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.


  1. Great article overall, but I do have to take exception with one comment made on page 1:

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

    As someone who has been an instructional designer, still considers themself an instrucional designer, and always will consider themselve an instructional designer, I feel this comment shows the same misunderstanding of instruct. design as the field of experience design is trying to overcome. Instructional design is broader than interface design. It is broader than experience design. It has a rich history, dating back to the 1940’s, that I think most of the experience design community would do well to learn more about. Many of the same issues that are debated over and over again in forums like this (or places like SIGIA) were solved, at least from one perspective, years ago in the instructional design community. Yet, most experience desigers feel that the things they are doing are unique. They have no idea that a rather respected academic field exists to do the exact things they want to do.

    Any responses are welcome.

  2. Modesty wins. Less mulling over names and more improving of the world.

    It might help if one of the visionaries who made this mess gave us an interactive hierarchy of titles. With a click and whimsical transition you could sort in descending order of pay, coolness and life expectancy.

  3. And it gets worse. Is it user experience or customer experience. Where does customer experience management end and customer relationship management take over? What role does the producer play? And what about the visual/graphic/av designer? Arnt they too experience designers? I consider them to be myself.

    For now I use the title user experience manager as although one of my roles is information architecture the user experience is not totally designed or architected by myself.

  4. I share the common confusion of speaking towards a “customer experience” or “user experience”. Not every experience requires a human to be a “customer” and “user” often sounds cold. I’ve tried calling it a “human experience” since all users and customers are human beings, but it often sounds strange. As for a title, I still carry the Information Architect moniker. Clients seem to get that I work with information and that I help build things. Some need a little deeper definition and then get it.

  5. I haven’t actually called myself an IA to a client in some time. Instead, I find I’m talking about what aspects of the problem I’ll be working on as a part of my team. I’ve never had any confusion when I talk about creating functional specifications, flow charts, or site maps. It’s unimportant to them that that work also includes metadata, interaction flow design, and all the other stuff we talk about amongst ourselves as IAs.

    I really like Kieth’s comment: “Clients seem to get that I work with information and that I help build things. Some need a little deeper definition and then get it.” I find that those who *want* that deeper information are also inclined to be interested in it and to therefore probably understand it.

    Incidentally, who else read Nathan’s essay here when it was an unformed rant on his personal site? This version at B&A is much better, and here in the context of other voices loses some of the whininess that it had as a single long paragraph on his site.

  6. Wow!

    I was invited to look into “Boxes and Arrows” because someone thought my dark corner of the universe could use some light. She was right! You’ve shown me a whole galaxy I didn’t know existed.

    “Experience Architect”. “Instructional Designer”. “Interface Designer”. “Information Architect”. “Information Designer”. These are titles I could never have imagined. If I had to define what people with such titles did (without Nathan’s article), I would guess an experience architect is someone familiar with the proper use of certain drugs, and instructional designer works for the curriculum department of a school board, and information architects and designers work in the propaganda department of a national government.

    Me? I guess you could say I’m an Information Experience Facility Architect and Designer. I prefer System Developer though, because it fits better on my business cards.

  7. Kelly,

    You were absolutely right. An instructionial designer would work for the curriculum department of a school board. They would also work on a website that had the goal of instructing (as opposed to simply disseminating information). You might also find an instructional designer working in a corporate training department. Or, perhaps you might find an instructional designer walking the halls of the Department of Education (in Washington).

    My point? I feel there is an inherient problem in tying our field (or any field) into one medium. Certainly individuals can, and should, specialize. But if we define our field that we only work on websites, when the Internet as we know it becomes obsolete we become obsolete.

  8. I’ve used the title “Information/Interaction Designer” for years, because most of what I do falls into both camps (although the terms have different definitions, the tasks are so interdependent that they’re pretty much inseparable).

    For similar reasons, I don’t understand the view that “information design” is different from “information architecture” (ID = page structure and presentation, IA = taxonomy, is how the reasoning goes), as though these were distinctly separate pursuits. In my experience, they’ve been anything but; classification affects presentation and vice-versa. I don’t know of anyone who has ever worked on a project that had both an IA and an ID — it’s always been one person (or a team of similarly titled people) shouldering those responsibilities. There’ve been editors, indexers, etc. who were concerned with verbal structure and labelling, but they went by titles other than IA.

    Besides, the last thing our field needs is yet another title we have to explain to our clients.

  9. what i feel is at the core of this rant, that no matter what the title the job is to clarify rather than obfuscate, is all too relevant today.

    having worked both client and agency side of brand marketing (yes, ugh) for more than 10 years, my EXPERIENCE has been that the less comfortable people feel, the more they try and evade what they do with titles and theories. somewhere the practice, implementation and work history that actually illustrates their theory is left behind.

    maybe Nathan needs to stand naked more often to remind us that there is nothing to hide but INexperience…

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