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Nathan Shedroff is an entrepreneur, author, speaker, and a colleague at the California College of the Arts, where we both teach in the graduate interaction design program. Nathan has worked for a long time on driving innovation and sustainability through design. This conversation focuses on his latest project: Foodicons, which is creating a shared, open-source, and royalty-free iconographic language of food.
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Sunni Brown is a social entrepreneur who uses visual literacy, design thinking, and visual facilitation to solve complex problems. She’s the author of The Doodle Revolution and co-author of Gamestorming.
In this conversation, we discuss Sunni’s current area of focus, which uses Zen Buddhism and design thinking to help individuals craft a more fulfilling and engaged life.
- Sunni Brown
- Deep Self Design
- Sunni on Twitter
- Sunni on LinkedIn
- Sunni on Instagram
- Sunni on Facebook
- The Doodle Revolution: Unlock the Power to Think Differently by Sunni Brown
- Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown, and James Macanufo
- Dave Mastronardi (LinkedIn)
- What is a multipotentialite?
- The Nexialist approach: Van Vogt and the idea that ‘specialisation is for insects’
- Sōtō Zen
- Reality distortion field
- _Liminal Thinking: Create the Change You Want by Changing the Way You Think_ by Dave Gray
- In defense of the visual alphabet by Dave Gray
- Design personas
- Kate Rutter (LinkedIn)
- Brené Brown
- Double diamond diagram
Some show notes may include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commission for purchases made through these links.
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Jorge: Sunni, welcome to the show.
Sunni: Thank you.
Jorge: It’s a pleasure having you here. For folks who might not know you, would you mind, please, introducing yourself?
Sunni: Oh, when you let me know that we were going to have to do that, I had this like moment of, oh God! How do you introduce oneself when you’re a, like a… well, the new term is multipotentialite. Have you heard this obnoxious term?
Sunni: Well, it’s like if you’re a polymath, or if you just have multifaceted aspects of yourself. It’s not easy to summarize who I am, what I do. So, I always dread the question. But there is a term floating around called multipotentialite, and it just means the person that has many skills and many things that they pursue and many things that they’re interested in. There’s a lot of neuro-diversity going on, so we’re not easily put in a space. So, it’s hard for me to summarize myself.
But I would say what’s useful for people to know for the purposes of this conversation is probably that… I’ll just tell you my role. I am an author and a public speaker and a visual thinker, and a facilitator. Really, a sort of deep-dive facilitator. And a Zen student. And also what I call a Deep Self Designer. And a book coach. So as you can see, my friend, Dave Mastronardi, finally gave me language for this the other day. He goes, “you’re just a creative with a capital C!” And I was like, “Cool, Dave, thank you! Because that kind of helps, you know?” It’s like, I just am interested in a lot.
Jorge: I don’t like the word generalist because it implies like Jack of all trades, master of none.
Sunni: Yeah, right!
Jorge: I love this idea of multipotentialite. I recently heard the word “nexialist,” which…
Sunni: What is that? Like a person at the nexus of lots of things?
Jorge: Doesn’t quite roll off the tongue either. It comes from a sci-fi book, and I’ll put a link in the show notes so that we don’t have to go into it in too much depth here. But I think it’s a similar idea, that you are driven by several different interests.
Sunni: I love science fiction for that. They always give us language that we need, you know?
Jorge: I feel like I want to explore several of the many… what’s the plural of nexus? Is it nexuses? Or nexii?
Jorge: Several of the different identities that you served us there. Or potentialities, maybe. You spoke of… well, let’s, tackle two of them that I’m especially curious about. You mentioned that you’re a Zen student and a Deep Self Designer. I don’t know if you want to take those independently or if they somehow connect?
Sunni: They do connect, actually. And it’s cool that you alighted in on those two, because they’re the… I think honestly, the most important ones that I do. And they have the most… they have the most liberating capacity of all the things that I do. And they do have intersections, absolutely.
Sunni: So, Zen is not something you can summarize really at all. It’s such a deep and ancient lineage and an enormous body of practice. But what I find useful and what actually… it was sort of the groundwork for my pursuit of designing another method. And what it did for me was help me understand that the mind is a machine, and it has like projections onto reality all the time. And it has narratives and stories that it constantly creates and recreates and lives into. And they can be very confining, these perceptions of reality. And so when you run into some ideas about reality that are actually created by you, based on your history and your experience, if they cause friction for you, then there’s a sort of place where you can redesign that intersection with reality to create a better reality for yourself.
And I know that’s like a lot to just unload in conversation, but Zen made just sitting, which is… I’m in what’s called the Soto Zen lineage. So literally, you sit in meditation for hours. I mean, I probably sat for 10,000 hours easily, and – not easily, but difficult-ly. But we call it just getting on the cushion, right? So like you just take it there, and then you kind of watch what your mind is up to. And through that process, I learned how I trick myself, how I can have distortions in my belief systems. I think Steve Jobs used to call it a “reality distortion field.” I think he was also a Zen practitioner.
