Emancipating Information Architecture

I hope to free information architecture from the shackles I helped to forge. Since 1994, I’ve been speaking and writing on this topic, most famously as co-author of the polar bear book, and mostly I’ve framed IA as a professional practice in service to business.

I make no apologies. This focus on corporate IA has enabled my career in consulting. It’s how I’ve earned a living. And it’s been good for business. The structural design of shared information environments has advanced bottom lines and user experience. By planning and calibrating the organization, navigation, and search systems of websites and software, we’ve delivered better products while helping people.

And to be clear, our work is not done. To the contrary, the practice of IA in the context of business is more challenging and more important than ever. As the balance of power shifts from physical to digital services, the invisible infrastructural work we do from information architecture strategy to enterprise taxonomy becomes mission critical.

But taking care of business isn’t good enough. In an era of unpresidented social, cultural, and environmental crisis, our skills are needed beyond business, if only we can find the courage and curiosity to leave our comfort zones and sketch towards the fear.

Mental Models

A mental model is a sketch of the world we hold in our heads. We rely on these word-image diagrams to see how things work, to explain the why behind the what, and to predict the consequences of our actions. Of course, our sketches are imperfect and lack detail, but mostly they are good enough. We may not understand electromagnetism or transduction, yet we routinely make toast without burning or electrocuting ourselves.

Draw Toast by Tom Wujec

Draw Toast by Tom Wujec

Our mental models are good enough, until they aren’t. Plants are harmless, until you touch a stinging nettle. On a trackpad, you move two fingers down to scroll down, until you use a Mac. So we revise our maps to fit the territory. Improving our own mental models means we’re learning.

Conversely, improving others’ mental models means we’re teaching, and it’s in this uncharted stretch of IA where treasure lies. While the tangible targets of our work, websites and software, draw attention and investment, our superpower is organizing words to change minds, and so I propose a new definition: information architecture is the design of language and classification systems to change the world.

We did this with the polar bear book in 1998. By naming and structuring “the pain with no name,” we helped to launch a community of practice that endures to this day. Jesse James Garrett performed a similar magic trick with the elements of user experience. And in business we organize words to change minds all the time. Invisible IA is how we align stakeholders behind a shared vision. Language and classification are powerful.

That’s why the second meaning of “emancipating information architecture” is so important. We must free information architecture so that we can use information architecture to free minds. This mission will carry us beyond business, away from technology, and outside our comfort zones.

The Architecture of Identity

The ABC’s of LGBT+ is the best IA book I’ve read in years. Ashley Mardell writes “gender is a system of classification rooted in social ideas about masculinity and femininity,” and “sex is a social construct, a method of classification invented by humans,” and they explain “not knowing how to put your identity into words can be isolating and frustrating. Used properly, language has the power to validate people’s identities and grant a sense of community.”

To my delight, @AshHardell (name change in 2016) includes a whole chapter on spectrums, and nonlinear alternatives such as color wheels, as tools to help people go beyond binary. Checkboxes can “cause intersex people to feel isolated, invalid, and erased,” and “perpetuate intolerance of anything that’s not the norm,” whereas spectrums “acknowledge that identities can exist in varying degrees of intensity” and “allow for change and fluidity.”

The Gender Unicorn

The Gender Unicorn

This study of identity IA is fascinating, but we mustn’t lose sight of why it matters. Ash writes “I didn’t have the education growing up to tell me there were genders beyond male/female, so discovering there was a term for what I felt was such a relief,” and “understanding my gender and not letting it determine anything I do is the most freeing feeling I’ve ever had.” Organizing words matters to Ash, and given that most LGBTQ+ youth are bullied in person and online and 40% of transgender youth attempt suicide, the design of language and classification systems matters to us all.

I learned of Ash’s book when a colleague came out as trans in the workplace. It was humbling to witness their courage. And it made me reflect upon the information architecture of everyday ideas. If we explore IA beyond business, we may learn to do our jobs differently (e.g., design gender inclusive classifications for toys in ecommerce, create a more diverse and equitable workplace) or we may learn we want different jobs.

