Moving from Flatland to Hyperspace: The “Evolution of a Mindset” Part 2 of 2

Posted by

Part 2
read part 1

How print designers and writers think
Things were much simpler when I embarked on my career as a graphic designer in “Information architects do not need to have the same mastery of visual design or writing required of those professions, but they must clearly demonstrate abstract concepts visually, in writing, and orally to a wide range of people”1989. Most of the planet was getting along fine without information architects. In the print world, our basic information architectures have been deeply ingrained: for the past century, books, magazines, newspapers, and advertisements have maintained virtually the same general information structures, demonstrated by their consistent formats. These are all simple user interfaces people comprehend instantly. Therefore, they are practically invisible to us, both as users and designers.

Printed materials are designed by just a handful of professionals: usually a graphic designer and a writer, sometimes an art director or creative director, and occasionally an illustrator or photographer. Other professionals, such as printers, can also play key roles. However, let us remain focused on the creative process because, like information architects, graphic designers and writers are principally responsible for creating the user experience. Thus they have many of the same skills as information architects.

Both graphic designers and writers must possess the ability to define a creative problem. Defining a creative problem requires the gathering of knowledge to help to articulate the client’s needs through: researching the business objectives, corporate or brand identity, and target audiences (and possibly helping the client identify those audiences); understanding the client’s products and services; collecting as much information as possible about the client by asking questions and studying past marketing efforts; researching the client’s competitors; and exploring the client’s personal style to get a feel for how the company wishes to represent itself.

The print solution to the creative problem may deliver a message as simple as “buy this car,” “try this diet,” or “read this book.” On the other hand, the message may be complex and intangible: “Driving this car will make people think you are a stylish and important person. Thus they will respect you more, which will undoubtedly increase your quality of life.”

Both graphic designers and writers must be able to conceptualize and communicate their abstract ideas to a wide range of people—among them clients, salespeople, photographers, illustrators, and printers. To be successful, graphic designers and writers must truly understand the many facets of the creative problem, must have a sense of how to appeal to the target audiences, and must possess a keen intuition—a creative vision—that will guide them in crafting a print solution that integrates all aspects of the creative problem.

Often the creative vision needs to incorporate the client’s brand identity. During the creative process, graphic designers and writers work closely to shape this creative vision, which begins as an abstraction, and is brought to life. Generally graphic designers manage multiple aspects of a project (and often multiple projects), coordinating with others involved in producing the print piece, while writers tend to concentrate on written content. In all cases, a graphic designer must understand how his or her work supports the work of the writer and vice versa.

With regard to the artistry of graphic design and writing, professionals must be skilled at their craft. Graphic design is actually a medium within the print medium, as is writing. A graphic designer’s creative tools and language are visual, whereas a writer’s creative tools and language are textual.

The graphic designer’s talents include visual layout skills such as mastery of visual hierarchy, typography, color, spatial relationships, and iconography; knowledge of the print medium and printing and prepress technologies; and production skills, which include utilizing graphics software to prepare graphics files for production, and checking print jobs at various phases of production (“bluelines” and “press checks”). Graphic designers must think abstractly and show their ideas visually by sketching and making visual models, or “comprehensives.” Graphic designers generally think in images, shapes, and colors. No doubt, a powerful mix of skill, psychology, and magic synthesizes to make those intangible elements real.

Writers focus on the content—the information—contained within a printed piece; they organize and structure that information in order to deliver the intended message effectively. In their creative thinking, writers use logic and analysis to group and connect ideas, identifying patterns and relating parts to a whole. They are accustomed to thinking about systems (systemic thinking) and to “chunking” information into components, or modules. Writers make outlines, draw “idea trees,” and use index cards, arranging them to show relationships between information.

It follows that writers are primarily responsible for the way information is structured in a print piece. Yet the creative alliance between writers and graphic designers is tight, and organizing information requires visual design skills too. Graphic designers apply a visual hierarchy to the structure the writer constructs. To do this, a graphic designer must thoroughly understand this information structure. In many cases, graphic designers and writers work together to design information structures.

