Towards the end of July, I received an email from the newly created WIAD Organizer Alumni newsletter. I learned that the Global Board is looking for input into a rebranded name and tagline, since both the event and the nonprofit entity behind it exist as separate but identically named entities.
The email linked to a Google Form survey. I thought I would give my thoughts behind my answers, in case it can add to the discussion.
“World Information Architecture” on its own seems too barren to me. It could be another subdiscipline of information architecture (e.g. “pervasive information architecture,” “product information architecture”) rather than an organization.
“World Information Architecture Association” seems okay, other than the potential for it to be pronounced as “double-u i double-a.” Too many doubles. “Double-u i a a” sounds like a new type of battery or a meeting for alcoholics anonymous participants who are shouldered with something that sounds like a “double DUI.”
“Community” seems like something too broad to claim dominion over. “Movement” sounds political.
“World Information Architecture Organization” is the clear winner for me. A big indicator that this is the right choice is that the explanatory text within the survey already makes reference to “our organization.” It comes naturally!
Out of these choices, “Making information clear” is the closest to a succinct explanation of what it is information architects really do. (I think “making information understandable” would be even more accurate but it doesn’t make for a strong tagline.) We’re not community organizers first and foremost, even if some of the work we do does end up connecting communities.
Good luck and thanks to the Global Board for their ongoing efforts toward putting on World IA Day 2022!
Last month I visited my family in America for the first time in quite a while. I didn’t bring any books with me so that I might instead read something from my stateside shelf. Richard Saul Wurman’s Information Architects immediately stood out. I hadn’t actually read it cover-to-cover until then. With many of its 232 pages devoted to large photographs, drawings, and other graphics, I managed to get through Information Architects in only a couple of days. I wrote the following reading notes and thoughts soon after:
I’ll definitely need to add the below video to my “Watch Later” list. Information Architects opens with a heartfelt dedication to Muriel Cooper, a designer at MIT whose “Information Landscapes” presentation at the TED5 Conference “changed forever the visual paradigm of information for all who saw the presentation,” according to Wurman. It’s incredible that the very same presentation that so heavily influenced Wurman – and thus, our whole field – is readily available.
The front cover of the book prominently features a three-part definition of “information architect” that I’ve seen quoted a million times, but the back inside flap offers a concise summation of “information architecture” that I’m surprised I haven’t seen referenced more often. “The design of understanding.” That’s it! Can you come up with a better, more straightforward description of IA?
Somehow this detail was lost on me up until now, but most of the book is a collaborative effort between Richard Saul Wurman, his editor Peter Bradford, and a couple dozen other designers. Wurman reached out to a number of designers and asked for “extended and I mean extended captions” of specific examples of their work, and the pieces were compiled and designed into this book.
Each section of the book highlights a designer or team of designers and walks us through how they were faced with a topic that needed clarification and how they went about creatively clarifying that topic with their design skills. These design challenges ranged from city maps to museum exhibits to product brochures to CD-ROM encyclopedias. Only one of the examples had to do with organizing content on a web site. The case study pattern of organization suits the book well.
The diversity of domains featured in the book leads one to believe that information architects are all around us (whether the IAs themselves realize it or not), yet the foreword curiously describes a “relatively small world of information architects.”
Instead of going step-by-step into how one can practice information architecture, the book serves as a collection of examples of how creative, thoughtful structuring of information led to better understanding. As a source of inspiration, Information Architects is good; as a textbook, not so much.
The book concludes with a dramatic example of the clear value of information architecture: Alexander Tsiaras explains how a three-dimensional volume rendering of the brain enabled by CT scanning allowed surgeons to perform a cranial operation on a child. (“Surgeons say that before volume rendering, surgery was like walking into a dark room and feeling your way around the furniture. Now it’s like walking into a room, turning on the lights, and seeing exactly where you’re going.” Page 227). This new way of visualizing data let radiologists, whom Tsiaras likens to “hermetic cubists and abstract expressionists” speak in a language familiar to surgeons, whom Tsiaras compares to sculptors.