But that laid the groundwork for me to understand, “oh, I have a lot of agency and choice once I understand how my system works.” And you know, like you’re a systems thinker and a design thinker, so of course I was interested in that. And then I just went from that place and started to practice with different methods to support other people.
Jorge: I’m reminded of our mutual friend Dave Gray’s book, Liminal Thinking.
Sunni: Oh, Yeah! It’s so funny you said that. Because I have it, of course — I always will buy whatever Dave makes, but I haven’t read it because I always have way too many books. But I understand kind of the vibe, and a lot of people, when I talk about this, they bring up his book, and I’m like, I should read that.
Jorge: When I first read that, I remember asking Dave about it because I got the sense that there was a lot of Buddhism in…
Sunni: Yeah, I don’t know that Dave knows that he has a Buddhist aspect. I don’t think he’s a Buddhist practitioner. But I have found there are multiple people that actually arrive at some of these deep wisdoms because it’s not… it’s in reality. So, the Buddha was just describing reality. So, anyone can find their own path to that awareness. And so, yeah! It’s funny to me when I work with people, and I go, “oh my God, that’s like a very ancient principle that you stumbled upon,” you know? So I think Dave must’ve done that too. Because he doesn’t like go to the zendo, I’m pretty sure.
Jorge: The path, it seems to me… and here I’m reflecting back to you what perhaps I layered through my own experience onto what you were saying, which is that we experience reality at various different levels. And if you step back far enough, you’re able to contemplate the fact that much of what we experience is in some ways emerging from within us? Or at least the way that we’re experiencing it is emerging from within us.
Sunni: Well said! Beautifully said, yeah!
Deep Self Design
Jorge: I want to bring it back to this idea of Deep Self Design. What I’m projecting onto this or where I think that the two circles in the Venn diagram might overlap, is that, if you understand this – this fact that, much of what we are experiencing is emerging from within us – and you are someone who sees the world through the eyes of design, then perhaps you can do something about it,
Sunni: You do a lot.
Jorge: So what would you be able to do about it?
Sunni: It’s so funny, we’re talking about this because last night I was having this conversation with my husband about workability. So everything… well, I won’t make totalizing statements. I’ll try to avoid them, but almost everything in your internal system is workable. Meaning that it all has plasticity and an adaptation capacity, or a significant amount of it.
This is going to sound very hyperbolic, but the reason I have such confidence in the workability of the system is because I redesigned my own internal experience over the course of… it’s been 15 years now. But the mind that I started with when I started investigating this practice and the mind I have now are entirely different planetary systems.
And I have a complex trauma history, which is relevant because when you have a complex trauma history, you have a whole host of distorted ideas about reality, all of which are workable. And so, for me, it’s like an actually hopeful message. It’s like, “oh my God. Your backstory can be kind of f*cked up, you know?” And you can completely… as long as, to your point, it was a really important thing that you said Jorge, which was, “if you step back.”
So, you have to get some separation and observe, with compassion, your belief systems, and from that seat, it’s like a gentle observation, then you have space with which to work. Often the traumatized brain is terrified of making that separation. It can be, for a variety of reasons. So, that’s why it is a practice, and it’s a patience game, often.
But you can literally redesign your experience of yourself and of the world and of other people and of what’s possible. And the energy that you liberate in that process is insane. It’s absolutely insane how much energy you get when you untether yourself from a lot of distorted ideas about yourself in the world. And that’s why I thought like, well, it’s a design thinking challenge, you know? It’s basically like internal system mapping and then giving people methodologies to support the spaces that they want to loosen up or soften.
I’m very fortunate to have encountered great teachers, really extraordinary teachers, and I’m fortunate to have had the time and the passion to do a deep dive. But it’s like that hero’s journey where you go in, and you come out, and you’re like, “well, I have something I could share.” So, I’m still sorting out how to teach it, how to format it, how to design a methodology because it is not a small thing to try to do, but it’s worth it. It’s completely worth it to try.
Jorge: It sounds empowering.
Sunni: It’s extremely empowering.
Jorge: It sounds like a practice that restores perhaps a sense of agency where you’re not buffeted by the contingencies of whatever happens in everyday life as much.
Sunni: And it’s so important! That message is so important because there are places you go that are scary. And there are fires you have to walk through. And you have to know that on the other side, not only will you be more free, but you’ll be stronger. But you can’t know that going in. Once you get your sea legs and you start to understand, “oh my God, this is like Jedi training!” then you can feel more confident about the outcome. But the early stages for most people is it can be absolutely terrifying. 100%. Absolutely true. I mean, that’s why most people can’t even sit in meditation, frankly because a lot of people do not want to sit with the content of their own mind.
It’s not something that we’re encouraged to do, and it’s not something that we’re taught to do, and we don’t know why we would do it. So we spend a lot of time avoiding that very thing. Understandably. I mean, I understand that instinct completely. It’s… it’s terrifying. But it’s so freaking worth it. It’s so worth it! There’s no question about it. No question! And it improves your life, you know? It improves your relationships with yourself and other people. And really, your relationships are the most valuable thing you have. And your health, and maybe time, you know? So it’s a significant process, but it’s not necessarily for everyone.
