design—or is it Architecture? For a field that is barely even two years old, the exact same egomaniacal process is starting but, this time, with even less substance. I sat through a presentation last year of Experience Architecture which, as far as I could tell, had no new insights, processes, or techniques to offer other than what would already be covered (or uncovered) in Experience Design. The only reason for this title was to differentiate this one company’s offering. It’s a sad state of affairs when each company—and potentially each freelancer and consultant—reinvents a new vocabulary simply to call their own, while further confusing clients and the world-at-large just at the moment we should be clearly communicating who we are and what we do.

Can you imagine a group of Fashion Architects declaring their supremacy over Fashion Designers? Yes, that’s what we’ve come to. We don’t yet have enough respect as it is from clients and engineers and we’ve almost completely lost the ear of corporate leaders. Imagine if they found out how shallow and vain the profession is turning?

While IA and ID battle each other for dominance, Visual (or Graphic) design seems to have already lost. Case in point, at the fourth annual AIGA Advance for Design workshop last year the following roles were identified for discussion:

  • Design Planner
  • Brand Strategist
  • User Researcher
  • Visual Systems Designer
  • Information Architect/Information Designer
  • Interaction Designer
  • Usability Specialist

You will not find “Visual Designer” or “Graphic Designer” in that list. The closest thing was Visual Systems Designer, which the organizers insisted is far more elaborate than mere graphic design. To make matters worse, the role of Visual Systems Designer was quickly perverted into Visual Information Designer, which became nearly synonymous with Information Architect, a separately identified role.

This circuitous examination may be pointless, but at least it isn’t frightening. What’s scary is the fact that there were no defined places for visual/graphic design, animation, interface design, typography, videography, sound design or any of the other important fields that synthesize all of the decisions and breathe life into the interface. At least one visual designer there started feeling there wasn’t a place for her at all in the community. Perhaps, in our need to define new horizons, we’re forgetting our roots.

What’s in a name

As a field trying to define ourselves, we’ve already elevated our status so far that we don’t have time for tactics or work. Only the most strategic of activities and the most important thoughts warrant our attention.

I hate the word “creative” as anything but an adjective modifying a noun worth modifying.

OK, it may not be this bad yet, but it’s certainly the direction we’re heading. Imagine discounting the joy of visual expression—the satisfaction that comes from balancing the cognitive, engineering, and emotional goals of a project so well that their recognition falls away and all that is left is a powerful visual solution. Imagine telling audio engineers and videographers (also key partners in the creation of many experiences) they aren’t a part of the process unless they can describe themselves as audio strategists and video systems designers. Now imagine trying to finish a project yourself after these professionals have left in disgust.

We started calling our “creative” group at vivid the Experience Group in 1994, partly for these reasons. We adopted the new name because it had the right mix of ambiguity and newness that stunned people long enough to hear our definition, and it avoided many of the problems with other names—especially “Creative Group.”

I hate the word “creative” as anything but an adjective modifying a noun worth modifying. When used in this sense, “we need to get some creative” or “we should hire some creatives,” the word marginalizes and devalues the contributions that front-end and “artsy” people make. When people actually refer to themselves as “creatives,” I pity them. I learned a long time ago that everyone in a company better be creative and that the most creative person at vivid was the CFO.

All of this reminds me of my experiences at the CHI (Computer Human Interface) conferences. CHI is a special interest group within the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery). It was nearly impossible to get a design-oriented paper, panel, or speech accepted as part of the CHI program.

For the most part, the only people deemed fit for the program were a) well-known members who happened to be designers or researchers and b) interface specialists who were now turning their attention to “design.” Courses, papers, and panels reviewed by the CHI leadership routinely came back with comments like “is this important?,” “isn’t there a better conference for these issues?,” “this doesn’t seem to be in the scope of CHI,” and “there isn’t much of scientific value here.”

I stopped going to CHI conferences in 1990. It was apparent that the ruling class not only couldn’t recognize new fields and techniques in design, but wouldn’t.

Experience Design is threatened by the same sort of shortsightedness and exclusivity. Are we going to succumb to infighting, name-calling, and endless arguments over definitional minutia, or are we going to expand our sights—and our boundaries—to include all of the elements we need to create dazzling—and valuable—experiences?

