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Dan Klyn on the BASIC Framework

“It’s sermons in stone that really changed my whole life”

Dan Klyn is co-founder of The Understanding Group, an information architecture consultancy based in Michigan. Dan has also created useful and influential IA frameworks, and in this conversation, we focus on his latest: the BASIC framework.

Show notes

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Read the transcript

Jorge: Dan, welcome to the show.

Dan: Thank you.

Jorge: It is such a pleasure to have you here. As I was telling you before we started recording, you’re one of the people that I originally thought of having as a guest on the show, when I first conceived of the show. I am constantly inspired and just amazed by the contributions you’ve brought to our field of information architecture. And I’m honored to have you on the show and looking forward to hearing about you. In particular, about a framework that you’ve been sharing recently.

About Dan

Jorge: But before we get into that, I’m hoping that you will tell us about yourself. Who are you, Dan?

Dan: Sure. Let’s see… I was a fat baby.

I think the reason that I have the pleasure of talking with you today… we can blame Chris Farnham, who is an information architect in Southeast Michigan. I went to a conference about information architecture in 2009. My first professional conference had ever been to in any field, and I didn’t know if I was particularly welcome or fit well into the field of information architecture, but I had a mentor who encouraged me and that was Peter Morville.

So Chris Farnham and Peter Morville, these two guys from Ann Arbor are the only people I thought I knew at this conference, which was true for about five minutes. And as we were walking to the opening reception, Chris said, “Hey, those two guys walking in front of us… those guys are architect-architects. Like, you know, like what you’re interested in, Klyn!” Because even back then, the architecture part of information architecture is what I was mostly interested in. And walking in front of me on the way to this opening reception at the IA Summit, as it was called back then was Jorge Arango and Andreas Resmini.

And I never talked to Chris again for four or five years, I think. And I have held fast to Jorge and Andreas ever since. And I’m so grateful to have had… I’ve been given by you guys permission to be as excited as I am about the architecture part of information architecture. Which is so different than my experience with other professionals in the built environment.

When I started enthusing about information architecture and the ways that I think what makes places good for people in the built environment has something immediately relevant for us to learn from, as people who make digital products and services…. they’re not into it. They scold me for not having consulted the correct sources. Or having the wrong opinions about some buildings or what have you. And you and Andreas both welcomed my amateurism, at a time when you could have just, you know… I don’t know! So that’s why I’m here.

Hi, my name is Dan Klyn. I’m an information architect and I am fascinated by — I am on fire about — the ways that architecture in the built environment can teach us how to do things with digital products and services. And any second now, metaverse-icle products and services and such.

So that’s what I’m interested. I’m interested in the spatiality of meaning. That is a mouthful that nobody wants to hear, but that’s how I say it sometimes. And I have drawn most of my ways of thinking about and seeing this from an increasingly intensive pursuit of Richard Saul Wurman from a biographical standpoint. I figured if I could learn everything that he knows about information architecture, then that would be pretty good. So I’ve been trying to turn him upside down and shake him, and catch what comes out of his pockets for about seven years or so now. So, that’s what I do.

Jorge: That’s a great intro and I feel like this episode is turning into the Jorge and Dan mutual appreciation society. But I think that we can’t wrap up the intro without also naming the fact that you are a co-founder of The Understanding Group,

Dan: right?

The Understanding Group

Dan: That’s right. Yes! And Mr. Wurman having been so essential to the founding of our company. Bob Royce and I, when he… he as a serial entrepreneur was in the school of information and library studies at the same time that Peter and Lou were back in the day.

And so, as somebody from a business development background standpoint, interested in information architecture, his interest in it went all the way back to Richard Saul Wurman. And the first time I saw Richard in person was a speech that he gave at the University of Michigan and the only person that I knew in the audience and we sat right next to each other right in the front row is Bob Royce.

So yeah, together, our enthusiasm for information architecture, digital strategy… whatever ways that we can apply architectural thinking to usually large-scale software and information systems, that’s what we wanted to start a company to focus on. And certainly we were inspired by and got to learn through their advice.

Peter and Lou having operated the world’s first really large scale information architecture consultancy, which was called Argus, which operated back in the late 1990s and disbanded, about the same time that a lot of things did in March of 2001. Yeah, there’s probably a way that you could have a business that focuses on information architecture and that… we want it to be that.