And probably you experienced this with your students. There’s what I call a state of readiness, which means that they’re willing to do the work. They’re willing to be honest with themselves and others, and they’re willing to address and hold space for really difficult content.
And if I work with a person and it’s very clear that they’re not actually at that place, then they need to come back. They need to go and come back, you know? Because it’s a thing. And then in Zen, the analogy is when you go to the zendo, and you knock on the door three times, and a monk opens the door, and they say, “go away!” You know? And they shut the door, and then you sleep out in the cold or whatever, and then you come again. You knock, and then the monk opens and says, “go away.”
So it’s a way of saying, if you’re not ready, don’t bother! Don’t come, you know? And that process is a person’s individual journey, and you can’t rush that for people.
Starting the journey
Jorge: You mentioned in your own journey having suffered complex trauma and without getting into it, just thinking that many of us – many folks listening – have… especially over the last year and a half… gone through some pretty traumatic experiences. And with the caveat that you just laid out that not everybody might be ready to undertake such a practice, but assuming that someone would be interested in at least trying to envision the path, where would they start?
Sunni: So the chapter I was telling you I sent to Kate, there are writing exercises, and there are visual thinking exercises. And often, I will just say, you know, you’re in a creation when your energy has become contracted, combative, tight — when you feel conflict, internally. Your body gives you all these signals that all is not well, and it can be a very subtle signal. Say you’re in a restaurant, and a person walks in, and your stomach clenches. That’s an indication.
So, you start with noticing. Just pay attention to what is happening inside of your system because you have to understand that you are the reactor. And the stimulus is out there, but you are the reactor. And so, noticing it’s a huge part of the practice — just to start there.
It’s like when I used to teach visual thinking — and I do occasionally sometimes, still — but the visual thinking alphabet that Dave created, Dave Gray. It’s the basics. Just start with observing where these forms are and draw them on paper. Really, you’ve got to start at that place and notice if you judge it. Because a lot of people will be like, “oh, I should be more brave. Why did I get nervous when the boss came in?” Or whatever. We’ll instantly have a reaction to our reaction. So just noticing that.
So that’s the start, right? And then once you have a relationship with your experience… so you’re like, “man, every time my mom comes over, I want to argue! Like right away! I just want to argue with her,” you know? So you’re like, okay! And so, you notice that. So, you begin to take responsibility for what you’re bringing, and that’s why it’s empowering. It’s so fascinating how accountability is like not sexy, but I’m like, that’s the greatest thing you can do because you’re in charge of your life. You’re driving your bus, you know?
So, then there are exercises that I give people that are really simple. Like just notice that a part of you came online and wanted to argue with your mom. And then it’s really like a design inquiry. It’s like an investigation of, imagine that that’s a persona. So, say that’s a design persona. And I’ve taught it in this way in some keynotes and stuff. So, I depersonalize it, and I say, “just treat that like a persona or an avatar. And just like you would if you were anthropologically studying a user experience. But do it for your own self.” Start to understand that persona and just give it some quality… I mean, it will name itself. That’s what’s so fascinating is that these personas, these internal personas — they give you information. They actually let you know because they’re part of your brain.
So, it’s just about accessing that information that’s in the brain. And I’m saying it trivially like it’s just that. But it’s all there, and so you just get curious. You just get curious and start finding out. And so, over time, I like to teach people to create like a constellation. Like a map of their internal system with all of these different personas so that they can relate to them differently. And when they do that, that’s when it starts getting good.
Jorge: All of a sudden, you start understanding the territory — I would imagine — when map-making. I wanted to clarify, you mentioned Kate, and you were talking about our mutual friend, Kate Rutter, who we were talking about before starting the recording. And you alluded to a chapter. Was that a chapter of a book that you’re working on, or…
Sunni’s new book
Sunni: Yeah, this book… So, as I mentioned earlier, I’m a book coach, and I’m obsessed with books. I could be wrong, but if I had nothing but time and money, I think books are all I would do. Just unpacking and looking at publishing, coaching writers, writing… That’s all I would do. So, you know, I’m published twice, and we pitched this book, actually. It is the Deep Self Design book, and the title was called, The Only Way Out Is In. Like one of the original titles, The Only Way Out Is In. And then the… I can’t remember the subtitle. I have like 4,000 subtitles. But, so we pitched it. So, it was actually in proposal form.
When you want to pitch to a traditional publisher, you’ve got to get your book in a proposal that essentially describes the product for them. It’s unfortunate, but for them, it’s a product. And for you too, really. So, that… it was like 90 pages of just glory, you know, and it took me years. And so, anyway, the way it ended up, and I can tell that story — but at one point in the process, I said, “Kate, can I send you, like, chapter one? And you just see if it lands for you. Like, give me a reader reaction” And apparently, it turned some keys pretty quickly for her. Because she wrote me and was like… she’d had drawn a picture of one of her personas. And I didn’t even ask her to do that. And it was called “The Aviator.” And so, she learned about this part of her that like flies around and sort of conducts the situation and looks from a high level and is very functional, you know, high functioning part, persona. She just got it, you know? But she’s really smart.