The Web of Life

Humans worship hierarchy. It’s written into the Bible: “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” It’s how the West organized the world. To this day, the Great Chain of Being is embodied in religions, cultures, traditions, and laws that treat nonhuman animals as things, not persons.

Redressing this misperception via Gentle Change is the different job I want. That’s why I’m seeking sanctuary in Virginia. While I hope to continue IA consulting, I plan to create a gathering place dedicated to more happiness and less suffering for all sentient beings, and to organize words to change minds about our place in the web of life.

The Hidden Life of Trees

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben

Our persistence in placing ourselves atop a hierarchy results from what we see and want to see. As Fritjof Capra writes in The Web of Life “in nature there is no ‘above’ or ‘below,’ and there are no hierarchies. There are only networks nesting within other networks.” Perception holds hidden power. What we want/see shapes what we believe.

When we draw a picture of a tree, most of us will not draw the roots. Yet the roots of a tree are often as expansive as the parts we see. In a forest, moreover, the roots of all trees are interconnected and form a dense underground network in which there are no precise boundaries between individual trees.

The tree is a symbol of individual strength, yet The Hidden Life of Trees reveals the extent to which the forest is a “wood wide web” in which bacteria, fungi, trees, plants, and insects exchange nutrients and information for the health of the community. We see what we want and entrench it within classifications. Lynn Margulis argued:

Objective scholars, if they were whales or dolphins, would place humans, chimpanzees, and orangutans in the same taxonomic group. There is no physiological basis for the classification of human beings into their own family. Human beings and chimps are far more alike than any two arbitrarily chosen genera of beetles.

And her argument won the day. The meaning of hominid has been revised to include all great apes. Science evolves based on evidence and argument. Wrongs can be righted if we have the courage to see clearly and speak up. We aren’t on top because there is no hierarchy. We are impermanent patterns in a web of life that depends on death.

The Wisdom of Death and Dying

My final journey before the borders closed was to Guadalajara, where I learned that in Mexico death is seen as beautiful, and that Día de Muertos is a celebration that engages friends and family in remembrance of and relationship with the dead. As Coco reveals, the whole point of the day of the dead is that “the dead are not really gone.”

In our culture, death is taboo, grief is the subject of fear, and we suffer for our ignorance. BJ Miller explains doctors use language to pathologise suffering and dying and suggests cancer is not a war and death is not the enemy. And Stephen Jenkinson writes in Die Wise, “Dying is traumatizing when it is happening in a time and place that will not make room for dying in its way of living.”

A few months ago, my father-in-law Charles Wickhorst died. Sadly, due to the pandemic, we have been unable to hold a proper celebration of his life. So our family has decided that this year, for the first time, we will celebrate Día de Muertos. In remembering Charles and all our friends and family who have died, we will remind ourselves that the dead are not really gone.

Jenkinson says it is our responsibility “to know the old stories that include life dying so that life can live,” and “culture lives in the language. If you can’t say something, you can’t see it either.” This griefwalker who has born witness to the deaths of so many says “Naming is an exercise in dominion. It is power, and it is an act of conjuring too.”

Emancipating Information Architecture

Words and categories shape how we think/feel about life, death, persons, and things. The design of language and classification systems conjures the world. That’s why we must expand our practice. Amid existential crisis, business as usual is not an option.

We might begin with events. World IA Day, IAC, and EuroIA can reshape boundaries. Are we inviting and engaging attendees, speakers, volunteers, and leaders from outside our community? Are we talking about stuff that matters and topics that make us uncomfortable? Hopefully schools teaching IA/UX will rise to these challenges too.

As individuals, we can ask similar questions. In my job, how can I make better use of my talent for organizing words to change minds? In light of my skills, do I want a different job? Can I be a better ancestor by shifting the context in which I practice?

The Emancipation Proclamation moved us towards the abolition of slavery, yet the fight for freedom goes on. We are locked in civil war by archaic ideas, words, categories, and stories. Language and classification are the keys to freedom. So let’s get started. The situation is urgent. The time for emancipating information architecture is now.

by Peter Morville