Some of the examples are very much a product of their time. This book was released in 1997 and it shows. Peter Bradford’s attempt at a “curriculum dictionary” that attempted to completely reorganize a dictionary in such a way that readers could identify and traverse related word groups seemed like an unavoidably messy attempt at something that only Wikipedia could eventually accomplish, which is to say a bottom-up information architecture.
The job of an encyclopedia is to explain, isn’t it? Well, how can that be done best? With vertically deep, exhaustively detailed explanations like the Encyclopedia Brittanica, or with horizontally broad, relational explanations like the Curriculum Dictionary? Maybe both? Yes, I think so, too. But, how does one build such a mass of linked knowledge?
We made context pictures for easily pictured word groups like Bodies of Water, tables and typographic diagrams for less easily pictured groups like Poetry. Very quickly, our representations multiplied and grew to unwieldy size. They began to crowd the alphabetic section, making it jumpy and difficult to use. To accommodate them, we tacked on a group of pages after the alphabetic section and called it our topic section. Well, not so easy, Sneezy. Topically arranged reference is neither familiar nor encouraged by American publishers. In fact, splitting the dictionary into two sections was to become our most provocative change. But how could we deny the logic?
Page 71. This particular project was ahead of its time.
The 2021 Society for Technical Communication Summit is coming up soon, and that means the conference proceedings have been released. It’s cool to see that my paper, co-authored with Peihong Zhu, is the first article in the bunch. See the standalone PDF below, and attend the virtual Summit June 7-9, 2021 to watch our full presentation.
I remember when meals were something that were cooked, prepared, or maybe in rare circumstances “released.” But dropped? That’s new.
“Isn’t that just the Chicken McNuggets meal?” No, it’s the BTS Meal. There’s a difference. For one, it has exclusive sauces (which I didn’t even get in my order 😩). For two…. actually, I think that’s it. No wait, the paper bag and cup are purple. The greasy trash that you would normally throw out? That part’s cool now.
So what is a “BTS Meal”? Contrary to what you might assume, it’s not a political thing (that would be the “BDS meal,” dropping next month), it’s a reference to the Korean boy band BTS. I assume that their namesake has claimed the Chicken McNuggets meal because that’s their favorite pick when they’re eating McDonald’s at the airport. Also, because Travis Scott already claimed the Quarter Pounder with Medium French Fries and Barbecue Sauce combo as his own.
You see what’s happening, right? McDonald’s is engaging in an act of information architecture.
Let’s examine both the 10 Piece Chicken McNugget Meal and the BTS Meal as objects of information and break out their components.
If we conceptualize a McDonald’s “meal” as consisting of the four parts Drink, Main, Side, and Sauce, we can see that the regular 10 Piece McNuggets meal and the BTS Meal are more alike than not. They both feature 10 McNuggets and french fries – the core of the meal, in my sauce-adverse opinion – and differ only when it comes to the exclusive Cajun and Sweet Chili sauces that you can only get with the BTS Meal.
What I find interesting is that there is a degree of “participatory experience” in the BTS Meal that shows up in the optional components and attributes. The true, BTS-hand-selected, “Director’s Cut” version of the BTS Meal calls for a Coca-Cola as your drink and limits your fries intake to a reasonable Medium. However, it’s technically possible to order a BTS Meal and substitute your drink for something other than Coke, or to perhaps indulge in a Large order of fries. The BTS Meal, therefore, becomes less of a prescription and more of an ideal, which users can either merely dabble in or embrace whole-heartedly. I can guess what the ARMY will be ordering.
Arguably, the hard boundaries of the BTS Meal lie in the sauce component. If you – God forbid – dip your McNuggies in ketchup or mustard, are you truly participating in the BTS Meal experience? In my opinion, no. The sauces are the most essential component because they are the most limited and exclusive. These sauces only exist for this meal. McNuggets are forever.
I had a fun time recording and presenting this talk alongside my Precision Content colleague and former University of Toronto professor Keith Schengili-Roberts for ConVEx 2021. Keith talked about the “the business of DITA,” touching on those industry sectors where DITA works best and where other structured authoring standards make more sense. I come in the second half to talk about “DITA and its Discontents,” or why teams abandon DITA and what sorts of opportunities for improvement lie on the DITA 2.0 horizon.