Dan Zollman

Information architecture, design, and strategy

Designing, building, architecting, growing

Earlier this year, I promised a number of people that I’d be sharing updates on my summer research. As you can see, I haven’t posted much, but I’ve been hard at work nevertheless. One of the outcomes of this work was a proposal for a session at next year’s IA Summit. Now that the blind review phase has ended, I think I can share this publicly. Crossing my fingers as I wait to hear whether or not I’ve been accepted.

Here is the short description from my proposal. Continue below for some elaboration on the concept.

Designing, building, architecting, growing: Rethinking IA through the lens of developmental systems.

Problem/solution, form/function, user/object, designer/client: Our traditional models of design are showing signs of strain. We face increasing complexity and volatility in our work. We struggle to reconcile timelines and budgets with reality. We try to effect change, but it doesn’t stick. And as Thomas Wendt has shared in his critique of human-centered design, we end up with unsustainable solutions that repackage and perpetuate systemic problems. But what would it mean to “decenter” design?

In the quest for alternatives, this session will explore the concept of developmental systems, in which contemporary IA and UX practices converge with systems theory. We’ll take a tour through several kinds of developmental systems in biology, psychology, and social theory. Developmental systems give us another way to see the world. Instead of objects and categories, we find processes, relationships, scaffolds, and networks. The paradoxes of problem/solution and form/function disappear. Instead, we designers and architects grow our products, much like farmers grow crops.

Through this lens, we will de- and re-construct our model of design and architecture, treating users, organizations, and technologies as developmental systems. We will see how designers do not merely specify solutions, but participate in the growth of these systems. We will also see how information architecture—the coordination of meaningful relationships—is fundamental to these processes of change. We will discuss how IA/UX practices can coordinate the relationships needed for healthy growth, promoting ethical, just, and sustainable structures.

This talk responds to Wendt, Peter Morville, and other previous speakers who have encouraged us to think systemically, ecologically, and politically. A focus on individual users and problems tends to limit the potential for change. Instead, a relational and systemic approach opens up new possibilities for designers and architects to improve the world around us.

I’ll say a little more about the thinking behind this work, although the actual presentation will be a bit more focused and concrete:

At the conceptual level (bear with me, all you “practical takeaways” people) this talk is an attempt to reexamine the ontology of “design” and “architecture” in light of systems theory and philosophy. This stems from the recognition that larger systems are always implicated in the practice of design: design always has social, political, and ethical dimensions that extend beyond the product being designed. Furthermore, professional designers must take responsibility for their role in the creation of technologies that either serve to mitigate or exacerbate social and ecological injustices. Much work has been done in areas like systemic design—the application of design methods and systems thinking to large-scale social systems—but what does this mean for user experience design, information architecture, and product design? More pointedly, what does it mean to use “systemic design” if you are designing an object or a product?

The current sketch for this talk begins by discussing two ontologies or lenses for design. (It would be a cliche to invoke Kuhn here, but what I’m discussing are paradigms in the truest sense.) The first lens is that of mainstream design. Meanstream design is predominantly rationalistic design within the paradigm of the scientific revolution. This is the paradigm of subjectivity and objectivity, causes and effects, measurement, quantification, and the Cartesian dualisms of mind/body, human/environment, man/nature. The lens I’d like to introduce is a systemic, relational, and processual lens. In this paradigm, humans and their environments, designers and users, problems and solutions are interrelated. Rather than dualisms, where one thing causes an effect on another, they are all part of a continuously developing system that cannot be “solved” by a designer. Users, organizations, technologies, and societies are always developing and they continue to develop long after your work as a designer is gone. Now, in many ways, mainstream design has adopted elements of this, e.g. in design thinking, in “lean”, in discussions of service design, organizational design, and design governance—but practitioners have mostly appropriated these elements while remaining in the rationalistic paradigm. Why does this matter? I will argue that mainstream design, with all its ROI, its KPIs, its leanness and agility, is incapable of resolving the ecological, ethical, and organizational challenges faced by designers, while systemic and relational thinking may help us with these challenges.

The theoretical component of this project—of which the 45-minute session will be just a subset—is an assemblage of perspectives in systems theory, theoretical biology, anthropology, ecological psychology, social and political theory, design and technology studies, management research, and even metaphysics. Once you start looking, it’s exciting and overwhelming to discover that every one of these fields has so much to say about the topic. We can talk about: How human beings and other organisms develop and grow through participation in a network of relationships within their physical and social environments. How objects and technologies also grow within a network of relationships, and how humans experience that network. How social “structures” can be understood as relationships that are consistently reproduced by people and objects over time. How all of these things can be understood as processes. It’s process, not form, Process, not product. This challenges designers to rethink our attempts to “solve problems” and to be “change agents”. Only in very limited ways are we solvers of problems or agents of change. Instead, we must commit more deeply to understanding the world and its ongoing processes of change if we want to play a positive, meaningful role in that change. People (“users”) grow. Technologies grow. Organizations grow. Events and appearances are temporary: a product launch, a redesign. The question is whether our work has contributed to the development of a healthy system. As designers, our great opportunity is to pursue and advocate for the health of the world around us, to scaffold its development, to coordinate the network of relationships in which human lives and good technologies grow. And I’d also like to suggest that information architecture is a very special part of this relational practice.

As for practice, my goal is not to provide tactical exercises and how-tos for your next design meeting, but I do want to show how relational thinking translates to very real, practical, and viable ways of working. To appropriate Tim Ingold, it’s not theory versus practice, but “practical knowledge and knowledgeable practice”. I’m mainly looking at this from two angles: The first is that this philosophy is well-aligned to a design practice that prioritizes the wellbeing of “users” and their communities. This means treating them as long-living people and communities who are continually growing, learning, developing skills, constructing their identities, and providing for their economic and political health. Physical artifacts, communications, and technologies are always enmeshed in these processes, and we can aim to design artifacts that play an enabling role in the right processes. Second, as professional designers, we are encouraged to examine the growth and health of the organizations in which we work, or of our client. Because objects and technologies are grown and reproduced over time in a network of relationships, the way the organization collectively grows, learns, develops skills has a much greater impact on the nature and the quality of products in the long run than the impact that a designer has on any single product. Looking to both systemic design and to management studies, such as Peter Senge’s and others’ work on learning organizations, we can find some fascinating principles and techniques that will resonate with contemporary designers and offer powerful tools.

The ideas discussed here will be new to some designers, while much of this may come across as obvious if you’re well-read in any one of these topics. However, I am suggesting more than this—a relational approach brings a very different meaning to our work. We need to go deeper than methods. It’s not enough to adopt new techniques and to be more human-centered. We need to revisit what we think design is and what role it plays in the world—its ontology, and our mental models. Our mental models shape how we practice, lead, and sell it to the business. As long as designers are problem-solvers and returns-on-investment, we pit ourselves against a system that cannot be changed from the outside. We need to rethink our relationships.

From Charles Hampden-Turner, Charting the Corporate Mind


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