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thoughts and observations about design, information architecture and design history
Thursday 06|28|01
Defining IA

In the silence of the SIGIA list being down, I have had a chance to mull over the recent conversation that Christina stirred up again by asking people to define the damn thing. I had been intending to jump in on the list but since my recent burst of energy has been focused on my photolog, I hadn't pulled things together.

The whole notion of defining a discipline that is a melting pt of multiple disciplines is difficult and I believe that is why we continually come back to the question. I think that each of us, in our own contexts, needs to come up with a definition that they can speak about to their coworkers, bosses, clients and even their moms. The shared definitions on the list and at Elegant Hack are extremely helpful but also show how broad our collective group really is in our skillset and perceived ownership of task.

When I was at AltaVista, we struggled with this as well on occasion. We KNEW what IA was and our team was a nice blend of MLS people, UI people and writers turned IAs. We worked well together, thought about the user, slipped in some guerilla user centered design processed and everyone was happy. Then Marketing people from another division got involved and they knew no more about IA than rocket science. We then had to go through a whole explanatory phase. This involved definitions as well as benefit analyisis of our work with real world justifications as to why that extra 2 weeks in the schedule was needed for IA and couldn't be skipped by just jumping to visual design. It was frustrating. We were no longer happy. So we set out to conquer and educate.

What we did was come up with some documents to help. The process doc [pdf] helped show where we fit and how we interacted with other teams. But a definition was required as well. I wrote up a short one pager that described what the role of the IA [pdf] was at AltaVista and what we did. This helped some more.

Then a staff member of mine took those highlights and rewrote them into a onepage document that was short, to the point and also mentioned cost benefits to our skills and expertise. By the time we got to this sheet [pdf] we were a larger multidiscipline team (IA, UI/interaction, graphic design, technical documentation) so we covered several slots on the process document. This sheet along with the process document became a regular set we handed out whenever we started work with a new group.

It seemed to help and was constantly evolved as our role and group shifted and changed with the company - until we all got laid off....

Posted by erin at 11:56 PM | in Information Architecture :: | Link

Tuesday 06|26|01
Community Collective

Was reading Derek Powazek's community book site and was sent off to this collection of must see Community sites from Shift magazine. It is an eclectic collection of sites - many referenced here over the last several months and includes Plastic, Slashdot as well as some blogs. Lots of things to spend late nights exploring and wondering if all these site really are community. Thanks Derek - can't wait for the book.

Posted by erin at 07:30 PM | in Community :: | Link

Another AIGA Item of interest

Also in the AIGA Communique was a blurb about the upcoming National Design Conference "Voice". They are running an essay contest. One of the topics is How Information Design Can Strengthen Citizen Participation

"Lend your "Voice" and register for AIGA National Design Conference

"Voice: AIGA National Design Conference" takes place September 23-26, 2001 in Washington, D.C. Watch for the registration brochure in your mailbox at the end of July! In the meantime, members who have not yet registered may take advantage of a special offer until July 31: submit a 150-word essay on one of four topics and receive a $150 discount. Your voice may be incorporated into the fabric of the conference in a number of ways, including: within the website, in our lobbying campaign, during breakout sessions and even on the main stage!

Choose one of the following topics and submit your essay when you register online:

- How information design can strengthen citizen participation

- How I fulfill my desire to do socially responsible work without going bankrupt

- How I find my voice as a designer

- The most powerfully socially or politically motivated piece of design that I've ever done or seen

For information about more than 70 speakers and 30 breakout sessions, visit the "Voice" site"

Some interesting topics particularly if you followed the whole butterfly ballot thing and all the design and usability solutions that were offered up after the fact. The AIGA is lobbying on Capitol Hill to create a national Design agenda and have design involved in all major reform areas. This is a conference that should prove to be very interesting.

Posted by erin at 06:08 PM | in Conferences :: | Link

AIGA Communique Links

The recent AIGA communique has info and links to the March Seminar on Experience Design.

