I know what people mean when they say that something is “a good problem to have.”
My experience of it is funny, though.
I think of it mostly as certain students who’ve got the problem; the one that’s good for me for them to have.
Their problem, and my opportunity by proxy, stems from Richard Saul Wurman’s coining of the term “information architecture” back in the 1970s.
In the course of researching his biography—as a part-time independent researcher and quasi-academic, for more than a decade now—I’ve become satisfied that this pairing of “information” with “architecture” was just right for the job Wurman set it up to do.
For most everyone else, everywhere else, ask around for a 1-sentence definition of information architecture and the closest you’ll get to an answer is “It depends”.
From its earliest days in the milieu of built-environment architecture, there simply hasn’t been a comfortable disciplinary home for the term information architecture. Environmental Design didn’t want it in the 1970s. Graphic Design didn’t want it in the 1980s. And my own field, Library and Information Science, never liked it, and even tried briefly to co-opt it into synonymy with “organizing the information on websites” in the 1990s.
Even so, a canny superset of the students who sign up for the IA courses and workshops I teach tell me that they anticipate a job market after graduation where they’ll do well or even have an edge over other applicants if they can put “information architecture” on their resume.
They’re not wrong.
It’s been true for decades now, in the job markets for people who work on apps and websites, that information architecture ups the ante. It’s not usually a job title, but is often listed as a desired (yet undefined) proficiency for middle-to-upper-level design positions with leading corporations and design consultancies.
So for the last 15 years, there’s been just enough demand for a course in Information Architecture at the University of Michigan to keep me on the part-time faculty, teaching one 3-credit elective course, once a year.
Which is why I say again that these certain students’ problem, of needing to have something to say when people ask them about “IA” , has been and is a good one for me for them to have.
Because ever since I first heard those two words used in that sense, and connected them with the best parts of the work I like to do, I’ve had the same problem my students have. Only with me, it’s become chronic. Holding in both hands, simultaneously, the knowledge that IA is crucially important to the things I want to do (on the one side) and an incomplete understanding of what IA really is, especially the architecture part (on the other side).
My default approach for solving any problem—something RSW and I have in common—is to march right on in and go directly to the source. To the person in charge. In March of 2009, the opportunity to do just that with information architecture came at me in the form of Wurman making an appearance in Ann Arbor as part of the School of Art and Design’s annual lecture series, to give a talk about his latest project.
Calling in an un-owed favor with my Dean, I got on-to the guest list for a private dinner with RSW after his lecture, and in-to what’s become an extended dialogue with him ever since.
It’s a conversation that’s been explicitly framed as one where I want to learn everything he’s willing to tell and teach me about information architecture. And then make something out of it.
That’s how my R&D pipeline for doing Richard’s biography got started: keenly wanting to know—from the top—what information architecture is and how to practice it. And then finding a way to make teaching and learning about IA be my full time job in three interrelated steps:
Catalyzing the findings from my research into tools and methods relevant to contemporary corporate information architecture problems.
Applying these findings and tools in the work I do with clients.
Addressing students’ ongoing need to have something to say when people say “IA” by inviting them into my research, hiring them as interns and employees, and utilizing their many different ways of seeing to keep re-looking at what I think I know about information architecture.
I take what comes out of this three-part process, and talk about it with Richard. And then I write about it. I try it out on my students, and with my clients. Each January, the process repeats with a new crop of graduate students.
Since COVID made the technology so ubiquitous, Richard and I average 3-4 hours on Zoom “calls” most weeks. Face to face.
We’re still talking about information architecture.