So, that was 10 years ago and TUG continues to be among the… if you were to say, “Hey, who should we get to help us with information architecture?” people would probably say, Jorge Arango, Abby Covert. An aspiration that we’re just pleased that we are often in that same sort of three or four things that you would just know about when it comes to taking on significant information architectural challenges in software and digital products and services, yeah! That’s what we’ve become.

“The spatiality of meaning”

Jorge: I want to circle back to this phrase, “the spatiality of meaning.” And you referenced being inspired by Mr. Wurman. And you also talked about “Being on fire about the architecture of the built environment,” and talking about gravitating to Andreas and myself at that first information architecture summit. And one thing that the three of us have in common, the three of us being Mr. Wurman, Andreas, and myself, is that our background is in building architecture. But that is not your background, right?

Dan: Correct. Library science over here.

Jorge: Library science. So, I’m wondering what drew you to the architecture of the built environment?

Dan: It’s gonna sound… it’s exactly… think of the most boring cliche way to answer your question and that’s the answer. Since I was a little boy, I had a Crayola drafting set of a T-square and a triangle. And big paper. And my parents got me a tilty desk. Like it was the only thing I knew that I wanted it to be until I didn’t think that I could because I was bad at math. So, for as long as I can remember, I wanted to make the shapes that I make on paper turn into an experience that people could have. Especially me, but other people may be also. And since then, and especially since becoming a consultant who travels a lot, I have had an extraordinary opportunity to go to buildings.

And I have had my cognition, my heart rate, my pulse, my skin temperature… I have been physically changed by every different kind of place that I’ve been to. And by doing that on purpose, that’s where the BASIC Framework comes from is an awareness that I developed at some point that what these buildings do is they are machines that uniquely change our human experience by changing our blood pressure and our cognition and our pulse. And the effects that it uses are both, you know, the physics of the earth, the density of the walls… if you’re in a crypt of a cathedral and the density of the walls is two feet thick and it is granite, the air pressure changes in there make what your body can… what’s possible for you to experience has been concrete-ized literally in ways that are just extraordinary.

And so, by putting myself in so many of these different places, and yes, I’ve catered to my list of initially is canonical buildings that architects who control what is considered to be a good building in the Western tradition, right? But that’s the kind of list that I started from. And by going to as many of these places as possible, continually re-energizing and re-believing in reifying the reality… not some neat-o idea that I choose to have, but an actual experience that is undeniable that the way that these places have been set up through the arrangement of material and space and through the arrangement of the information that is either encoded in that material or inscribed on that material, the situatedness of things in space changes how we… how we experience things.

The radical architect, Christopher Alexander — people scoff! Like, spit their coffee out when he says stuff like that he knows how to make God appear in a field. But that’s… I think also a part of why I’ve been so interested in this is having been raised in a deeply religious context and hearing about power that people can have access to and experiences with and transformation, transfiguration, transubstantiation, immanence… that I’ve had those experiences. And they’re not so much with sermons of words — it’s sermons in stone that really changed my whole life. So, now I seek out experiences in places so that I can understand better how to somehow transfer or remember at a minimum, all of the different ways that I’ve been made to feel through experiences with architectures. And then, how can I tap into that at some other time for some other purpose. That’s how I’ve been trying to rationalize such the luxurious experience of going to so many kick-ass buildings.

Jorge: Well, that was beautifully put and I’ll reflect it back to you. What I heard there is that this phrase, “the spatiality of meaning,” at least part of it, has to do with the fact that buildings play a functional role in our lives, right? Like they keep us dry and warm — you know, safe from external conditions. But there’s this other role that they can play — at least some buildings can play — which has to do with somehow moving us, reminding us of perhaps higher states of being somehow.

And the question is… you and I both work on architecting experiences that people have mostly within the confines of the small glass rectangles that we carry around in our pockets. And what’s the connection between these — if any — between these transcendent experiences that you have when walking into a special place and the sort of experience that you can have through a digital artifact?

Back to screens

Dan: Well, I’m trying to think about it in terms of the last thing that I worked on or some real case in point. And I’m thinking about an app that I’ve been working on that has all kinds of different functionality. And there are ideas about what does prominence mean?