Naturally the complexity and depth of the creative thought process depends on the complexity of the creative problem—and the designed product, whether it be a printed piece or a website. That said, there is absolutely no doubt that most websites, even fairly simple ones, are infinitely more complex than most printed products.

“Design” redefined in an increasingly complex world
Designers love to philosophize and speculate about design. Like information architecture, design is elusive and fluid because it constantly adapts to human needs. One can hardly define it. Despite this conundrum, one thing is certain: the traditional notion of design as concerned mainly with the placement of visual elements on a printed surface is dead. A new, much more expansive concept of design has taken its place—one that incorporates information architecture.

Hugh Dubberly, respected design planner, teacher, and co-founder of Dubberly Design Office, says, “When we design things more complex than single objects—systems, sets of elements, interactions, and pathways—we need a new approach.” 15

“Naturally the complexity and depth of the creative thought process depends on the complexity of the creative problem—and the designed product, whether it be a printed piece or a website.”In a stirring conversation about the nature and future of design featured in Wired’s January 2001 Design Issue, John Thackara, director for the Doors of Perception conference and knowledge network, comments, “And now pervasive computing and experience design are accelerating the transformation of what we mean by design. Distinguishing between hard and soft design—the object and the experience—simply doesn’t work anymore.” 16

Later in the same conversation, Tim Parsey, Vice President and Director of Consumer Design, Personal Communications Sector, Motorola, says, “Our opportunity, as designers, is to learn how to handle the complexity, rather than to shy away from it, and to realize that the big art of design is to make complicated things simple.” 17

Mok, who did not participate in the Wired conversation, affirms, “Design means being good, not just looking good.” 18

In her 1997 book, Killer Web Design: NetObjects Fusion, Stella Gassaway describes at length the greatly expanded role of design in the web world, noting, “Clement Mok has been called an information architect, a new breed of designer.” 19

Evolution: How information architects think
Nielsen claims that “traditional” designers are not used to thinking in terms of information architecture because they are mainly concerned with the appearance of visual design elements. “This need to think of movement is also new for those designers who are used to simply dealing with atomic objects that are contemplated one at a time.” 20

To explain information architecture’s relationship to traditional design and writing, I have chosen the words of Adam Polansky, principal at Red Earth Information Architecture, “At the highest level, visual design and writing are means of communication. Information architecture is a distillation process that uses succinct aspects of both in order to communicate the direction that will be realized by refining and extending the imagery and text.” 21

Thom Haller, self-proclaimed “user advocate,” teacher, and principal at Info.Design, simply says: “Think like the user.” 22

This intense focus on the user experience differentiates websites from printed products—and information architects from print designers and writers—more than anything else.

In no way does this imply that print designers and writers do not care about their users. In fact, the reverse is true: they spend a great deal of time thinking about the user experience as they are creating it. Many print projects are also supported by user input from comprehensive marketing studies such as focus groups. Unfortunately the input from users is just that: general “input.” There is often no output in the form of specific results regarding the printed product: Did it accomplish its purpose? How well did it deliver the message?

Information architects must think like print designers and writers—and they must do what print designers and writers do—on a much bigger scale, in “N dimensions.” They must seek user input constantly and relentlessly, using every means available to understand whether the existing or proposed information structure allows users to do what they want to do, or find the information they seek. In their analysis, information architects must fully comprehend the web as a medium and understand its rules and possibilities regarding visual design and writing. Former print designers and writers who worked in the web medium on the way to becoming information architects usually have this insight.

On going from print design to web design, Mok remarks, “You have to make the leap from the computer as a tool to the computer as a medium.” 23

Information architects do not need to have the same mastery of visual design or writing required of those professions, but they must clearly demonstrate abstract concepts visually, in writing, and orally to a wide range of people: among them clients, salespeople, project managers, developers, technologists, users, usability specialists, and of course, visual designers and writers. Information architects speak in many languages and support their ideas with visuals.

Says Polansky, “Information architects, aside from developing site maps, are also counselors, diplomats, sages, and business managers. Information architecture is a convergence point for many kinds of information and input. The ability to collect, distill, and set resulting direction is critical to the role, regardless of how it is tactically defined.” 24

Again, complexity emerges as a theme. On the path from print to web, how does a print designer or writer cope with this level of complexity?

