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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.

Stuck in My Head: BIA – WHOLE LOTTA MONEY

BIA FOR CERTAIN

I didn’t expect this track to stay with me for so long, but since it’s been over a week since I’ve been humming lyrics about putting on my jewelry simply to visit the bodega, I decided it’s time to write about BIA’s “WHOLE LOTTA MONEY.”

The two-note sub bass line takes care of the hard-hitting, minimalist melody while BIA calmly flexes on all of us. My favorite parts include the 808 cowbell and the way BIA’s voice seems to fade into true nonchalance as she ends each refrain with “Bitch I’m getting money, give a fuck about a hater.” Words to live by.

Stuck in My Head: Necrophagist – Diminished to B

Necrophagist - Epitaph album art

I’ve yet to find another tech death band I enjoy as much as Necrophagist, which makes it all the more disheartening that they haven’t released a new album since 2004 and likely never will. (I was thrilled for a moment when I saw the website Metal Sucks report that an unearthed third Necrophagist album was coming out later this year, until I saw the date of the article – April 1st – and the title of the supposed final track of this album – “Endurance of the Gullible Masses.”)

Both of Necrophagist’s albums are masterpieces from start to finish, but lately it’s been “Diminished to B” that’s been stuck on a loop in my head – specifically the first thirty seconds or so. I love the halftime switch up that happens not even ten seconds into the song. I don’t think there’s any way one can ease themselves into extreme metal music like this, so this track is as good a place as any to dive right in if you’re curious. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be growling “SURROUNDED BY DARKNESS AND…. COOOOOLD” along with these crazy Germans in no time.

“Information Architecture? In My Content?”: What You Need to Know About IA

The IA polar bear in the "more likely than you think" meme

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.

BTS Just Dropped a Meal

The BTS Meal at McDonald's

Hey, did you hear? BTS just dropped a meal.

I remember when meals were something that were cooked, prepared, or maybe in rare circumstances “released.” But dropped? That’s new.

“Yo, Grandma just dropped a meal. Bless up 🙏”

“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.

“It’s lit!”

You see what’s happening, right? McDonald’s is engaging in an act of information architecture.

In the case of information architecture, we could say that […] we have information as the raw material, embedded in objects delimited by spaces intentionally designed in order to promote user experiences as the core expertise practiced and researched within the field […]

Lacerda F., Lima-Marques M. (2014) Information Architecture as a Discipline—A Methodological Approach. In: Resmini A. (eds) Reframing Information Architecture. Human–Computer Interaction Series. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-06492-5_1

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.

<!--Valid BTS Meal-->

<BTS_Meal>
  <Drink Size="Large">Coke</Drink>
  <Main Size="10 Piece">Chicken McNuggets</Main>
  <Side Size="Large">French Fries</Side>
  <Sauce>Cajun</Sauce>
  <Sauce>Sweet Chili</Sauce>
</BTS_Meal>

<!--Valid Chicken McNuggets Meal, Invalid BTS Meal-->

<Chicken_McNuggets_Meal>
  <Drink Size="Medium">Coke</Drink>
  <Main Size="10 Piece">Chicken McNuggets</Main>
  <Side Size="Medium">French Fries</Side>
  <Sauce>Ketchup</Sauce>
  <Sauce>Mustard</Sauce>
</Chicken_McNuggets_Meal>

In my opinion, a meal that hits all of the optional BTS Meal attributes but violates the sauce requirements is at best a Chicken McNuggets meal, but it certainly isn’t a BTS Meal.

You might disagree. You might say that it’s the exclusive purple packaging that makes a meal BTS, and the sauces inside (maybe everything inside!) are merely filler.

There’s a discussion to be had, and implications either way. This is information architecture.

“This is information architecture,” says man biting into fast food.