Leonard Cohen Vs. Jesse James Garrett

This blog entry is part two of an I’m-not-yet-sure-how-many-entries-long series examining eleven of the arguments and assertions Jesse James Garrett made approximately one year ago in his closing plenary address at the 10th annual IA Summit in Memphis, TN.

In my previous entry, I addressed the first and ninth bullets in an un-ordered list of points from JJG’s Memphis talk, as well as a related point he made eight months later at the Service Design Network conference. Going forward, I’m going to use numbers instead of bullets for the aforementioned list. When numbered, the list looks like this:

  1. There are no such things as information architects
  2. Schools of thought within and about information architecture have not yet emerged.
  3. To the extent that we’ve had controversy, it’s not been about the sites and experiences we’ve produced
  4. There is no language of critique for information architecture
  5. An adequate body of IA knowledge has yet to have been published by information architects
  6. Nobody takes the ethical dimension of IA work seriously
  7. IAs covet a seat at the table with CEOs but lack the respect as a discipline to sit there
  8. It’s easier for those outside of our field to understand “user experience designer” than “information architect”
  9. 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
  10. In the marketplace, Information Architect job title vs. Interaction Designer job title is a zero sum game
  11. 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

The present discussion focuses on assertion number 8 in the list:

It’s easier for those outside of our field to understand “user experience designer” than “information architect”

I should point out this is not a direct quote from Mr. Garrett’s talk, but rather my characterization of a piece of his argument. Here’s part of what he actually said and part of what I’d like to respond to:

…I’m ready to give up fighting against this word [“designer”], if only because it’s easily understood by those outside our field. And anything that enables us to be more easily understood is something we desperately need.

Jesse argues that for those outside our profession, “design” is more easily understood than “architecture” Which may be the case. But maybe not. Many of my clients read the WSJ and in a recent story about our industry they said the following:

User-experience design—a sort of architecture for information that Web viewers see—is another emerging field. Jobs there include experience specialists and product designers at firms ranging from computer-game companies to e-commerce Web sites.
Diana Middleton, Wall Street Journal 12/28/2009

This “user experience” thing … as you’d explain it to the readership of the WSJ: it’s a sort of architecture

One of my favorite famous architect quotes comes from Le Corbusier, who observed: “Revolution, or Architecture. Revolution is avoidable.” From my hugely biased perspective, “architecture” is a clearer point of reference for talking about our work with people outside of our field than the word “design.” I think pretty much everybody understands what architecture is – Corbu gets at this point in the quip above and it’s a big thing thing he’s positing there: architecture is more ubiquitous than socio-political entropy? Have you seen C-SPAN? The ways in which the folks who pay our invoices are conversant with the construct of user experience design, I wager, pale in comparison to the ways in which they are conversant with some of the key concepts of architecture.

A Kind Of Dangerous Description

I think we should be called information architects and that it’s easier to talk about IA with people outside our field in terms of A than to talk with them about UXD in terms of X or D. Mr. Garrett thinks we are now and have always been user experience designers, that UXD is easier for muggles to understand, and that those of us who specialize in and choose the titles of IA or IxD are either “fools or liars.”

Rigid dichotomies: IA vs. IxD. Fool vs. liar. A “Zero sum game?” That’s the topic of a future entry in this series…

I am continually blessed by (read: exploitative of…) the contacts I maintain with my former students from the School of Information. Example: Mr. Clint Newsom, Esq., who after reading the first piece in this series referred me to something Leonard Cohen said about what we call ourselves, and who should be making that designation:

I never thought of myself as a poet, to tell you the truth. I always thought that poetry is the verdict that others give to a certain kind of writing. So to call yourself a poet is a kind of dangerous description. It’s for others; it’s for others to use.

I simultaneously love and hate this quote. I admire the reverence LC pays to his craft by refusing to take or use its name in vain, and I love the high regard the statement has for both the craft of poetry and for its “users.” The seeming-sincerity is disarming, and as a result it makes us all the more eager to allow or even insist that the designation Poet appear on Mr. Cohen’s business card. And that’s part of why I hate this quote – the problems I have with it are similar to those I describe in a piece I wrote last year called The Problem With Famous Architects. When Mr. Cohen spoke the words I’ve excerpted above, he spoke them with the voice of an internationally-renowned and widely revered recording artist and as the published author of no fewer than ten books of poetry. Leonard Cohen doesn’t need to be called “poet” because he’s got a whole shelf at the library full of the books of verse he’s penned, and he needs that designation even less because unlike most “poets,” he’s a household name. Leonard Cohen doesn’t need to be called anything other than his own proper name.

Andrew Hinton published a blog entry today on these very same topics of professional and personal identity, and I’d like to include one of the anecdotes from his piece for your consideration in the current context:

Later that year [after JJG’s Memphis talk about how there’s no such thing as information architects] I met some terrific practitioners in Brazil who call themselves information architects and were genuinely concerned, because the term had already become accepted among government and professional organizations — and that if the Americans decide to stop using the term, what will they be called?

Wherever we Americans land on this so-deep-it-goes-beyond-the-frontal-cortex-and-into-our-lizard-brain-when-we-think-about-it question of our professional identity, with regard to the specific issue of what the global community of IA’s and IxD’s should be calling themselves, I don’t find the rationale JJG provided around his call for all of us to replatform our identities on top of User Experience Design to be compelling. I don’t think rebranding myself as UXD is as good for me as what I’m using now, which is IA. The specific piece of his argument about how UXD is easier for folks outside of our profession to understand is un-evidenced, and I think it’s wrong. But don’t take it from me: let’s do the work to measure the ways that people… “others” … let’s measure others’ perceptions of these dangerous descriptions, and their comprehension of concepts around the IA and IxD and UX work that we do. Perhaps the IAI could commission a study.

If like Leonard Cohen we allow those outside of our trade to evaluate the fitness of our offerings to our craft, and to name us and what we’ve done on the basis of their assessment of how good we are and how good our work is… what words will these people use to name us and what we do? Do we (and/or they) really lack a language of critique for information architecture? That’s #4 on the list and I’ll address it and #10 in the next installment.

26. March 2010 by dan
Categories: Information Architecture Design | Tags: , , , , , | 3 comments

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