There Is No Such Thing As Jesse James Garrett


I was wrong. The discipline of information architecture and the role of the information architect will always be defined in conjunction with one another. As long as you have information architects, what they do will always be information architecture. Seems pretty obvious, right? Only took me seven years to figure out.

But that’s okay, because what is clear to me now is that there is no such thing as an information architect.

Information architecture does not exist as a profession. As an area of interest and inquiry? Sure. As your favorite part of your job? Absolutely. But it’s not a profession… There are no information architects. There are no interaction designers. There are only, and only ever have been, user experience designers.

Jesse James Garrett, transcript of the closing plenary address delivered March 22, 2009 at ASIS&T IA Summit 2009 in Memphis, Tenn.

Jesse James Garrett’s closing plenary address in Memphis last year is one of the finest pieces of persuasion I’ve ever witnessed. None of the artifacts from the talk (transcriptaudiovideo) do it justice. Reading from his iPhone while stalking up and down the center aisle of the ballroom at the Peabody Hotel, Mr. Garrett managed to, rhetorically speaking, step or stomp on almost every toe in the room; and to great rhetorical effect. There were moments such as the one excerpted above when the simultaneous chain reactions of cognitive dissonance in the skulls of the attendees were almost audible in-between Garrett’s precisely sequenced salvos.

At the start of his talk last Spring, JJG preempted audience questions (clearly he understood what he was about to do), and said my preference would be that if you have questions, don’t pose them to me. Pose them to each other. Publicly, if you can. Next week marks a year since Mr. Garrett’s closing plenary at the 10th annual IA Summit in Memphis. In a few weeks, the 11th annual IA Summit convenes in Phoenix. And while there have been several public responses to and questionings of JJG’s erasure of the job title “Information Architect” during the past twelve months (Andrea Resmini’s is a stand-out, and there was lively discussion on the IxDA list), I’m surprised by how little outrage I’ve observed in the wake of Mr. Garrett’s outrageous oration.

Manditory Viewing

There is irony here if you love the A in IA. In the delivery of this incisively-argued call for getting rid of the “I” right along with the “A” when we talk about the job that more than half of us in that room in Memphis claimed as our profession, Mr. Garrett perhaps-inadvertently honored the rich tradition of critique and of provocation within the practice of architecture and in architectural pedagogy. So while I ardently disagree with almost everything he said, I’ve made the video of JJG’s closing plenary speech mandatory viewing in the information architecture course I teach at the School of Information.

This past Fall semester was the inaugural opportunity for me to talk about Garrett’s speech with my students and I’ll be using some of the material generated in the thoughtful discussion we (and a distinguished visitor) had in class that morning to inform the points I intend to make in this series.

And so, without too much further ado, this is the first in a series of I’m-not-yet-sure-how-many blog postings that respond to Mr. Garrett’s arguments from last year in a point-by-point fashion. The assertions from JJG’s Memphis plenary that I’d like to challenge in this series include:

  • There are no such things as information architects
  • Schools of thought within and about information architecture have not yet emerged.
  • To the extent that we’ve had controversy, it’s not been about the sites and experiences we’ve produced
  • There is no language of critique for information architecture
  • An adequate body of IA knowledge has yet to have been published by information architects
  • Nobody takes the ethical dimension of IA work seriously
  • IAs covet a seat at the table with CEOs but lack the respect as a discipline to sit there
  • It’s easier for those outside of our field to understand “user experience designer” than “information architect”
  • Designing with human experience as an explicit outcome and human engagement as an explicit goal is different from the kinds of design that have gone before
  • In the marketplace, Information Architect job title vs. Interaction Designer job title is a zero sum game
  • Any other title than User Experience Design will only hold back the progress of the field by marginalizing an important dimension of our work and misleading those outside our field about what is most important and valuable about what we do

We’ll start out slowly by addressing only the first item in the list above. But before doing so, It would be good if you’d take a few minutes to go and view Mr. Garrett’s talk at the 2009 Service Design conference – a talk called Design For Engagement which he gave some months after the Memphis plenary. Click on the image to view the video:

The bit I’d like to call your particular attention to is the part where he says this:

[Adaptive Path] creates what we call multichannel experiences that include a multiplicity of touchpoints. The trouble for us has been that none of the existing knowledge about design really helps us in doing this kind of work. We’ve really felt like we’re on our own and have to make this stuff up as we go along.

