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NextD Barks RERETHINKING DESIGN

IA’s Unidentical Twins: An Information Architecture Transformation Story

GK VanPatter Co-Founder, NextDesign Leadership Institute Co-Founder, Humantific  Making Sense of Cross-Disciplinary Innovation

This text was posted in part, to the following blog on April 4, 2007. http://semanticstudios.com/publications/semantics/000149.php

NextDesign Leadership Institute DEFUZZ THE FUTURE! www.nextd.org Follow NextD Journal on Twitter: www.twitter.com/nextd Copyright © 2007 NextDesign Leadership Institute. All Rights Reserved. NextD Journal may be quoted freely with proper reference credit. If you wish to repost, reproduce or retransmit any of this text for commercial use please send a copyright permission request to journal@nextd.org


NextD Barks I ReReThinking Design

IA’s Unidentical Twins

As I was reading through this rather astonishing thread, three things occurred to me: 1. I must be getting old. 2. Some here might not be aware of the Unidentical Twins story. 3. Some seem to still be unaware of the strategic space race that is underway all around us. This is a difficult story to tell in this format and one that is unlikely to appear on any of the Information Architecture-driven blogs. It is shared with you here with the intention that it might help some of our friends in the present Information Architecture and Strategic Design communities who are attempting to make sense of what they are seeing in their own community and in the broader marketplace. It is a story that not everyone will likely appreciate. Some of you might know that Elizabeth Pastor and I had the privilege to work with Nancye Green, Richard Saul Wurman and others in what are now considered the early days of the Information Architecture movement. Nancye and Richard were both pioneers in Experience Design, Information Architecture and Information Environments Design. We learned a lot from them both. Elizabeth and I found ourselves outside of what became the Information Architecture community when its purpose was narrowed and distorted early on in the dot-com era. For us (and likely others from the early days), there is a great deal of irony in this thread. (More on this later.) As surprising as it might be that Peter Merholz and I agree on anything, I do think his recent acknowledgment regarding the narrowing of dot-com-era Information Architecture is quite correct. While the Information Architecture community of today is notorious for having a short, inwardly focused, airbrushed historical memory, it is well known that contemporary Information Architecture practice and the Information Architecture community began years before the dot-com era arrived (as did the Experience Design community). Let’s give credit where it is due. Richard Saul Wurman wrote Information Anxiety in 1989. In it he described the tsunami of data crashing on our shores and information overload. This was before the mainstream internet had arrived! Richard Wurman coined the term “Information Architecture,” in case many of you are unaware of it, and for decades he has been considered the father of Information Architecture. His work has influenced zillions of people in many fields. Richard has written many books (70+), including the more widely known Information Architecture, published in 1996. In that book, Richard was not explaining a future idea, but rather what some were already practicing. At that time, some cross-disciplinary firms were already combining Experience Design, Information Architecture, Information Environments, etc. It was clear to any of us who were in practice then that “Findability” was only a small part of the original focus and purpose of Information Architecture. In architecture terms, “Findability” was one sub-set of the higher order of Information Architecture.

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NextD Barks I ReReThinking Design

IA’s Unidentical Twins

The enthusiasms, speed, backgrounds and shear volume of those participating in the dot-com rollover of Information Architecture and its transformation into electronic Findability Information Architecture, masked to that movement, the many broader strategic opportunities that it missed. It would be naïve, however, to think that everyone everywhere made the same miscalculation at the same moment. While absconding with Wurman’s higher-order name but only a fraction of the original focus, content, intent and knowledge, Findability Information Architecture went on to create its own world that it conveniently, some would say presumptuously and inappropriately, depicted for many years as Information Architecture. What was in reality Findability Information Architecture went on to ride the wave of interest in various iterations of the online space. Evidently there are some in the Findability Information Architecture community who remain unaware that unidentical twins were born of the moment when the rollover occurred. That other unidentical twin moved in a radically different direction embracing all and more of the original intention of Wurman’s Information Architecture. Since those early days, that unidentical twin, Strategic Information Architecture, continuously transformed itself and spawned many diverse children: Innovation Architecture, Innovation Acceleration, Strategic Design, Transformation By Design, Strategic Sensemaking, etc. In the last eleven years, much of the innovation that has been created around the role of information in organizational transformation and in innovation acceleration occurred outside the narrowly focused Findability Information Architecture movement. Early on, those taking Strategic Information Architecture capabilities into organizational transformation contexts discovered a huge need for visual systems thinking and a kind of sensemaking that was quite different from findability. The need discovered was not about findability in electronic space but rather sensemaking in the highly complex, ill-defined strategic space, the opportunity space, the problem space, the cross-disciplinary team space, the workspace, the mindspace, and yes, the information space. It became evident early on that to work such space, other skills and tools were needed. Those additions, made years ago, transported Strategic Information Architecture far beyond the original intent and into innovation enabling. That adaptation and building beyond continues to this day with Strategic Information Architecture as its foundation. So much building has been done since the dot-com rollover days that it has become clear to some of us that the future of Information Architecture is not and has not for some time been tied to information. Operating for numerous years in the enterprise innovation enabling space provided views into a future that is now part of the present. Quite remarkably this thread seems to suggest that all of this occurred beyond the radar of the Findability Information Architecture movement. It sounds rather like a bizarre TV episode involving unidentical twins separated at birth, but there it is. Beyond ironic, it is really quite mind-bending to see some of the ideas being floated on this thread depicted here as the future of Findability Information Architecture. Much of what is being positioned as a future vision already exists in various forms of practice outside of Findability Information Architecture and has for numerous years. Some folks writing on this thread really need to go and do some reading work. Get out there and go to some non Findability Information Architecture conferences. Go and learn some history. Inventing the future may not be as easy as you think. What is going on here is a great