Peter Senge, renowned lecturer, author, researcher, and consultant in the field of systems theory, describes how a person’s ability to deal with complexity increases gradually, using the analogy of the process one goes through to become a concert pianist:

“Very few people start out playing Mozart. You start out playing something simple, like the scales. At each level we start with a degree of complexity, just within the bounds of our conscious ability or our normal awareness to grasp. Even though our normal awareness only handles a limited degree of complexity, somehow we do learn to deal with incredibly complex tasks.

Even a great pianist will often begin playing a new piece at a slow tempo. Gradually he picks up the tempo as he ‘grasps’ the piece as a whole. When the time to perform the piece comes, the pianist no longer requires any ‘self-conscious,’ waking awareness to concentrate on where his fingers go. He frees that part of his awareness to focus purely on the aesthetic.

That process is analogous to how we deal with complexity generally. It suggests that parts of our mind deal with complexity much better than our normal, self-conscious, waking awareness.

… A rapport has developed within [the pianist’s] own consciousness between his self-conscious awareness and a more automatic level of consciousness capable of dealing with much greater complexity.” 25

Senge specializes in organizational learning using systems thinking, and he maintains that accepting complexity is instrumental in developing the intuitive sense required to handle it. 26 Referring to his work with business executives, he says, “To accept [complexity] means they must recognize two things on a gut level: 1) That everything is interconnected, and 2) that they are never going to figure out that interconnectedness.” 27

“In fact, people who succeed in handling complexity are working in an intuitive domain we don’t even consider in our educational theories,” Senge asserts. 28

Dubberly offers this advice with regard to complexity: “We need new tools. We need models for planning systems, for thinking about the elements and the rules together, for thinking about how systems integrate with other systems embedded in systems of yet more systems. We need models not just of what appears on computer screens, not just of pathways, not just of interactions. We now also need models of goals and contexts. We need models of abstract ideas.” 29

Peter Merholz, information architect and co-founder of Adaptive Path, notes on the SIGIA-L list, “Most of us are ‘intuitives’ (in the Myers-Briggs sense), which means we have an ability to deal really well with models.” 30

Undoubtedly the graphic designer’s ability to make visual models and the print writer’s capacity to think systemically, recognizing patterns and connections, simplifying, categorizing, and forming content modules, greatly facilitate the transition to information architecture as a career. Once able to manage and embrace complexity, we should then profit from our strengths and work to improve our shortcomings.

We are each cut from a unique blueprint: Every mind thinks differently, meaning every person works differently. Some of us need to continue to grow our capacity for envisioning complexity, while others strive to think more visually, and still others explore the technology underlying information structures. In a field as broad as information architecture, there is already more knowledge than we can grasp, and there is much, much more to come.

The journey from designing in Flatland to designing in “N-dimensional” hyperspace is anything but a straight line. It is a fascinating, challenging, exciting, and fulfilling adventure with many stopovers and links to everything web culture has to offer. I struggle to imagine designing for an even greater degree of complexity, though it certainly seems possible with virtual reality technology approaching fast.

Are we capable of N2 dimensions?

For more information:

