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Q&A with Jorge Arango

Information architect

I'm Jorge Arango, information architect. I'm a partner in Futuredraft, a design consultancy based in Oakland, California. We solve complex and ambiguous design challenges using co-creation, which means that we work very closely with our clients and their users to arrive very quickly at solutions for difficult problems. Usually the end product is software, but we also apply these skills to other types of challenges that organizations face.

My primary focus in this process is ensuring the conceptual integrity of these "information environments": Making the information they contain easier to find and understand, and ensuring the coherence of the contexts they enable.

When did you decide to start your way in iA, what was the background and what difficulties can be expected on this way?

My background is in architecture, as in "building design". I transitioned into information architecture in the mid-1990s, when the World Wide Web was starting to gain popularity. I was smitten by the web, and this led me to start the first web design consultancy in Central America. At the time, the medium (interactive digital media) was still new and unproven. It was difficult for clients to understand exactly what we did. There were also few places to study this stuff or books we could learn from. Most of my contemporaries in this field have come to it from other disciplines, like I did.

I expect that the challenges designers face today when starting out are different. Because the discipline is now more developed, there's a risk of turning it into a technical vocation with a focus on tools and techniques. Design is a way of thinking and of "disclosing worlds" in the Heideggerian sense. Having an understanding of how we humans experience the world, and a point of view on how those experiences can be made better, are more valuable to designers than a subscription to Adobe's Creative Cloud suite.

Are there any courses and workshops in your vicinities where one can learn Information Architecture? What would you recommend to get some fundamentals of iA?

I'll be self-serving here and point you to "Information Architecture for the Web and Beyond", the fourth edition of O'Reilly's "polar bear" book, which I co-authored with original authors Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Morville.

I also recorded a video training about IA for O'Reilly called "Information Architecture Essentials" which is a good introduction to the subject, in my (obviously biased) opinion.

If you're interested in this field, you should definitely attend the yearly gathering of the IA tribe from around the world: the Information Architecture Summit.

The Information Architecture Institute provides valuable resources for people in the field.

For more formal education in the U.S., look at the University of Michigan School of Information. My friend Dan Klyn teaches a class focused on IA there, and every time I see the syllabus (which he tweaks every year) I wonder if his students know how lucky they are.

For more formal education in Europe, my friend Andrea Resmini teaches IA at Jönkoping International Business School in Sweden.

What books helped you to learn UX design and information architecture? Do you think it is an important aspect of developing skills?

Books are essential for the way I understand and learn about my discipline. They provide the intellectual foundation that allows me to design effectively with colleagues, clients, and users.

My list of foundational books is very long, but here are some of the most important in no particular order:

  • "Information Architects" and "Information Anxiety" by Richard Saul Wurman
  • The books of Christopher Alexander, particularly "A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction" and "Notes on the Synthesis of Form"
  • "How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built" by Stewart Brand
  • "The Art of Systems Architecting" by Mark Maier and Eberhardt Rechtin
  • "Thinking in Systems: A Primer" by Donella Meadows
  • "Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture" by Andrew Hinton
  • "Pervasive Information Architecture: Designing Cross-Channel User Experiences" by Andrea Resmini and Luca Rosati
  • "The Design of Everyday Things" by Don Norman
  • "Don't Make Me Think" by Steve Krug
  • "About Face: The Essentials of Interaction Design" by Alan Cooper et al
  • "Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind" by George Lakoff
  • "Metaphors We Live By" by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson
  • The Rosenfeld Media books.
  • And of course, the polar bear book.

There are so many others, though! Watch less cat videos and use the time you save to read more books.

What software is demanded in organization of information for now and what is your personal choice?

I don't believe any software is "demanded" for this field. The I Ching, which is around 3,500 years old, is a work of information architecture.

The most important skill for information architects is the ability to structure language (both written and visual) for understandability and findability. This can be done using software, but it can also be done with a whiteboard. The whiteboard is more effective in many situations.

Who are your favourite information architects and user experience designers whose work you are interested in?

This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. In our field it's not easy to know who did what. Information architects usually work behind the scenes, as part of teams responsible for creating very complex systems. (One of the challenges with IA is that when it's done correctly, you don't notice it.) So it's not like architecture where you know that Frank Gehry designed the Walt Disney Concert Hall. And anyways, I get more inspiration from fields other than "UX" design. The "UX" design distinction is redundant in my opinion: We are all designers. "UX" designers have a lot to learn from the other design disciplines.

So, here a few "non-UX designers" whose work inspires me: Dave Gray, Richard Saul Wurman, Charles and Ray Eames, Brian Eno, Rem Koolhaas, Carlo Scarpa, Santiago Calatrava, Louis Kahn, the team that designed the original Disneyland park, the team at Infocom that produced those wonderful early works of interactive fiction, the team at Harvard that made that astonishing video that allows us to see bacteria adapting to antibiotics. There are so many others! Inspiration is all around us.