So I was like, well… because you got to write to like an eighth-grader, right? That’s the level of communication that you want in books, which is why Brene Brown’s tone is so beloved. So, she just listed that chapter again, and I’m willing to share with anyone. I mean, people need to know how to do it.
And so, the book was pitched to publishers, and there were 17 of them. And then like 12 of them wrote back, which is pretty good. And they all said the methodology was too complex for a typical reader. And I lost my mind because I had already simplified it so very much. That day, I was like standing in my neighbor’s yard, and I was just like, “nooooooo!” Because it’s hard to attract to the marketplace and to still deliver something really of high value. My God! It’s exhausting. So, I have put it down for now. And I started working on another book about confidence because I was like, I can’t. I can revisit this thing. I’m going to f*cking freak out. Yeah. But it’ll emerge at some point.
Taking your space
Jorge: Well, I’m hoping that we’ll be able to read the Deep Self Design book at some point. I’m wondering about something that you said, and again, trying to be kind of practical for the folks listening in and wondering about where we start. I would imagine that doing this sort of internal map that you’re describing here is not something that we can do effectively amidst the hustle and bustle, right? And you spoke earlier about making space. And I just got back from a weekend of camping with my family, and we went pretty far out into the woods. And I was… yeah, it was nice, but I was still surrounded by devices, and I…
Jorge: I got into a little bit of a Twitter kerfuffle.
Sunni: Oh no!
Jorge: Right? And I’m bringing up the story to say: it’s so hard for us these days to find this space to be with ourselves and to be introspective? And even if we are aware…
Sunni: You have to take it. You have to take that space.
Jorge: Well, how do we do it? Do you have any advice for folks wanting to take the space?
Sunni: Well, yeah. When you do a Zen sesshin, you can’t have books or paper or phones. And so, you’ve got to do like seven days of like 10 hours of meditation. So, that is sacred time — no question about it. But for a normal person, that’s not going to be on their calendar. First, you have to understand that you probably have an addiction, right? If you can’t remove yourself from an object for any chunk of time, that is actually an addictive relationship. So, that’s serious shit, if you ask me. And I don’t think it’s a popular opinion. And I think that it’s also true. So for me, just labeling it as an addictive relationship is step one. And then, you don’t even want to go into, like, it could be an abusive relationship. We don’t even have to talk about that, but that’s in there too.
So, you have to understand that. And you have to just understand what is in it for you to separate yourself from it and give yourself a path. So, can I separate from my phone for four hours? If you don’t want to go cold turkey, just try for four hours and notice what happens in your system when you do that.
And that’s actually part of the practice for Deep Self Design anyway. So, you can be like, wow, I started having FOMO. Or, I start thinking that someone’s going to be mad at me because I didn’t respond to them. So, you get all kinds of information from just that short separation. And there’s a lot of data around… Like it literally keys up your nervous system, being in a relationship with a digital object all the time. It keys up your nervous system.
And so, actually to regulate your nervous system again, which is what camping is kind of for. Camping, when it’s safe and beautiful… the point of it is to actually get you into a different state. To get your regulatory system in a different state so that you can enjoy your life and be present with your family and look at the sky and realize that you’re part of… you are the sky, there’s no difference between you and the sky, you just project that there is. And like, you know what I mean?
So, you have to understand that that space is essential for your humanity and make it a priority. And you can tell people, I mean, there are ways to approach it that are gentle on other people. So you can let people know, “I’m going to go dark for 72 hours. You should know that.” Or, “I’m going to go dark, and then I’m going to have one hour where I look at stuff,” you know? You have to design it for your life and what’s actually available for you.
Sometimes people have sick parents at home or sick kids or whatever, but you have to start to understand the benefit of it. Because I think most people think it’s just like something they would lose. Like, they wouldn’t get… something taken away from them. And I’m like, “no! It’s something you’re giving yourself that is priceless.” And you get amazing ideas. Like your productivity goes up. So, I call it going slow to go fast.
Actually, I read this interesting Nietzsche quote, which I don’t read Nietzsche a lot or anything, but as he said like great ideas are found when you’re walking. And Steve Jobs was… Also, I’m not obsessed with Steve Jobs, but he did a lot of walking meetings. So, If you are a productivity junkie, going slow helps you go fast. And it actually frees up a lot of stuck tension in the body and stuck ideas that you can’t get through, and it gives you solutions and ah-has and insights. So there are huge rewards in it anyway if you need it to be aligned with productivity. But it’s like, dude, we’re gonna die one day, Jorge. Like all of us! And the last thing I want to do is be like, “I spent my whole life on my iPhone!” That is like the worst thing that could happen.
No! And it’s like, if you mess it up, try it again. Just like don’t give up, you know? Go camping again and have a new policy with your family. Get consensus around it, make an agreement, and just find other ways to occupy your time. But it’s a practice, you know? Are you digging this? You’re smiling.