So, imagine that this app that has all sorts of different kinds of functions, that there’s a giant global organization, and there are people who are mapped to those functions and that they all feel like their thing needs to be the most important and therefore the most prominent or vice versa. So, there’s a space race, or there’s a competition for the most opportune positions on screens in this screen-iverse that they operate. And finding an order that both works from the, “I’m a brain in a jar,” and there are semantic categories and there are things… there’s knowledge in the world, not just in my head. And on the basis of knowledge in the world and on figuring things out from a sense-making standpoint, there’s no right way. But there are good ways. And so what I’m trying to learn from the built environment, every location in the built environment is special.

So, it’s not so much that I’ve been to special places and then, “oh crap. What do you do when you’re working on something quotidian? Something that’s just every day.” It’s the idea that every place is charged with wonder. Every… everything is amazing. Because look at it! There it is! People made that!

And so, trying to help this organization, this global organization with all these poor people who are, you know, if their thing is high up on the screen, then they win. Trying to posit order for how to situate all of those things in space that’s both good for the organization that they can continue to operate as an organization and as a business. It’s good for people who have to use it because it isn’t like, “oh! Where is the blank?” And also then the trifecta is: and could all of this be key to our embodiment as human beings?

And so, we came up with a way to position proprioceptively. Imagine yourself looking at your phone screen. There’s left, right, up, down. To make left and right and up and down mean something, other than “most important,” “least important,” or “most prominent” and “least prominent.” So, things of this nature you can expect to find them over to the left. Things of that other nature you can expect to find those to the right. And governance… a way of working with the organization to help diffuse the person with the highest tolerance for discomfort wins, for there to be reasons for belonging and space and place that everybody can understand, and that, when people follow it, it creates more wellbeing and prosperity.

It sounds like fantasy, but that’s really what we get to do when we’re doing it right. And it’s great! And I couldn’t do it if I didn’t have these experiences in my own body and have felt and believed in the pleasure and the learnability and the… to reliably be able to reach over here and get something because you know it’s going to be there. And on what basis, other than, “well, that’s where it always was.”

Jorge: What I’m getting from what you’re saying there is that in both cases, in both the physical environment than these information environments, there is the possibility of a higher level of order that might bring coherence to what might otherwise be forces that are pulling the experience into different directions, that make it incoherent, right?

Dan: That’s right.

The BASIC framework

Jorge: And with that in mind I wanted to ask you… during your career, you’ve shared a few frameworks that have been influential and helped us see the type of work that we do in different ways. And recently you’ve shared a draft of a framework that is new to me at least, called BASIC. And it seems to me to be an effort in this direction of providing kind of a framework for order and coherence.

Dan: Yes.

Jorge: And I was hoping that you would tell us about the BASIC framework. What is it?

Dan: I am learning along with everybody else what it is. That’s one of the risks! When you put something out there that isn’t done yet, that’s the reason to do something like that.

And so, having put it out there not entirely baked, and then asking for and eliciting feedback… one of the first most powerful pieces of feedback that I got after presenting it for the first time at a meetup online was from a colleague in the UK who posited that what BASIC is, is it’s about where you as the designer… it gives you five vantage points into the problem space.

It’s like, “where should I stand to see the thing that would be good to notice?” So, that’s one way to start explaining it is: it’s an easy-to-remember acronym that gives you five ways to have a posture vis-a-vis some kind of a complex system. And if you stand in these five places, and if you ask some of the questions that I’ve provided with each of those postures, then possibly you will see the architecture of the thing.

So, that’s really the goal. And one of the ways that I came to make it, was a friend of mine… we went on a field trip. We went to the Edith Farnsworth house in Plano, Illinois by Mies van der Rohe. And we were so lucky! It was in the winter and we were the only ones on the tour. So we had a whole hour with the docent. Couldn’t go in because it was winter, have since of rectified that. Have been back with the same friend and we got to go inside.

But first time we’re just outdoors, in the snow, circling the Edith Farnsworth house. And then afterward, I shared the photos that I took. And my friend noted that… he looked at the photos that he… we went to the same place, we took many of the same pictures. But that there was something going on in the pictures that I was taking that he wanted to know about, because it seemed like I was accessing different parts of the same experience. And whether it was just purely on the basis of the otherness of the what… something that somebody else is doing it in the same place, you wonder what that is? It’s not… I don’t believe it’s because I have superior aesthetic judgements or anything like that. I think it has to do though with having developed a set of postures for when I’m trying to relate to buildings first of all, in order to see the right stuff. By my own internal compass, the right stuff.

