Architecture as a model


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Information architects and user experience designers have much to learn from (building) architects — if we can look beyond the "myth of the lone genius" and "ego-driven design". This short presentation was part of a panel at the 2011 IA Summit in Denver, CO.

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  • The driver for this presentation is a challenge I’ve faced as a designer working in a developing world context in which the terms “user experience design” and “information architecture” are not well known.\n\nWhen I first start a new project, I usually find myself sitting across the table from stakeholders that have expectations about how I can help them. They usually come in one of two groups...\n
  • The first group think of me as some kind of web developer that can help them implement a web project using one of the technologies they’ve heard of.\n
  • The second group think of me as some kind of marketer or visual designer, who will make things pretty or will drive more traffic to their sites.\n\nWhile all three of these concepts — marketing, visual design, and development — are obviously part of the final mix, these expectations are actually wide of the mark.\n
  • Actually, my role is to help them bring into balance the various forces that pull the project in different directions. These forces are things like the opportunities and challenges offered by technology, business goals, user goals, deadlines, budgets, etc.\n\nI bring to the project a broad understanding of these forces, so I can help stakeholders discover the ideal balance that is unique to their project. We call this the “design vision”.\n
  • Once the design vision is set, the role changes: now I have to set boundaries around it so that we can negotiate the inevitable changes that arise as we move to production.\n\nAt this point I become a “defender of the vision”.\n
  • This design vision needs to be put into a form that can be effectively communicated to the people who need to take decisions with it, and the people who will build the final product. This is where our design deliverables — wireframes, flow maps, and the like — come in.\n\nThis is how I’d like stakeholders to perceive my role.\n\nThe challenge is: How can I do this quickly and effectively without derailing the conversation by talking about myself instead of the project?\n
  • In looking for an answer to this question, I thought back to Mr. Wurman’s dictum: “You can only understand something relative to something else you already understand.” \n\nWhat other concepts exist in the world that we can use as a lever to get stakeholders to better understand our role?\n\nYou won’t be surprised to learn that I think architecture is a good lever to use.\n
  • Architects have been doing exactly this for hundreds of years. They’ve developed tools, methodologies, and business practices to arrive at a design vision and then turning it into something that others can build. Some of the labels change — for example, they talk about human factors instead of usability — but the concepts are very similar.\n\nMore importantly, people understand that this is what architects do.\n\n
  • People know that architects are not responsible for the construction of the actual buildings.\n\nThis drawing from the 1910s is part of a set that tried to predict what life would be like in the year 2000. Note that while robots have replaced construction workers, in the past future there would still be an architect — a separate, but necessary part of the system — setting the design vision.\n
  • People also understand architects are not marketers. While clearly some buildings have image-making as a primary goal, these things must still stand up, provide shelter, and host a variety of functions.\n
  • The bottom line is that I’ve started introducing myself to stakeholders as a digital placemaker. I explicitly state at the beginning of engagements that I am there to do for their digital properties what architects do for their physical properties — their offices and stores. More subtly, I’ve also been using architectural language and methodologies in my interactions with them.\n\nI have found architecture to be a very effective way of framing our contributions to projects. People seem to “get it” fairly quickly. Using architecture as a model also has the effect of getting stakeholders to think differently about the types of commitments they are taking on when they open a digital place. After all, you don’t open an office in the real world and then leave it unstaffed and unkempt.\n\nThe question for me then becomes: If architecture is such an obvious model for what we do, why don’t we discuss it more in conferences like the IA Summit?\n
  • Part of the answer, I think, is the “Myth of the Lone Genius”.\n\nI was talking with someone last night who said “I hate architects!”. When I asked him to elaborate, the name of the gentleman on the left inevitably came up. (They are: Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, and Mies Van der Rohe.)\n\nWhen many of us think of architects, this type of people is who we think of. However, it’s important to remember that the architects we read about in the history books are outliers. They usually had very strong agendas that were separate from user needs. They were also very good self-promoters, and have inevitably been influential.\n
  • The definitive portrait of this type of architect is Howard Roark, from Ayn Rand’s novel “The Fountainhead”. Roark is an architect that is so ego-driven that he dynamites a building he designed, but which was altered afterwards by other architects. \n\nRand’s portrait has unfortunately been influential.\n
  • Of course, this is very different from how most architects work.\n\nLet’s return for a moment to the “forces” diagram. Behind each of these forces is a group of people who have their own agendas and valuable things to contribute to the making of the project. Huge egos don’t get much traction working in environments like these. \n\nMore than other design professions, architecture demands excellent leadership skills.\n
  • Most of the built environment is not the result of ego-driven design.\n\nThis is Denver International Airport. You may have seen it as you flew into town. On your way out, take a moment to appreciate the complexity of this space: the magnificent spanning roof, the structural system that holds it up, the myriad navigation systems on the ground. There is no way to achieve a highly complex, functional space like this one without collaboration.\n\nDenver International is the work of Curtis Fentress, whose practice is based here in Denver. Mr. Fentress is well-known for producing large-scale public projects that are “buildable” on time and on budget.\n\nOne of his design dictums is that the architects must “restrain the ego”. I believe that he is a good model for our work.\n
  • If you are interested in learning more about architectural design management methodologies, I recommend this book: How Firms Succeed, by James P. Cramer & Scott Simpson.\n
  • Architecture as a model

    1. 1. Architecture as a modelJorge Arango @jarango
    2. 2. Misconception 1
    3. 3. Misconception 1
    4. 4. Stakeholders Builders
    5. 5. WurmanPhoto: resmini on Flickr
    6. 6. Stakeholders Builders
    7. 7. Denver Art Museum
    8. 8. Digital Placemaker
    9. 9. “I HATE ARCHITECTS!”
    11. 11. “Restrain the ego.” CURTIS FENTRESS Arch example
    12. 12. How Firms Succeed James P. Cramer & Scott Simpson ISBN: 0-9675477-8-4