"Post-conference materials available for "Verge: AIGA Seminar on Experience Design"

AIGA held its first seminar on Experience Design in March 2001. Materials from the conference are now posted in the past conferences section of You'll find moderator Brenda Laurel's opening remarks, bios and short descriptions of presentations by speakers Vernor Vinge, Rodney Smith, Ryan Oakes, Dj Spooky a.k.a Paul Miller, Scott Ault, Debbie Bonnanzio, Dale Mason and Ralph Appelbaum for you to print out and read at your leisure.

The "Verge" seminar was developed specifically for AIGA's community of interest-AIGA Experience Design. You can join the group's discussion

Read the edited seminar highlights"

I missed this conference but it sounds pretty interesting.

Posted by erin at 05:20 PM | in AIGA :: | Link

Thursday 06|21|01
Designing Your Life

Got home this evening and waiting for me in my mail was the invite and poster for the IDSA (Industrial Designers Society of America). The theme - Designing Your Life - is an extremely intriguing one and the conference has set up speakers and activities to address the components of this. Of interest to the cross discipline group is the speaker: Ted Selker. Selker is the Director of Context Aware Computing Group at the MIT Media Lab. The brief blurb says that "Selker anticipates that computers will soon be replaced by systems that know what users want. He'll present a framework for developing things to be responsive to the user-physical situation and will describe a representation of interface choices and tools and their contextual implications." Cool. Yet Creepy.

The idea of the whole conference appeals to me. As designers, we are daily called upon to design "things" and applications for our clients and our companies. How often do we put ourselves in the client seat and think about designing our own life? Should make for some interesting discussions.

Posted by erin at 10:31 PM | in Conferences :: | Link

On being in house

The SF IA cocktail hour was this week and unfortunately I was unable to attend due to previously scheduled guitar lessons. I do however have an opinion that I would like to share about being an inhouse IA.

I have spent the majority of my IA/UI career as an inhouse person. In a former life, I was at an ad agency so do have experience as an outside person, although not in IA.

I think I am lucky being inside. Of course there are disadvantages - internal politics, not being as revered or listened to as outside people, but I think the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. I think being inside, particularly if you are building online applications, allows you to have an intimate relationship with the engineering staff implementing your designs, allows insight and involvement in the definition of the product and in a lot of cases allows you to be involved in the long term life cycle of the product. In my past, I have had the opportunity to work on an initial release of an application, then been able to follow feedback and usage and be directly involved in defining the next phase as well as leading the design of the next rev of a product. I can learn from my work and apply it in another version. I find this process very compelling.

This doesn't mean there isn't selling involved - my last gig involved a lot of selling of IA services to upper management who didn't understand what we did. In other cases, being internal compresses the life cycle of the development process because the time to find outside people and bring them up to speed is not necessary. Therefore we always ended up working with less time than desired. And being inside is just as precarious in these time as being anywhere else (note: was laid off in January from AltaVista).

With that being said, I have plans of being a consultant again at a future date, but for now, being inhouse is the best place for me.

Posted by erin at 05:12 PM | in Interaction Design :: | Link

Friday 06|15|01
Moving Forward

If you are interested in managing your career and especially if you are a woman - I highly recommend Be Your Own Mentor: Strategies from Top Women on the Secrets of Success. It is filled with tips, strategies and advice on managing your own career. The book includes hundreds of quotes and anecdotes from many top female leaders out there including Ellen Hancock, Exodus; Anne Mulcahy, president and COO of Xerox Corporation and others. I have been working on my longer term career goals and this book was recommended to me. (It is good for guys too, but many of them get a lot this advice through the "old boys" network and much advice about dealing with the guilt of working with children is not necessarily as applicable.)