Jesse James Garrett, Design For EngagementService Design Network annual conference 2009

So here’s the thing. When you look at these three statements, and admittedly, these things were said at two different times in two different contexts:

  • There is no such thing as an information architect. IA does not exist as a profession.
  • None of the existing knowledge about design really helps us in doing UX work.
  • Designing with human experience as an explicit outcome and human engagement as an explicit goal is different from the kinds of design that have gone before

In spite of their having been said in different contexts, these assertions would seem to flow from a common stream, fed by a deep well of arrogance and ahistoricism. Which is difficult for me to reconcile with my admiration for Mr. Garrett’s abilities as an author and presenter. As I’ve used and admired Mr. Garrett’s work in the context of my IA course over the years it’s occurred to me on more than one occasion that JJG must be unconscious of the work of the original three-lettered agent provocateur, Mr. RSW. In fact, Garrett’s talk at the summit last year and my ardent disagreement with most of the things he said is what inspired my behind-the-scenes participation in helping to bring Richard Saul Wurman to the Summit this year. To say something like “there’s no such thing as an information architect” in order to score rhetorical points is one thing, but is it possible to score those points without also incurring a penalty for being on the opposite side of fact? When JJG shakes hands with RSW in Phoenix this April, will he be enacting the antithesis of this preposterous assertion?

He’s A Real Nowhere (Sales)Man

Lou Kahn is reported to have said: “everything that people say about me is true. all of it. some of it just may not be factual.”

You know… probably all three of these assertions of Jesse’s were put forward hyperbolically. It’s highly improbable that he literally meant what he said because what he said is so at odds with the facts, right?

If these statements were crafted as hyperbole to assist in creating persuasion – a time-honored and effective technique in selling against an embedded assumption among one’s target consumers – then yet another thing he said in this talk isn’t true. In acknowledging the honor of having been invited to give the closing plenary talk, Mr. Garrett said “I do not intend to repay that kindness by giving you a product demo.” From where I was sitting and as I’ve re-examined the content from the Memphis plenary speech and from his Design For Engagement talk in Portugal, I find it increasingly difficult to see Mr. Garrett’s performance as anything other than a product demo. The president of a firm that’s synonymous with User Experience and who literally “wrote the book” on the elements of User Experience making an impassioned call for everybody who’s called information architect or interaction designer to change their business cards to omit mention of these competing paradigms, and then insisting that the way your firm does its work is different than every other kind of design approach that’s come before it? It’s a sell job, if not a sales pitch. I think he doth protest too much.

In October of 2008, Mr. Garrett wrote:

Being right doesn’t count for much if you can’t persuade anyone of that fact.

Does being wrong matter at all if you’ve persuaded at least some of your audience members that you’re right?

In the next installment in this series, I’ll address Mr. Garrett’s assertion that it’s easier for those outside of our field to understand “user experience designer” than “information architect.”

19. March 2010 by dan
Categories: Information Architecture Design, User Experience Design | Tags: , , , , | 15 comments

Comments (15)

  1. Thanks for pursuing this topic. I think it was Isaac Newton who described his work as “…standing on the shoulders of giants.” By contrast, in the fuzzy, hard-to-define world of software design we often find midgets stepping on the toes of other midgets. We can’t move forward by slamming others who seek after the same grail as us just because they follow a different path.

  2. I look forward to the next part! Apart from all the philosophy, the biggest problem I encounter is the difficulty of explaining all these concepts and their complex relationships to people with other professional backgrounds. At this task, most of the UX practitioners I know fail (both so-called IxDs and IAs).

  3. Dan, I really hope you have a unifying thesis in your series because as it stands now, you seem to have desperately misunderstood JJG’s intent and meaning. To reduce his speech to an “impassioned call for everybody who’s called information architect or interaction designer to change their business cards” is absurd in its seeming need to over simplify.

    The argument is not now–nor was it ever–about job titles. Nor was it an attempt to get everyone in lockstep. You want to call yourself an IA? Knock yourself out. Given that, what on earth is there to get riled up about?

  4. I really appreciate you writing this Dan, not least because I had never see JJG’s speech. I agree that this is a great bit of oratory from someone I have long admired and upon whose shoulders I stand everyday (to paraphrase Alan’s comment above).

    Rationally, JJG makes a very convincing argument but in my gut, I’m not persuaded. I think that’s where the problem lies for me insofar as this could be seen as so much post-rationalisation based upon where JJGs interests with Adaptive Path currently lie.

