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The Design of Understanding

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?

Page 73

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.

Oops! Let’s Try That Again

Pressing reset button on PS1 console

The following is a book review of COVID-19: The Great Reset, by Klaus Schwab and Thierry Malleret that I posted to Amazon.ca. I will link to it when it is live.

This is an odd review to write. While I think the policy prescriptions in COVID-19: The Great Reset are… misguided, to put it nicely… I do see some value in reading this book if only so that you can better understand the mindset of the man who chairs the World Economic Forum and is occasionally photographed dressed like some sort of Mortal Kombat character. Perhaps this is a book best borrowed for free from the library.

Once I moved past the alarming title, COVID-19: The Great Reset was more nuanced than I expected. Schwab and the other guy make a few interesting predictions about our post-COVID future, for example, businesses optimizing for resiliency over profit or “local tourism” becoming the king of the travel industry. However, readers don’t need to be particularly astute to pick up on the elitist, ends-justify-the-means attitude that underlies every page of the book. I’ll give you an example with one of my favorite(?) quotes:

“… a state emergency can only be justified when a threat is public, universal and existential. In addition, political theorists often emphasize that extraordinary powers require authorization from the people and must be limited in time and proportion. One can agree with the former part of the assertion (public, universal and existential threat), but what about the latter?”

(page 101)

Schwab hits an odd mix of both acknowledging globalism’s role in exacerbating the massive societal and economic upheaval brought about by COVID-19, while putting forth a solution that appears to be… to double down on globalism. And by that I mean to convince (if not force) national governments to give up sovereignty to supranational bureaucracies such as, well, the World Economic Forum.

“Problems that affect the entire world require the entire world to cooperate in order to fix them” is the gist of the book’s message. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of well-meaning people agree with that idea, but I would encourage those people to scrutinize a little more closely the track records and beliefs of organizations that claim to speak for all the world’s inhabitants before they surrender their rights, privacy, and livelihoods.

Final Verdict

I give COVID-19: The Great Reset two protein-rich insects out of five.

Why I’ve Stopped Caring About Forgetting What I’ve Read

Reading a book

Is reading nonfiction only worthwhile if you retain the information?

I mean, fiction is its own beast, right? With stories, we’re okay to get wrapped up in the plot and characters and enjoy the tale for its own sake. If visions of Middle-Earth fade from our mind’s eye as soon as we snap the covers shut, nothing was lost. And in fact, forgetting what we’ve read might be a sort of blessing—then we can later experience the same story as if for the first time. Hell, who would want to remember what they’ve read?

But we treat nonfiction differently. It’s as if we’ve “wasted” our time plowing through a book if we aren’t ready to ace a test on the subject as soon as our eyes cross the final page.

The result is that we’ll berate ourselves for forgetting what we’ve read. (“Only ‘dumb’ people have this poor a memory.”) Or, more commonly I suspect, we simply avoid reading nonfiction entirely. We don’t want to look at a familiar spine on our shelf but draw a blank on its contents.

I had some of these feelings for a time but now I realize I’ve overcome them, and I’d like to meditate a bit on why.

For starters, I think school has a nasty way of corrupting what can and ought to be one of the most rewarding activities in life—reading nonfiction—because we start to treat such books as a means to an end, whether that’s passing a test or beefing up a research paper. The nonfiction book becomes a hurdle between the finish line of a good grade. There’s a reason why a quarter of American adults might go a whole year without reading a book, and I’m not convinced that it’s because they’re “too busy.” I suspect part of it is that they’re not eager to face the idea that they wasted their time “getting through” a book only to find that they seemingly gained nothing out of it upon reaching the other side. Once you’re out of school, there’s no grade left to earn, no essay bibliography left to pad—only the sense that your brain isn’t as fuller as it ought to be, and thus that you’ve wasted your time. Why bother?

To that I say, reading nonfiction can be an intrinsically pleasurable activity—even if you forget the details of what you read as soon as you close the book. That’s because reading = thinking.

But here’s the key—the nature of what you’re thinking about in that moment is modulated and enriched by what you’re reading. I’ve found that I’m able to enjoy reading in the moment itself because I’m almost always thinking “on top” of whatever text is in my hands. I’m relating the book to other things I’ve read, to other discussions I’ve heard, to other experiences I’ve had. I might be questioning the author’s agenda—even doubting the author’s goodwill towards me as a reader. Reading thus serves not as a crude way to download the author’s knowledge into my own head but as a spice to flavor the thinking that’s already stewing in my mind—the thinking that’s going to be occurring regardless of whether I have a book in my hands. I might spend several minutes on a page not because I’m a “slow reader” but because my mind is poking and prodding this new information, running it through my own cognitive filters. I’m enjoying the mental tangents that I’m allowing myself to indulge.

And here’s the thing—if I were to revisit the same book a year or a decade from now, I’d have different things on my mind. The sort of intellectual daydreaming that would occur when I slide my gaze across the text would take on an entirely different character. I’ve found this to be the case when I read books on content strategy. Texts that once struck me as abstract and hard to grasp have grown in relatability as I’ve grown in experience. I’m nodding my head along with the author, “Yup, yup—wow, that’s articulated exactly right!”

For some of the more instructional nonfiction books I read, sometimes all that really matters is remembering what kind of information is in the book. If I remember that UX book A contains a particularly thorough description of how to conduct remote card sorting tests or that UX book B gets into the nitty-gritty of how to price a content strategy project for a client, it’s less important that I remember those actual details than it is to remember that I can return to those books when I need that information again in the future.

(I’m vaguely reminded of Maya Angelou’s words about remembering not what people said but how they made you feel, only in this case one can substitute “people” for “books” and I think the wisdom holds just as true.)

What I’ve found is that I’ve become less concerned with the “quality” of my reading—meaning how well the information sticks in my brain after I’ve flipped the page—and more so with my “quantity” of reading. If I’m reading about a topic that genuinely interests me, I’ll naturally seek out more material on the subject. (Undoubtedly that’s another unfortunate association students make with reading—they think of the activity as a plunge into information that they probably aren’t going to care about.) I’ll consume new books about the same subject, and inevitably these new books with retread over material I’ve gone through before, only this time I’ll pick it up from a new author’s perspective. After the second or third time I read about Quebec’s “Quiet Revolution,” I’ll finally be able to explain it myself. I’ll start to predict which anecdotes the author will bring up. “Oh yeah, this again? I think I know where this is going.”

So to those who are worried about their “quality” of reading, about the difficulty of retaining what you’ve read—stop looking at the final page of the book as your destination. The page you’re on right now is all the material you need to stimulate interesting, worthwhile thoughts.