And then, talking this out with my friend and then him encouraging me to do something with it because it seemed like it could be learnable. Like, if I stood there and if I cocked my head that way, I would see it too. So, that’s what it is. It’s postures that you can use. Questions…

So, the first one is boundaries. And if you didn’t do any of the other elements, if you found a way to perceive the boundaries… and where was the boundary before where it is now, and who gets to move the… just some really dumb questions about boundaries and where one material stops and another begins is an especially potent thing to notice in buildings. But whether it’s buildings or an intranet, the boundaries. How did they get here? Where were they before? Is there a plan to make there be different boundaries? Do you see any evidence of, you know, the ghost traces of where things used to be, or where they’re fixing to go? And then you can go right on down the line. And the second one, let’s see, what is the second one? You’ve got the book there, you tell me!

Jorge: There is a little booklet that you can print out and I’m holding one in my hands. So, the first one is boundaries. The second one is associations.

Dan: Yes. Perfect! So, what do we associate a stepped gable with in the built environment? I’m Dutch. If you go to Holland, Michigan, nearby where I live, there are these buildings that were built within the last 20 years that have these stepped gables not because they serve any functional purpose, but because they remind everybody who lives there, that many of the people here have Dutch heritage, and that that’s how the buildings look. So there are direct associations like that. There are more diffused associations, like the kind… does it link to a PDF? You associate that differently than if it’s to HTML page, then if it’s a video. So just associations. The A, S…

Situatedness. Why is anything where it is? If you go to the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth, Texas — which I encourage you to do — there has been an expansion to that museum. It was originally by Louis Kahn opened in 1972, the year I was born. An expansion to the museum was done by Renzo Piano in the nineties. You now enter the Kimbell from the back, relative to where the architect imagined you would enter the building. So just little… why is anything where it is gives you access to so many architectural decisions that were made in the environment.

And then the last two are twinned. And probably I’m too in love with BASIC because it’s so easy to remember and I want it to be basic like food-hole, air-hole, dumb-basic.

But the last two are invariants. So, what are the forces in the environment that don’t change or that seem like they don’t change? Brian Eno has wisely said that repetition is a form of change. So you have to be careful with this one. And that’s why it is paired with cycles. And those two postures, those two places to stand relative to some complex system… if you were able to perceive what was invariant in the environment, that would explain to you why it shows up the way that it does and each of these elements in the model has a building that I’ve been to.

They’re all in the United States so far, and the example cartoon of a building for invariance is a garage I saw in Seattle. Where I live in Michigan, the roofs are a pointy, peaked roof, like kids around here would draw a picture of a house. But in Seattle, there’s a shape of a roof that is inverted to catch the rain because it is on a steep hill, in a microclimate that is a rainforest basically. So, it’s an invariant. There’s so much water there, you’re going to change the shape of the roof to rise to channel those forces better. And that was the consequence… consequence to that, a million other decisions about the building.

And then cycle, the last one, you can plug that one into what’s invariant. In Michigan, we have four seasons. In Seattle, they have maybe two. And so, by looking at what has the system done to anticipate cyclical change in the environment that it’s in… put all those five postures together, ask a question from each one, and I feel pretty good that you’re not talking about the design so much as you’re talking about the architecture of the system.

Jorge: What attracts me so much about this framework is that it takes a systemic lens at examining the… or a set of lenses, right? To your point, these are different vantage points from which you can examine the system. And although it is grounded in architecture, as in built architecture — and like you said, the booklet includes drawings of buildings as illustrations of these various lenses — they seem applicable to other types of things that might be architected, right? Like this notion that you can examine the system through the perspective of what distinctions does it manifest, versus what perhaps memories, cultural or otherwise, it triggers, right? Like those are very different perspectives that are part of architected systems, regardless of whether they are buildings or what have you.

Dan: That’s right. And the caveat here with any methods that I’ve developed, if you’re trying to apply them, it has to be in an architectural context where the nature of the change that is expected or at least possible? Is more than an increment. It can be executed incrementally but the nature of the change… if you’re looking for recommendations about how to change the architecture, it should be safe to presume that those kinds of changes are harder to do, possibly take more time, and are more costly because they are more consequential.