Putting it in action
Jorge: I am. I’m smiling because I’m looking at the clock and thinking, oh man, we’re running out of time, but I don’t want to leave folks with, “we’re going to die someday.” So, I want to bring it back to… Well, you’ve mentioned two things. One is this idea of making space, which, as you were saying, in our modern world often entails not just space but also shielding ourselves from these potentially addictive devices. And then the technologies that they enable.
And then there’s this aspect of self-awareness through — you talked about map-making and using the lens of design to think of ourselves as personas. It sounds like those two are essential to getting kind of a read — it’s almost like the first part of the double diamond diagram. But there comes this moment where we have to do the synthesis work in design, and we have to think through how we’re going to move forward, what we’re going to do about it. So, is there a step three here as well?
Sunni: After synthesis?
Jorge: No, after we’ve done the map and we have understood ourselves.
Sunni: Yes. There’s definitely a step three, which is what I would call the “befriending” step. So, you have your constellation of parts of you, like how many personas are in there, and there’s an average, but it’s kind of infinite when you go in too far. But the next step is basically finding your most active personas. Because, when you wake up, you… I have an active persona, which is like, “oh, I’m going to be really productive. I’m going to be very in touch with a lot of people. make sure that everyone is well-fed.” You know, so I have like a kitchen/caretaker part. Like I have all these personas.
So you can find the most dominant ones – the most operative ones. And then, and you start to learn about them. And then, but the ultimate goal is to make friends with them all. Even the parts of yourself that you do not like because what happens when you allow and support and befriend all of the aspects of yourself is that all of this internal tension that people experience… like people wake up with anxiety, you know, people wake up with self-criticism, et cetera. All of that energy stabilizes and is calm so that your experience relating to yourself is not fraught with tension anymore.
So, you actually have to befriend them, like you would an external child or a person that you care about who lives outside. You do that work internally. And when you do, you spend a lot less time kicking your own ass. I mean, people kick their own asses constantly, you know? And it’s like, I’m starting to understand why is that? And what’s happening there, and how do you appreciate that you’re doing that, but also let it know that you don’t have to do that in order to be smart or in order to be productive, et cetera.
So that is like the biggest step is to befriend all of your constellations on your map. And then from there, it’s like flying, you know? It’s like, there’s nobody in the way. There’s nobody in the way. I mean, there’s life; there are institutions of life that are designed to oppress people. Those things are still there, but the way that we relate to them is very different, and that’s why it feels so liberating.
Jorge: Well, that seems like a really good place to wrap it up. I’m sure that folks listening in are going to want to learn more. Where can they go?
Sunni: Oh, they can go to deepselfdesign.com. And you’re also helping me. Remember that I need to create these little tools that… I always create tools and methodologies. So, deepselfdesign.com is definitely the home page. And also, sunnibrown.com has a lot of content on it. They can follow me all over social media too.
Jorge: Just not while you’re camping.
Sunni: Yeah, no way. You’ll never see me on that. Yeah, no, that’s me and mother earth when that’s going on, for sure.
Jorge: Well, fantastic. Thank you so much for being on the show.
Sunni: Yeah, Thanks for having me. It’s nice to see you.
Jorge: Yeah, same here.
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Karl Fast is an independent scholar, information architect, and futurist. He’s the co-author of Figure It Out: Getting From Information to Understanding.
This is the second half of a two-part conversation about interaction and embodiment. If you haven’t done so already, please listen to part 1 before listening to this episode.
Download this episode
Karl Fast is an independent scholar, information architect, and futurist. He’s the co-author of Figure It Out: Getting From Information to Understanding alongside Stephen Anderson, who was featured in episode 39 of the show.
In this conversation, Karl tells us about what interaction designers can learn from cognitive science. We had a lot to discuss, so this episode is the first of two on the subject.
Mags Hanley has worked in digital for over 25 years. She’s had leadership roles in information architecture, product management, and user experience design. Now, she’s helping designers find their career paths and build leadership and information architecture skills.
In this conversation, we discuss Career Architecture, the focus of her current coaching work and subject of her upcoming book.
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Listen to the show
- The Informed Life episode 17: Rachel Price on Improvisation
- The Informed Life episode 65: Sarah Barrett on Architectural Scale
- A brief history of information architecture (pdf) by Peter Morville
- Information Architects by Richard Saul Wurman
- David Macaulay
- Alexander Tsiaras
- Why Software is Eating the World by Marc Andreessen (WSJ paywall)
- Dave Gray
- The Information Architecture Institute
- How to Make Sense of Any Mess by Abby Covert
- Information Architecture: For the Web and Beyond by Louis Rosenfeld, Peter Morville, and Jorge Arango
- The Information Architecture Conference
- World IA Day
- Information Architects Facebook group
- UX Design Information Architecture LinkedIn group
- Mags Hanley’s Information Architecture Masterclasses
- Jorge Arango’s Information Architecture Essentials workshop
Some show notes may include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commission for purchases made through these links.