The act of thinking about my career goals has really made me stop and think about the path I have already travelled and the path I want to continue on. In school you are working hard to pull together that portfolio that will get you that first job. But they don't tell you much about what to do after that. After Grad school I had a clearer vision about the path - out of advertising art direction and into UI design - making applications and software. But what does that mean? Consulting? Working in-house? Running my own firm? What are the right steps to move out of individual contribution and into design management and is that the right path?

These are really important questions designers (of all disciplines) should ask themselves. I know I just serendipitously moved from one job to another - always looking for something interesting to work on. That is fine for awhile and may be fine forever for some. But I found myself wanting more. Wanting to lead and be in charge and I eventually began managing a team. I found I really liked mentoring other designers and directing projects. I had not planned this but there I was.

I have been writing down goals - both personal and professional - and believe they will help clarify some of the ambiguity. I still want surprises and still want to be able to change my mind but it has made me realize how I need to shape my interests and career direction. I have collected a few books on managing that have come in handy as well. Leading with Soul is a small book of insights. First Break All the Rules has a lot of interviews with managers who buck the system to lead successfully. Orbiting the Giant Hairball is a nice light insight into surviving corporate culture and staying creative. Written by the creative director at Hallmark, I found this one really interesting and useful to keeping perspective. I gave this to all my team members last year.

I would love to know how others in the design field (UI, IA, Graphic Design) have made the transition into managing other designers or even moving into higher corporate positions or running a firm where other disciplines report to you. Was it difficult? What about the desire to keep creating/designing as an individual contributor? What kinds of business info or education was helpful? Who helped you?

Posted by erin at 12:06 AM | in Books :: | Link | Comments (1)

Saturday 06| 9|01

I came across a blog site today that has an interesting section critiquing logos. The interesting part about it, is that all the logos mentioned, discussed and shown are based on the use of the spiral. I had not run across this phenomenon before of collecting examples of commonly themed logos.

Zeldman eloquently presents the rise and fall of the promise of design on the web in an article from 2000. A whole section is devoted to the spiral logo.

I, myself have been guilty of using the spiral in my design work. I have used the spiral and the golden mean in logos and as imagery in photo montages.

The appeal to designers to use the spiral in various forms, comes from its inherent place in nature and the harmononic resolution it provides. Something about it just feels right. This concepts is the basis of the book

The Power of Limits: Proportional Harmonies in Nature, Art, and Architecture by Gyorgy Doczi and elements of the spiral as related to the Golden Mean are taught to designers as they pass through art school. It is the basis of a discipline in mathematics and is present as the foundation of some of our most famous architecture throughout history.

In print design, well proportioned pages are designed based on the golden mean proportions. The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst has a whole chapter devoted to the Golden Section and its application to page design and grid structure. I believe these mathematical formulas could be applied to web page design. Using this type of approach to web pages could create a site that "feels" better and more effectively designed than the norm. Would be an interesting experiment.

Posted by erin at 03:27 PM | in Graphic Design :: | Link | Comments (1)

Friday 06| 1|01
Where Are the Websites?

I received my AIGA annual today. I am pleased by the tactile experience of this book. It is a hefty weight and is nearly 2 inches thick with a groovy plastic cover on it. The implication is of bulk, of permanence and no fear if mistaken for a coaster on the coffee table.

The book covers 3 different purposes and instead of publishing three volumes, the AIGA decided to combine the three as well as intersperse commentary around the samples and choices.

The AIGA site says:

"This year's annual was intended to be transformational: the brief called for the book to be an example of design as well as a chronicle of design; to satisfy members' interests in artifacts and also to stand out in bookstores to reach new audiences; to provide context for design, so that the annual would become a vehicle for more than simply documenting competitions. We wanted the annual to demonstrate all of our attributes: open, stimulating, authoritative."

The first section announces this years AIGA medal winners and sports bios of the recipients and samples of their work. Generally not surprising. This year's medals went to Laurie Haycock-Makela and posthumously to P. Scott Makela, Fred Seibert, and Michael Vanderbyl.