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NextD Barks I ReReThinking Design

IA’s Unidentical Twins

example of a broader issue facing many disciplines including Information Architecture, and that is loss of or lack of historical knowledge. In the hype of the blogosphere there is often little focus on or effort towards putting together a coherent story that places ideas in context and gives credit to previous work. Let’s get real. Unconnected to the real past and the real present does not make for a strong future building foundation. In an upcoming NextD Journal conversation, we hope to have more on this delicate subject. (1) All of that is part of the missing story here, but there is another significant and even more difficult piece. With all of that said it would, however, be naïve and unfair (to Peter Morville) for anyone to suggest that the enthusiastic findability miscalculation in itself explains how Findability Information Architecture got itself off into the strategic weeds playing catch-up today. It has been unfortunate that for some years, Findability Information Architecture community leaders postured, modeled and even championed an anti-design dynamic, as this has not served anyone well. The marginalization of design into “visual design” within Findability Information Architecture was a self-serving strategy that proved to be shortsighted. Ironically, that strategy set Findability Information Architecture at odds with the arrival of another tsunami — the iPod-driven huge wave of interest in “design thinking” that Findability Information Architecture leaders still seem to be struggling to react to, airbrush over, write themselves into and reorganize around. (2) As the design thinking tsunami swept the marketplace, the Findability Information Architecture reaction machinations included suggestions that designers had too much power, were high maintenance, would rather be drinking in bars than engaging in strategic considerations, were not capable of making decisions or managing, that they should stick to their knitting, etc. Outside of Findability Information Architecture this became known notoriously as the “drunken sailors containment strategy,” also lovingly referred to as the “blue collar containment strategy.” The startlingly aggressive, repeating drumbeat seemed to be that designers could not and should not be trusted with Dad’s car (i.e. the strategic portion of client work). The idea seemed to be that if enough Findability Information Architecture-driven bloggers took enough cheap shots utilizing the “drunken sailors containment strategy,” such distractions might make a dent in the design thinking tsunami. It didn’t. (3) With no end to the design thinking wave in sight, some in Findability Information Architecture more recently began abandoning the “drunken sailors containment strategy” charade and switched gears to try alternate approaches to staying in the game, such as hosting strategic design conferences! That remarkable 180-degree about-face has been, if not astonishing, then at least fun to watch. (4) Today much of Findability Information Architecture is still struggling to awaken to what just happened and why. I’m guessing that Merholz’s proclamation regarding the findability miscalculation was a heads up to his own community that moves are underway to enter into the strategic space race that he now realizes Findability Information Architecture has largely missed.

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NextD Barks I ReReThinking Design

IA’s Unidentical Twins

In light of the recent, rather unfortunate history of Findability Information Architecture, it will be interesting to see how such proclamations and adjustments play themselves out in the marketplace. Whether everyone likes it or not, the future of Strategic Design, Strategic Information Architecture, Innovation Architecture, Innovation Enabling, Experience Design, Service Design, Futurism, Business Consulting, Strategy Consulting, and now Findability Information Architecture are all merging into the strategic space, evidently at different speeds. Some firms have already made the jump to various versions of that next realm of business, call it what you wish: Strategic Design, Innovation Acceleration, Innovation Architecture, Design 3.0, Change Design, Transformation Design, Human-Centered Innovation, Visual Thinking, Whole-Brain Innovation, Adaptable Innovation, Agile Innovation, Continuous Innovation, Cross Disciplinary Innovation, People-Centric Innovation, Organizational Transformation, etc. With every community of practice encountering the forces of globalization, it is a time when many are in motion. As those tectonic plates shift and efforts to expand and contain various forces play themselves out in the marketplace, there will inevitably be tensions and opportunities all around. (For some this migration will likely translate into many new alliances, mergers and collaborations.) That competitive shifting will continue to explain much of what you have been seeing, are seeing and will be seeing in the consultancy space, in the conference event space, in the blogosphere and even in the new business press. (5) Keep your eye on that ball. Ignore the distracters. It is that strategic space race that is driving much of the good, bad and the ugly visible in the marketplace today. Without such understanding, that fuzzy complicated picture can look quite confusing… Hope this is useful. (1)(2)(3)(4)(5): Denotes stories that the traditional design press has done a terrible job of (not) covering.

NextD Journal RERETHINKING DESIGN

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IA’s Unidentical Twins: An Information Architecture Transformation Story  

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