  • Abbott, E. (1884). Flatland. London: Seeley & Co., Ltd.
  • American Society for Information Science & Technology. (2000). Information Architecture Practice: An Interview with Steven Ritchey, Sapient. ASIS&T Bulletin, 26(6).
  • Brown, D. (2000). Supermodeler Hugh Dubberly. Gain: AIGA Journal of Design for the Network Economy, 1(1).
  • Brown, P. (2001). Object Orientation: Skills for Information Architects.
  • Cohen, S. (2000). Becoming an Information Architect: Work as a Website Strategist.
  • Downes, S. (2000). Information Architecture – A New Opportunity.
  • Downes, S. (1999). What is an Information Architect? Stephen’s Web.
  • Fischetti, M. (1997). Blueprint for Information Architects. Fast Company, 10, 186.
  • Fleming, J. (1998). Web Navigation: Designing the User Experience. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly & Associates, Inc.
  • Fullerton, J. Review of The Fifth Discipline (Book by Peter Senge).
  • Gassaway, S. (1997). Killer Web Design: NetObjects Fusion. USA: Hayden Books.
  • Giudice, M. (1999). Making the Transition from Print to Web – A Designer’s Workshop. Presentation for Seybold Seminars Boston/Publishing 99.
  • Haller, T., Ritchey, S., Summerville, M. (1996-2000). Information Architecture for the World Wide Web: Workbook, Washington, DC: Info.Design, Inc.
  • Hepburn, S. (1999). Systemic Thinking: An Approach to Managing Complexity. THINK (Global) web site.
  • Hinton, A. (2001). Re: Understanding Abstract Information, was Re: SIGIA-L: Page Schematics (long-ish). ASIS&T SIGIA-L listserv message (March 9).
  • Horn, R. (1989). Mapping Hypertext: The Analysis, Organization, and Display of Knowledge for the Next Generation of On-Line Text and Graphics. Lexington, MA: Lexington Institute.
  • Intermediar: Erasmus, D., Mols, M., de Rooi, E. (1995). Interview with Peter Senge.
  • Kahn, P., Launhardt, J., Lenk, K., Peters, R. (1990). Proceedings of the International Conference on Electronic Publishing, Document Manipulation, and Typography (EP’90), Gaithersburg, MD, Cambridge University Press, 1990: 107-124.
  • Kimen, S. (1995-2000). How Do I Become an Information Architect? CNET
  • Krug, S. (2000). Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability. USA: Macmillan USA.
  • Marlatt, A. (1998). Designing for the Information Age. Internet World, September 21 issue.
  • Merholz, P. (2001). Understanding Abstract Information, was Re: SIGIA-L: Page Schematics (long-ish). ASIS&T SIGIA-L listserv message.
  • Mok, C., Zauderer, V. (1997). Timeless Principles of Design: Four Steps to Designing a Killer Website. Web Techniques.
  • Morville, P., Rosenfeld, L. (1998). Information Architecture for the World Wide Web. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly & Associates, Inc.
  • Nichoson, M. (1999). Clement Mok: Mastering the Mediums of Print and Web Design.
  • Nielsen, J. (2000). Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity. USA: New Riders Publishing.
  • Nielsen, J. (1999). Differences Between Print Design and Web Design. Alertbox column.
  • Parker, R. (2000). Built 2 Order: Information Architects Construct Their Sites With a Unique Blueprint: A Foundation of Testing, A Floor Plan of Accessibility and a Tower of Functionality., July issue.
  • Pearlman, C. (2001). A Conversation About the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Wired, 9(1), 176-183.
  • Rettig, M. (2000). Architecture for Use: Ethnography and Information Architecture. Presentation for ASIS Summit on Information Architecture.
  • Senge, P. Systems Thinking. Adapted from interview in ReVISION Journal, 7(2).
  • Tufte, E. (1990). Envisioning Information. Chesire, CT: Graphics Press.
  • Veen, J. (2001). The Foundations of Web Design. Webmonkey.<
  • Wretlind, J. (1999-2000). The True Value of Information Design. Infotect.
  • Wretlind, J. (1999-2000). Introduction to Information Architecture. Infotect.
  • Wurman, R. S. (1998). InfoD listserv message.
  • Zaraza, R. (1995). Systems Thinking in the Classroom. Curriculum Technology Quarterly, 5(1).

The author wishes to thank Thom Cole, Thom Haller, Mary Louise Hollowell, Jim Mahaffie, Donna McCullough, Cinnamon Melchor, Bill Moriarty, Adam Polansky, Steve Ritchey, Parakh Saini, Barbara Sheppard, Paula Thornton, and Beth Toland for sharing their insights and Bill Moriarty and Quay Peters for their feedback on the manuscript.

Meg Cole is a graphic designer-turned writer-turned Webbie-turned information architect. She recently joined the content team at the National Association of REALTORS®, which will soon begin a massive inventory and redesign of the association’s 400,000+ Web pages.