    Personally, I’ve never liked the term User Experience Designer as I feel it’s far too broad and from a pragmatic point of view, often obfuscates the actual skills and experience of the person on whom it is conferred. For that reason, I’ll continue to describe myself as an Information Architect. Gabby is also right though – it’s not about job titles and never should be. My first ever job title was Junior Technologist so I’ve learned not to let semantics hold me back.

  5. Nice work Dan. I recall being generally uncomfortable with JJG’s comments, intending to dig into them further, and then (like many) falling into old patterns and generally ignoring the whole thing. Seeing the Designing for Engagement video was very enlightening and provides a much needed context. Thank you!

    That said, time, re-reads, and your post have renewed my interest, but I’m still just…uncomfortable. There are many points JJG makes that sting. They have that embarrassing ring of truth to them – that I can’t dismiss as simple oratory. Two, specifically, grab me:

    1. “We’re fighting the last war” (of our value.) I absolutely feel that. And I think a simple audit of IA Summit presentation titles over the past few years might be revealing…

    And 2. “How do we know we’re doing good IA?”. I don’t. I’ve struggled with it. Being *the* UX guy (formally at least) in a 200 person company, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to question myself. But as a teacher and with your background in library science, Dan, you’re in a fantastic position to have honed the “language of critique” JJG mentioned. So I’m very curious to read your comments on that topic.

    Thanks for taking this on. This is going to be a fantastic way to gear-up for the 2010 IA Summit.

  6. Good retort, Dan. Thanks for your arguments, and I like your use of the anniversary as the hook.

    @Greg Lawson -

    It seems as if we’re winning something, even if we don’t know it. Companies are desperate for our expertise, at least the ones who know it. Sometimes they need specialists that focus on the domains (IA, IxD, etc.), but most just need someone to help them conceptualize, detail, and build an experience.

    Just like the US has ignored its infrastructure for so long, so have most companies eroded their customer experience with their adoption of technology.

    If we continue to evolve our work and make sure we’re not alienating people, we will have gainful employment for a long time.

    If we try to stake out territory and stick to it, the war will be lost.

    I’m doing my best to move forward, collaborate with people, and do great work. I want working with me and the results that come from that to be the thing that defines what I do.

    Theory and definition are important for us as we reflect on who we are, but they tend to take over the conversation more than what we do. In my opinion, that is what JJG was saying.

    See you at the Summit.

  7. Ah how I wish I was off to the summit this year!

    I have wrangled over this for a while and I used it to frame a piece about the challenges facing digital design. You can read the post here http://userpathways.com/2010/02/the-challenges-and-changes-in-digital-design/

    But to summarise I see the work of IA as important as the work of IXD which is as important as usability and so the list goes on (content strategy anyone?). One looks at cognition and the other behaviour, these two worlds connected but separate. So let us appreciate specialities and draw a line under the argument.

    You can imagine one day we will have a UX designer vs Service designer debate….and where does that leave us? IA will always exist in some form. Maybe once Service Design has swallowed UX whole we will realise that IA is even more important in this world of ‘always on’ connectivity…

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  10. It was sad to read the original memphis transcript, knowing JJG as passionate prophit of new discipline of IA in early 00-s. But truth is – he got desperate, he got tired, he got disillusioned – just like many of other people who saw IA as a wonderfull discipline of shaping the web structure.

    BUT – the web is the structure. It does not need human architects .. Mindless swarms and nets grow by the lowest instincts and dumbest principles. No inteligent design, just evolution.

    ps: IA has nothing new to offer since the polar book and JJG’s early articles, so its either a good time for it to pull something out or to die like numerous other fads.

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  13. Constantine, information architecture informs my work every day. Visualizing conceptual relationships, mapping ideas, helping people communicate, clarifying processes and relationships and rules on a layer beneath the specific tactical implementation of the interaction design and above the systems and data architecture of the specific software and hardware implementations – that’s how I do IA. I learned new things at the summit toward that from (among others, Wurman, Chastain, Gray, Roam, Wodtke, Resmini, Hinton, and Hess, among others). Most of them were new ways of looking at things or understanding them, not new ways to put sunburst patterns behind hero objects or new productivity techniques for Omnigraffle.

    If it’s old and stale and tired and of no use to you and your experience of it has been that of a fad, then by all means leave it go.

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