The most eloquent description of Experience Design I’ve read comes not from the design world but from a New York City restaurant reviewer named Gael Greene. In an interview with Matthew Goodman in the June 2001 issue of Brill’s Content, she said:

“I thought a restaurant review should describe what your experience was like from the moment you called to make a reservation. Were they rude? Did they laugh at you for trying to get a table? …”

That’s what it’s all about: the complete experience, beginning to end, from the screen to the store, to the ride and beyond.

Lee McCormack assisted with this piece. He is a writer, editor and information architect/designer/whatever. He currently plies his trade at AltaVista.

Welcome to Boxes and Arrows

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Many months ago, an information architect named David Bloxsom came over for lunch. We both faced an idle post-crash afternoon, so a bottle of Trader Joe’s three-dollar pinot grigio was cracked. We talked about information architecture and trying to get the field to mature. We talked about how the ASIS journal was too academic, too complex for most folks to penetrate. We talked about Web Review, Site Point, and A List Apart and how they were just too basic for most IAs we knew. By the time the bottle was empty we had sunburns and a vision for a magazine. A magazine that would be plainspoken and smart, that would tackle the thorny issues that trying to design structure in new information spaces such as the web, software and wireless created. A journal for practitioners, for those everyday folks just trying to make their product better while ducking the layoff ax.

I hope this ’zine will make us all a bit smarter when we are through. And that is bigger than any tagline, bigger than our semantic antics, bigger than the politics and cross-company infighting.

Next (after a nap) I emailed around to create my dream team… all IAs, but all from different backgrounds. Former designers, programmers, writers and usability wonks that had stepped up and said, “This thing needs an architecture,” and proceeded to design something better. I wanted a journal that was by IAs for IAs.

But I suppose this was a foolhardy assumption on my part—I considered them purely IAs because they did what I did and I was an IA. But they also considered themselves interaction designers, experience designers, user experience designers…well, you get the picture. Over the last several weeks, all the issues we’ve seen again and again on listservs and blogs rose up again among my carefully chosen staff. The best laid plans of mice and me…

But it wasn’t a waste of time. Through all these arguments, we hit upon a shared struggle we all were engaged in—the fight to bring thoughtful design to the new digital medium.

From all of this, we wrote our mission statement:

Boxes and Arrows is the definitive source for the complex task of bringing architecture and design to the digital landscape. There are various titles and professions associated with this undertaking—information architecture, information design, interaction design, interface design—but when we looked at the work that we were actually doing, we found a “community of practice” with similarities in outlook and approach that far outweighed our differences.

Boxes and Arrows is a peer-written journal dedicated to discussing, improving and promoting the work of this community, through the sharing of exemplary technique, innovation and informed opinion.

Boxes and Arrows strives to provoke thinking among our peers, to push the limits of the accepted boundaries of these practices and to challenge the status quo by teaching new or better techniques that translate into results for our companies, our clients and our comrades.

I’m not sure what I can tell you beyond that mission statement.

It’s time for the web (and software, and portable apps) to grow up.
It’s time for us to come to terms with our terms.
It’s time to discover our best practices, our most effective techniques and tools.
It’s time to learn from others in the field and stop navel gazing.

And we need a place to do that.

It is my very great hope that Boxes and Arrows can be that place. A place for designers—who think design is more than pretty font colors—to exchange ideas. A place for programmers—who realize the elegance of code means nothing if people can’t use your application—to learn to make their interface just as elegant. A place for marketers—who know that click-throughs are no good if people click away a second later—to sort out what really creates brand loyalty. A place for information architects, interaction designers, information designers and interface designers to come together with the UXs and EDs and HCIs and build a discipline that will make a difference.

This is a place free of jargon.

We aren’t messing around here: we want answers. That means we won’t hide our ignorance behind terminology. If we know it, we’ll say it. If we don’t get it, we hope you folks will use the comment feature to straighten us out, or better yet, submit an article or case study of your own. This is our journal—yours and ours, audience and authors and staff together. We’re tearing down the fences we so hastily built between our crafts, and we hope to build something better.

I hope this ’zine will make us all a bit smarter when we are through. And that is bigger than any tagline, bigger than our semantic antics, bigger than the politics and cross-company infighting.

It’s ambitious, I know.

Welcome to Boxes and Arrows…

Christina Wodtke
Publisher, Producer and Fool
Boxes and Arrows
“architecting the damn thing”