What am I?

So… here we are a year after the 2009 IA Summit in glorious Memphis. At the end of that conference, Jesse James Garrett, one of the more prominent and long-standing members of the community, (and, ironically, a co-founder of the IA Institute ;-), made a pronouncement in his closing plenary that “there are no Information Architects” and “there are no Interaction Designers” … “there are only User Experience Designers.”

There has since been some vocal expression of discontent with Jesse’s pronouncement.*

I held off — mostly because I was tired of the conversation about what to call people, and I’ve come to realize it doesn’t get anyone very far. More on that in a minute.

First I want to say: I am an information architect.

I say that for a couple of reasons:

1. My interests and skills in the universe that is Design tack heavily toward using information to create structured systems for human experience. I’m obsessed with the design challenges that come from linking things that couldn’t be linked before the Internet — creating habitats out of digital raw material. That, to me, is the heart of information architecture.

2. I use the term Information Architect because that’s the term that emerged in the community I discovered over 10 years ago where people were discussing the concerns I mention in (1) above. That’s the community where I forged my identity as a practitioner. In the same way that if I ever moved to another country, I would always be “American” there’s a part of my history I can’t shake. Nobody “decided” to call it that — it just happened. And that, after all, is how language works.

Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, back to Jesse’s talk. I appreciated his attempt to sort of cut the Gordian knot. I can see how, from a left-brain analytical sort of impulse, it looks like a nice, neat solution to the complications and tensions we’ve seen in the UX space — by which I mean the general field in which various related communities and disciplines seem to overlap & intersect. Although, frankly, I think the tensions and political intrigue he mentioned were pretty well contained and already starting to die off by attrition on their own … 99.9% of the people in the room and those who read/heard his talk later had no idea what he was talking about. (Later that year I met some terrific practitioners in Brazil who call themselves information architects and were genuinely concerned, because the term had already become accepted among government and professional organizations — and that if the Americans decide to stop using the term, what will they be called? I told them not to sweat it.)

So like I said — I get the desire to just cut the Gordian knot and say “these differences are illusions! let’s band together and be more formidable as one!” But unfortunately, this particular knot just won’t cut. It probably won’t untangle either. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

When I heard Jesse’s pronouncement about “there are no” and “there are only,” I thought it was too bad it would probably end up muddying the effect of his talk … people would hyper-fixate on those statements and miss a lot of the other equally provocative (but probably more useful) comments he made that afternoon.

Why would I say that? Because over the years I’ve come to realize that telling someone what or who they are is counterproductive. Telling people who call themselves X that they should actually call themselves Y — and that a role named X doesn’t actually exist — is like telling someone named Sally that her name is Maude. Or telling a citizen of a country (e.g. USA, Germany, Australia) he’s not a “real” American, German or Australian.

Saying such a thing pushes deep emotional buttons about our identities. Buttons we aren’t even fully aware we have.

There are some kinds of language that our brains treat as special. If you show me a fork and tell me it’s a spoon, my brain will just say “you’re confused, really just look this up in the dictionary, you’ll see you’re wrong.” No sense of being threatened there, little emotional reaction other than amusement and slight concern for your mental health.

But language about our identities is different. That sort of language often reaches right past our frontal cortex and heads straight for the more ancient parts of our brains. The parts that felt fear when our parents left the room when we were infants, or the parts that make us eat whatever is in front of us if we’ve skipped a meal or two, even if we’re really trying to eat healthier that day. It’s the part that translates sensory data into basic emotions about our very existence and survival. Telling someone they aren’t something that they really think they are is like threatening to chop off a limb — or better, a portion of their face, so they won’t quite recognize themselves in the mirror.

Like I said — counterproductive.

Why would I go into such a dissertation on our brains and identity? Because it helps us understand why practitioner communities can get into such a bind over the semantics of their work.

A couple of years ago, I did the closing talk at IA Summit in Miami. The last section of that talk covered professional identity, and explains it better there than I could here. I also posted later about the Title vs Role issue in particular. So I won’t repeat all that here.

In particular — my own analytical side wanted to believe it was possible to separate the “role/practice” of information architecture from the need we have to call ourselves something. But I should’ve added another layer between “Title” and “Role” and called it something like “what we call ourselves to our friends.” It turns out that’s an important layer, and the one that causes us the most grief.

Since I did that talk, I’ve learned it’s a messier issue than I was making of it at the time. It’s helpful, I think, to have some models and shared language for helping us more dispassionately discuss the distinctions between various communities, roles and names. But they only go so far — most of this is going to happen under the surface, in the organic, emergent fog that roils beneath the parts of our professional culture that we can see and rationalize about.

It’s also worth noting that no professional practice that is still living and thriving has finally, completely sorted these issues out. Sure, there are some professions that have definitions for the purpose of licensure or certification — but those are only good for licensure and certification. Just listen to architects arguing over what it means to be an architect (form vs function, etc) or medical practitioners arguing over what it means to be a doctor (holistic vs western, or Nurse Practitioner vs MD).

I’m looking forward to the 2010 IA Summit in Phoenix, and the conversations that we’ll undoubtedly have on these issues. I realize these topics frustrate some (though I suspect the frustration comes mainly from the discomfort I explained above). But these are important, relevant conversations, even if people don’t realize it at the time. They mark the vibrancy of a field of practice, and they’re the natural vehicle for keeping that field on its toes, evolving and doing great work.

* Note: Thanks to Andrea Resmini, Dan Saffer and Dan Klyn for “going there” in their earlier posts, and making me think. If there are any other reactions that I missed, kindly add links in the comments below? Also, thanks Jesse for saying something that’s making us think, talk and debate.

  • http://findability.org/ Peter Morville

    Well said Andrew! I’m looking forward to that beer in Phoenix :-)

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  • http://andrearesmini.com Andrea Resmini

    Thanks, Andrew. Very well said and very much needed, I think. Looking forward to that beer as well. :)

  • http://mediajunkie.com xian

    wait, there was beer!?

  • http://instone.org/ Keith Instone

    Just like the information spaces we help architect, people are multi-faceted. We need to be better at using our language to make that clearer. Like, for example, when someone asks “Who are you, Andrew?” now, you might say “married” and I am not sure your wife cares about the job title (maybe the salary, tho). (^:

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