And so, if people are just making shit, then this framework won’t help you because there isn’t a reason for everything that was done. And that is… I’m so glad that we’ve got to here and maybe because of time, we might land here or start landing here, is: the built environment is such a terrific teacher because almost always, except now, every decision that was made is because of a reason. And the traceability of every move that is made to a reason, you need to do that in design too, if you’re doing it right. But when you’re talking about architecture what that means is that it’s being taken on and thought of systemically. And if the thing is being made in a way where it doesn’t care about being systemic, then these lenses won’t help you because it just is the way that it is because it is. This all presumes total accountability for every move that you make as a recommender of changes to an environment.

And I’ve recommended changes to a digital environment that have made it so that people’s jobs went away. I’m glad that I haven’t worked on products and services where the changes I’ve recommended have caused harm to people, that I know of, but it’s certainly possible. And as we enter into this metaverse time of everything being part of the experiences that we work on, I think having a framework like this is also helpful because it might check an impulsive feeling of, “oh, I get it.” Or, “I’ve seen it.” Or, “I know what it is.” Or, “clearly the solution is…” Maybe this framework would help you go slower and not move with so much certainty. Maybe these are five ways to undermine the decision that you were about to make. And I would be good with that, in most cases.

Jorge: How do you keep that from paralyzing you altogether? Because when you say you have full accountability over a thing, like…

Dan: It all depends on having extraordinary clients. Without clients who are willing to work in that fashion… I mean, whether you want to take maximum accountability for your recommendations or not,

Jorge: I can see what you mean, but I can also understand how that sense would or could paralyze you as a designer, right? So, how do you keep the dance going?

Responsibility

Dan: It’s a two way street and if the client isn’t playing along and giving you that accountability and that responsibility, then you’re not actually… you know, it’s not actually happening. So, I think it absolutely depends on having the right clients and TUG has been so fortunate to have not prospered enough to have clients that aren’t the right kind. It’s weird to engage with information architects to affect change to complex digital products and services. And I think we show up… weird enough, where we’ve scared away the ones who wouldn’t be a good partner with us in wanting to have that level of accountability, that level of traceability for the recommendations that we make. Because it requires that the stakeholders be super accountable to what they want, because you’re going to get it, right?

Like, that’s what I’m saying is, as your architect, if you show me your intent, if you let me make a model of your intent and then the model is more or less correct, then I can make a whole bunch of decisions about the situatedness of things in your space that will deliver against that intent. So God help you if you don’t know what you want. Because I need that in order to make decisions on your… with you, not on your behalf.

When we started TUG a long time ago, we decided the word agency must not be the word for… We don’t want to borrow anyone’s agency for money for a couple of months and then give it back to them. They need to keep their agency all along the way to keep instructing us and intending back when we make our moves to make sure that things stay good. So, yeah, it’s all about having the right clients and quite frankly, it has a lot to do with my own personal choices over the last year or so to get away from consulting as much as I personally can, and be more in the mode of scholarship and writing because I don’t know how much longer the client world is going to be able to make room for the kinds of work that I personally want to do.

Closing

Jorge: Well Dan, I would love to hear more about what that might be. And I would like to extend you an invitation to do another recording with me, if you are open to it, to explore that and the notion of architecting the thing that architects the thing, somehow, right? Because that’s what is implied in what you’re saying, I think. But for now, where can folks follow up with you?

Dan: Well, I think maybe BASIC would be a good way to start. So if you go to understandinggroup.com/basic, you can download a PDF of the most recent version of the little mini booklet. I’ve created an instructional video for how to cut and fold said booklet so that it has its maximum booklet-iness for you when you make it. And from there I… yeah, I’m omni-available, except through Facebook, WhatsApp, or Instagram.

Jorge: You’re not going Meta.

Dan: I would accept money from Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp to research the potential for harm to human beings, through what they intend to do in the so-called metaverse. But I’m not willing to use their products.

Jorge: It sounds like that might yet be another reason for us to have a second conversation here. But I’ll just allude to it because I’ll include links to the stuff that you’ve been discussing on the show. And, I’ll just reiterate that the booklet is beautiful, simple, useful. I have one printed out and keep it on my desk. So, I encourage folks to check it out. Thank you, Dan, for…

Dan: The only thing better than that for me Jorge, is if I could be little and be there on your desk instead of the booklet, but that’s… I’d love that.

Jorge: I can see you on a little screen here. On a little window in my screen, so… it’s not the same, but it’s… it’ll have to do for now. Well, thank you so much for being with us, Dan. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you.

Dan: Let’s talk again.