Read the transcript
A question from Vinish Garg
The first question comes from Vinish Garg. And I apologize if I have mispronounced that. Vinish is based in Chandigarh, and he writes, “the design agencies with around a hundred plus headcount have big and experienced teams and use of research, interaction, design, and UX design. But many of them don’t have an information archive. How do they see the need of a specialist IA and make space for this role?” And he adds a postscript, he says “those who have an IA, I spoke to many of them, but they are doing wireframes or card sorting without really understanding anything of taxonomy or findability. This is misplaced IA.”
All right. So, let me take the question first. Information architecture in general has withered as a job title. In the last 20 years, we’ve seen fewer and fewer people signing up to become information architects in organizations, not just in internal design teams, but also in agencies. In fact, I don’t know many organizations that still have internal information architects.
One notable exception — and I’m just calling it out because we’ve had two of their folks in the show — is Microsoft. Rachel Price and Sarah Barrett, both former guests of The Informed Life, are information architects within Microsoft. So, that’s an example of an organization that still has the role internally.
But I think that the more common scenario is that there is someone with another job title. It might be a UX designer or interaction designer or something like that, is tasked with structuring the system somehow.
Sadly. I think that the even more common scenario is that no one does this explicitly at all, and they’re just basically painting screens. I suspect that is the more common scenario. And it’s a shame, because information architecture is very important, especially if you’re dealing with a large complex system that presents a lot of information to end users.
I want to comment a bit on the postscript. I think that it may be the case that there are people who, as Vinish points out, are practicing what they call information architecture, but they’re doing it very superficially. And I encounter this most often in the confusion that people have between site maps and information architecture. I’ve seen folks draw up an outline in the form of a site map and basically call it a day.
A site map is a useful artifact for communicating structural intent, but there’s much more to information architecture than making a site map. And for many interactive systems, a site map might not even be the most appropriate artifact to communicate intent. Site maps tend to be very hierarchical, which is something that is more appropriate for some systems than others.
I expect that, given the waning of information architecture, as I was saying earlier, much of what is practiced today under the rubric of information architecture is kind of cargo cult IA, where folks go through the motions of doing something like putting together a site map without understanding the reasoning behind the decisions they’re making or why they’re even making the artifact at all.
And this is not something that’s unique to IA. There are a lot of other areas of practice, other disciplines, where folks adopt the superficial trappings of the practice without really understanding the foundations. And in the case of information architecture, the foundations have to do with making meaningful distinctions. So, setting things aside in categories that are recognizable to the users of the system, that allow them to relate to the information in the system in meaningful ways, with the goal of ultimately making the system easier to use by making information easier to find and understand.
Now, Vinish asked specifically about the context of agencies. I don’t know much about the Indian market, but here in the U.S., the role of agencies in the design process has also waned as compared to 20 years ago. A lot of the work is happening internally in organizations, and that might be part of the reason why the role has waned as well.
Because I think that people think about information architecture — if they think about it at all — when there’s a major system change, when there’s a redesign or a new product is being built and not so much during the day-to-day operations of the system. Again, there are exceptions. I called out Rachel and Sarah, who are part of a team that has ongoing responsibilities, because it’s such a large system where so much content is produced.
But in many cases, folks only need to do this sort of thing when they’re making a major change, when they’re implementing a new system or redesigning a system, as I said before. Which would lead me to expect that it is a role that would be more appropriate for design agencies, if, for no other reason, because design agencies do deal with more projects at the beginning their life, as opposed to the operational phase of the project.
But alas, as Vinish points out, the role has also been waning in agencies as well. I don’t know how they see the need for IA specialists. I don’t know that they’d see the need for IA specialists. I believe that more likely they are experiencing the pain of not having an information architect in the team.
Peter Morville has written of the “pain with no name” in reference to information architecture, this idea that people in the team might know that there’s a problem, but they don’t know how to name it. And they don’t know that I’m more careful distinction making our structuring of the information in the environment might be part of the solution.
And the net result is that frankly, information architecture isn’t as popular as it used to be. And that may be a failing on the part of us who practice IA. We simply haven’t been very good at explaining why it’s important, why it’s needed and why teams should consider having folks look after this stuff. That said, I know that there are people doing it out there. They just don’t have the job title information architect — or at least that’s what I would like to be the case.
A question from Jose Gutierrez
The next question comes from Jose Gutierrez; I think Jose is writing from Costa Rica. He writes, “I’m curious about what subjects does IA impact, but people normally don’t associate with.”
These days, most people who think about information architecture — at least the few that do — think of it in relation to user experience design or digital design. But when I first learned about information architecture, I did so through Richard’s Saul Wurman’s 1996 book Information Architects. The impression that I got from that book was that IA was much, much broader.
The very cover of the book has three definitions of what information architects are, and the first one says, “the individual who organizes the patterns inherent in data, making the complex clear.” There’s nothing in there about digital anything. We encounter patterns inherent in data and complexity in many different parts of reality, not just in digital systems.
In fact, while the book touches on digital design, it’s remit as much broader. It profiles folks like author David Macaulay, who has produced a series of wonderful books that explain how things work, or Alexander Tsiaras who works in medical imaging. And there’s also cartography and illustration and yep, also some digital design, like structuring websites and that sort of thing, which is what we today, mostly associate with information architecture.