The second section is the bulk of the book and is the annual itself. The organization is a bit confusing, the type is too small and the samples, while some are interestingly cropped to show detail, are cropped in such a way that it is really difficult to tell why these particular pieces were chosen. The authors describe and showcase the judges as well as the winners and it is definitely something that warrants more than once pass through. The AIGA site has a discussion going right now that is quite lively about whether this annual is a success or not.

The third part of the book is the AIGA 50 books, 50 covers exhibit. The presentation is similar to the main annual and suffers some of the same issues, although some of the details or much more relevant to the book covers than the previous type pieces.

At the end of the book is an essay entitled "Where are the Websites" author Andrea Moed tells us that a large number of websites were entered into the competition but the judges abstained from selecting any as worthy of being published in the annual. WHY? She goes on to describe that the sites, while they may have been successful for the clients, and usable by the consumer, were all too much the same and none were innovative or ground breaking in their interface. She laments the fate that interface design has come to as innovations are standardized and commercial ventures dare not challenge the status quo.

This is a dilemma for designers. Similar commentary was recently put forth on the SIGIA list as major criticism against the online journal GAIN. The author of this post (I paraphrase here) criticized the designers for not taking the opportunity to design something truly innovative. Especially here as the audience is more visually sophisticated and perhaps more technically adept than the average consumer.

I followed this thread and held my tongue, because at first I was very angry due to some pretty mean words said about print designers and the AIGA, but after awhile I had to agree with the core criticism. I think that designers are stuck between a rock and a hard place. How do we innovate and experiment with sites that need to be instantly accessible to the world? This gets worse if you work on a large highly trafficked site. How do we innovate and try new things when even the slightest deviation from the "norm" raises the hackles of clients and of the usability folk on our teams? How do we push the concepts of learnability over obvious when users are part of our design process and aren't visionary enough to see beyond what is right in front of them? With the ever growing push for user-centered design methods, designers need to be even more saavy about the research. about interpretation and understand when to follow and when to lead.

I do think we need to push on our own sites - (I am totally guilty of not practicing what I preach on my own site) and that we need to experiment and try new things. This may mean becoming more and more proficient with other tools. After all, HTML can only go so far. I think it means pushing the envelope and taking risks where appropriate.

This idea of contextually appropriate interface is extremely important. My first gut reaction to the GAIN criticism was that anything more would be interface for interface sake and that the delivered UI IS different from the norm but doesn't get in the way of the content. GAIN after all is a journal with articles and people will come there to read them, not fight with an interface.

I wonder too, if the websites didn't make the AIGA annual because they lacked the bells and whistles and the richness that many used to associate with CDROM work. These types of interfaces were often obscure and inspired the curiosity of the user, but once learned could be easy to navigate. And because of the delivery medium designers could utilize the richness of imagery, typography, color, motion and sound in ways that are just too cumbersome on the web.

I have to wonder if the judges used the sites or just looked at static screens? Did they think about the critical thinking and problem solving or the complexity of information on these sites and how that is balanced with the interface to get people to the info? Did they think about the circumstantial limitation of size and speeds at which this interface was to be displayed? Is bandwidth crippling our creativity? Is usability dogma crippling our ability to see through the limitations? How do we balance the ease of use with innovation?

I don't have the answers to these questions, but I am encouraged by the fact that many designers are starting to take notice of the sameness out there on the web and question the status quo.

Posted by erin at 08:15 PM | in Criticism :: | Link | Comments (2)

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DUX—Five Lessons Learned

Coloring Outside the Lines

Modeling the Creative Organization

Coming of Age

Talking With Jesse James Garrett

The Tool Makes the (Wo)man

AIGA Experience Design Summit #5 - Recap

AIGA Experience Design - past, present and future: An interview with Terry Swack and Clement Mok

Summit Beginnings: Saturday

Chicken Run: Summit Closing: Sunday

design history articles
Foreseeing the future: The legacy of Vannevar Bush

Learning from the Powers of Ten

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