And this isn’t surprising because as software has eaten more of the world — to use Marc Andreessen’s memorable phrase — more and more of our information is digital, and we experience more of the information that we deal with in digital environments. But structuring information to ease findability and understandability is much older than computers.
I remember seeing a presentation many years ago by Dave Gray on the history of the book as an artifact, which really opened my eyes to this. Before there were books, we would write down information in things like scrolls. And what we know of as books — the form of a book, what is called a codex — was an innovation. It allowed for greater portability and random access to the information in the book, because you didn’t have to unroll the whole thing to get to a particular section. Those were all innovations, right?
But the very first codexes didn’t have things like page numbers or tables of contents or indices or any of those things, and those were all innovations that allowed readers to find information more easily in books. I think that those are examples of information architecture, and they are many centuries old.
So, any time that you’re trying to make things easier to find and understand — whether it be in a book or a built environment or a medical image, or an app — Information architecture can help.
As I said, in response to Vinish’s question, I consider the essence of information architecture to be about making more meaningful distinctions. And this is something that applies to all sorts of aspects of reality. In fact, part of the intent for launching this podcast was precisely because I think that information architecture manifests in so many different fields. And I’m very interested in hearing from folks about how structuring, categorizing, organizing information more mindfully helps them get things done.
A question from Elijah Claude
Finally, here’s a question from Elijah Claude. And again, I hope that I am pronouncing your name properly. I believe that Elijah is writing from Atlanta. He writes, ” what are some of the best ways to learn good information architecture outside of school and work. In other words, how do you do personal projects where you can practice real information architecture? Great resources for IA books, podcasts, videos, et cetera.”
This question has two parts. So, there’s a part that has to do with learning IA. And there’s another part that has to do with practicing IA in our everyday lives. I must note upfront that I personally don’t like to draw hard lines between life, work, school and all these things. I think that you can practice information architecture at any time.
Information architecture is as much a mindset as it is a practice. And it’s a mindset that has to do with looking beneath the surface of things to the way that things are organized and structured, and the ways in which we create shared meaning in how we organize and structure things in our world.
That sounds a little abstract, so I’ll give you an example. When we moved into the house that we’re currently living in, my wife and I had a conversation about where we were going to store the various objects in our kitchen. So, we had boxes with things like plates and cutlery and food items, spices, and such. There are many categories of food items. There are dry foods, and there are big bulky foods that take up a lot of space, things like sacks of flour, rice and stuff like that.
And here we are in this new house with a different layout than the one that we’re used to, and many places in which to put things. And we had to coordinate where we were going to store things. Because if not, we would make it very difficult for each other to find things when we need them. And that’s something that happened somewhat organically. We had an informal conversation saying, “Hey, maybe the cutlery can go in this drawer. And maybe this cabinet close to the stove would be perfect for things like spices and so on.”
Some things were obvious where they should go, others less so — and the arrangement has evolved over time. Over the time that we’ve been living here, we’ve occasionally moved things and found better ways to organize our kitchen. So, it’s an ongoing thing and we talk about it.
I think that it would be different if either one of us was organizing the kitchen for ourselves as individuals. When you must consider that at least one other person is going to be sharing the place with you, then you must take into consideration how they are going to be able to navigate the environment to find the stuff that they need. And I consider that to be an information architecture challenge.
I’ll give you another example. And funny enough, this one also has to do with our kitchen. Recently, we discovered that we have a minor problem. This is something that has emerged in the pandemic. It used to be that before the pandemic, I would often work outside of the house. And of course, with the arrival of the pandemic, more of us have been working from home. And as I’ve started working from home — and I tend to wake up very early — I would find that some days I would feed Bumpkin, our dog. I would feed Bumpkin. And then, later in the morning, my wife, who normally feeds Bumpkin, would come along and would feed him not knowing that that I had already fed him.
Bumpkin can be very insistent if he’s hungry. So, if he comes knocking on my home office door, I will feed him because that’s what gets him to stop knocking. And my wife and I have been prototyping a system to let each other know if Bumpkin has eaten or not. I wrote two sticky notes, one that said, “Bumpkin has eaten breakfast” and the other one said, “Bumpkin has eaten dinner.” And we put it up on the cabinet where we keep his food. And the idea was that every time that she or I fed him a meal, we would place the appropriate sticky on the outside of the cabinet door.
And that kind of worked for a while. But the glue the sticky started wearing out after switching them around so many times. So, we tried something else. We tried another sticky, this one on the refrigerator door with a checkbox. And one checkbox says, “Bumpkin has eaten breakfast” and the other checkbox says, “Bumpkin has eaten dinner.” And we have a little magnet that we move between them.
And what we discovered with that new prototype is that the sticky is much more resilient, because we’re not moving it around, but it’s in the wrong part of the environment because we’re normally not looking in the refrigerator when we’re feeding Bumpkin. So, we often forget to move the magnet. And I’m now thinking about the third rev of this thing, which would combine the two. And this will probably involve putting some kind of magnetic board on the door where we keep the dog food.
And I consider all of these to be information architecture problems. On the one hand, clarifying the distinction between what was the last meal that Bumpkin had eaten, that’s information architecture. And another is the location of this marker in the environment. Like I said, we were having a lot more traction when we had the sticky on the door that had the dog food in it than when we put it on the refrigerator door. And the only reason why we did it, there was a completely technical reason, which is that the fridge is already magnetized.
So, these are examples of information architecture or architectural thinking at play in real-world problems — admittedly a very simple one. But it’s not unusual. It’s not unusual for us to apply that kind of mindset to organizing the real world. It’s how we make sense of things. It’s how we structure our environments so that we can get things done. And it doesn’t just happen in information environments, it happens in physical environments as well.
So, that’s with regards to the practice question. The learning question is a bit tougher, because as I have said in the previous questions in this episode, interest in information architecture has waned over the last 20 years. So, resources are less plentiful than they used to be.
The Information Architecture Institute, which was the preeminent place that I would point people to who wanted to learn about IA has seized operations. It feels to me like the discipline is in something of a state of transition. I am sure that there is a robust future for information architecture, but it’s hard for me right now to point to any one definitive resource and say, this is what you should check out.
There are books. That is the first thing that I recommend that folks check out. And Elijah, given the fact that you asked about non-work or school related contexts, the number one book that I would recommend for you, if you haven’t seen it already, is Abby Covert’s How to Make Sense of Any Mess, which is a primer on information architecture. It’s a beautiful book in that it really articulates the core issues that transcend digital in a very useful way.
Another book — and this one is, alas, a bit self-serving — is the fourth edition of the polar bear book, Information Architecture: For the Web and Beyond. And I say it’s self-serving because I had the great privilege of having been invited to coauthor the fourth edition alongside the original authors, Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Morville. And that book is more specific to digital information environments, but I still think that it’s one of the best places to learn about IA.
There are also conferences. The two most prominent are the Information Architecture Conference and World IA Day. Both of those happen in the spring. The IA Conference is global. It usually happens in one city and folks fly from all over the world — or at least they did in the before times. The last two years, it’s been virtual because of COVID. But it’s more global, and it’s a central gathering for IAS and the IA-curious. If you are interested in learning more about IA, I would recommend that you participate in the IA Conference.
World IA Day is more of a localized initiative. It’s a single day event and many cities participate around the world. It’s driven by the communities in those cities. So again, super local. And it’s a great way to meet people who are interested in information architecture in your own community. So, those are two events that I recommend: the IA Conference and World IA Day.
There’s also social media. There is at least one group on Facebook that is dedicated to information architecture. I know that there are also groups in LinkedIn. I haven’t participated much in either of those, but I know that they exist. If that’s what you prefer, you have those options.
And then there are also courses. I know that Mags Hanley has a course on information architecture and by the way, a little bit of a spoiler: Mags is an upcoming guest of the show. We don’t get in depth into her course, we talk about other subjects, but I know that Mags has a course that she does online and that may be worthwhile checking out.
And then I have a workshop that I’ve done several times called Information Architecture Essentials, which is designed to introduce folks to the discipline. And I’m in the process of turning that into an online course as well. And by the way, if you are interested in that, I would love to hear from you, because I’m in the process of crafting that now.
I’m also interested. If you have suggestions for folks like Elijah who want to find out more about information architecture. I would love to learn about other resources I might’ve missed, so please do get in touch.
So, there you have it, the first listener question episode of the show. I have other questions that folks sent in, but we didn’t get a chance to get to them. So, I might do this again. Please do reach out if you enjoyed this episode, if you think I should do another one, and most especially, if you have a question yourself that you would like me to answer on the show. You can find contact information on the show’s website at theinformed.life. That’s also where you can find show notes and a transcript for this episode.
For now, I want to thank Vinish, Jose, and Elijah for their questions. And thank you for listening. As a reminder, please rate or review the show in the Apple Podcasts app or in the Apple podcast directory. This helps other folks find it. Thanks!
Jim Kalbach is the chief evangelist at MURAL, a leading provider of online visual collaboration software. He’s the author of Designing Web Navigation (O’Reilly, 2007), Mapping Experiences (O’Reilly, 2016), and his latest, The Jobs to Be Done Playbook (Rosenfeld, 2020). In this conversation, we dive into Jobs to Be Done, how it relates to design, and how jobs can create an “out of body experience” for organizations.
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Udhaya Kumar Padmanabhan, or UKP, is a Global Strategic Design Director at Designit, an international strategic design consultancy. He is based in Bangalore, and in this conversation we talk about challenges and opportunities for information systems in the Indian market.
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Sarah Barrett is a principal IA Manager at Microsoft. She’s been writing compellingly about information architecture in Medium, and in this conversation, we focus on her most recent posts, which deal with how architectural scale affects our perception of information environments.
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Sophia Prater is a UX design consultant and chief evangelist of object oriented UX, a methodology that helps teams tackle complex design challenges. In this conversation, we discuss OOUX and how it differs from other methodologies.