Jorge Arango: My name is Jorge, and I’m an infor­ma­tion archi­tect. I’m based in Oakland, California. And one of the coau­thors of the fourth edi­tion of the polar bear book on infor­ma­tion archi­tec­ture, along with Peter Morville and Lou Rosenfeld, who you may have met here at the con­fer­ence as well. And my back­ground is in archi­tec­ture, so the design of build­ings informs my per­spec­tive on our dis­ci­pline. And my pre­sen­ta­tions usu­al­ly start with build­ings, because that’s kind of what inspires me.

And this is a build­ing in San Francisco. Those of you who live in the bay area may rec­og­nize it. This is 1 Montgomery Street in San Francisco, and this is a branch of the Wells Fargo Bank. And this is an unusu­al build­ing for California because this build­ing was designed to be a bank 110 years ago, and it’s still serv­ing the pur­pose for which it was designed.

I vis­it­ed this place with an archi­tec­tur­al his­to­ri­an who point­ed out all the details that made a bank a bank, all the kind of semi­otics of bank­ing in the ear­ly part of the 20th cen­tu­ry, and it was fas­ci­nat­ing, right. You walk through these doors and it’s like you walk through a time por­tal. This place has these ornate ceil­ings, mar­ble cladding every­where, a high sta­tion for the bank man­ag­er to over­see what’s going on.

And one of the details in this place is they have these tall, carved stone tables that were used by bank patrons to sign checks and deposit slips. And these tables have carved into them, inkwells. Because of course at that time peo­ple didn’t use ball-point pens. So they need­ed access to ink. And the inkwells have been dry for a long time. Because peo­ple for the most part don’t use foun­tain pens any­more. And increas­ing­ly they don’t use places like this to do their bank­ing, either.

The previous bank building, with a photo of a cell phone showing a banking application.

So, many of us are doing our bank­ing in infor­ma­tion envi­ron­ments instead of phys­i­cal envi­ron­ments. Things like web sites and apps that are serv­ing the roles that places such as 1 Montgomery used to serve in the past. And it’s not just bank­ing. We’re doing this to oth­er impor­tant aspects of our soci­ety.

We are con­sum­ing and access­ing our arts and enter­tain­ment in infor­ma­tion envi­ron­ments. We’re shop­ping in infor­ma­tion environments—you may have heard of some­thing called The Great Retail Apocalypse of 2017, right? We are learn­ing in infor­ma­tion envi­ron­ments. Some peo­ple are find­ing their mates in infor­ma­tion envi­ron­ments. We are hold­ing our civic dis­course in infor­ma­tion envi­ron­ments. And of course many of us are work­ing in infor­ma­tion envi­ron­ments. This build­ing on the left here, this is the Great Workroom in the Johnson Wax head­quar­ters which was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. This is one of the first open-plan office spaces. And in the words of archi­tec­ture crit­ic Paul Goldberger, this was a place designed to give the company’s cler­i­cal work­ers a sense of com­mu­ni­ty and nobil­i­ty.”

These days, if we want to give our work­ers a sense of com­mu­ni­ty we very care­ful­ly struc­ture our Slack chan­nels, right? And we kind of have giv­en up on the nobil­i­ty thing.

The main point is that these things cre­ate con­texts in which we under­stand the world and inform our actions. And the fram­ing of what we design is very impor­tant to how we go about it. We have not been fram­ing these things as con­texts. We’ve been fram­ing them as prod­ucts, ser­vices, and a whole oth­er series of terms that are— Tools, for exam­ple. And these are things that are most­ly trans­ac­tion­al. They’re not things that are meant to be inhab­it­ed.

And when I speak with folks who are new to the field I find this con­cern with the user inter­face of these things and the the ways that you inter­act with them, as opposed to the fram­ing that they’re doing to our lives, right, and how they’re act­ing as fram­ing arti­facts.

Protestors clashing

And I think that the result of this is that they’re not serv­ing us very well as places. We’ve seen a marked ero­sion in our civic dis­course over the past few years. And I think it’s in no small part due to the fact that we are hav­ing these impor­tant social trans­ac­tions in places that have not been designed as places.

So in the keynote this morn­ing Anab Jain said the tools we cre­ate to shape the world are shap­ing us. And I think that’s spot-on. But I think the prob­lem is that we’re think­ing of them as tools when in fact in some ways they are places.

We are called to be archi­tects of the future, not its vic­tims.
R. Buckminster Fuller [pre­sen­ta­tion slide]

I also see a great deal of angst among design­ers about this sit­u­a­tion. And in the spir­it of Buckminster Fuller I want to call on all of you to think of your­selves kind of as archi­tects that are design­ing envi­ron­ments where peo­ple are con­duct­ing impor­tant parts of their lives. I’ve adopt­ed this mind­set myself, and I have this ques­tion that I pose to myself which is, How can I design infor­ma­tion envi­ron­ments that serve our needs as a soci­ety in the long term?” And that’s my main provo­ca­tion to you with this pre­sen­ta­tion. And because of my back­ground in archi­tec­ture I have three prin­ci­ples or three per­spec­tives that I bring from archi­tec­ture to help answer this ques­tion.

The first prin­ci­ple is to be mind­ful of the fact that in these things that we are design­ing, we are impos­ing upon the world a con­cep­tu­al struc­ture that influ­ences how peo­ple under­stand where they are and what they can do there.

Floor plans of the building in which the event is taking place.

We’ve been doing this with phys­i­cal places for a long time, right? So I think that by day three you all are famil­iar with how this place that we’re in now is struc­tured to serve the needs of this con­fer­ence, right? This very room that we’re in is struc­tured in a par­tic­u­lar way that enforces a struc­tur­al dis­tinc­tion between me the pre­sen­ter and you the audi­ence. And that is by design. There is a con­text here that allows this pre­sen­ta­tion to take place.

On Tuesday, Nina Lysbakken said we have dif­fer­ent rooms for dif­fer­ent pur­pos­es. And our dig­i­tal things are serv­ing these roles—well, she didn’t say that part, that’s what I’m say­ing. But he’s right on this idea that dif­fer­ent rooms serve dif­fer­ent pur­pos­es.

We label these rooms, so that we know where we are and how to get to them. We pro­vide ways of mov­ing around the envi­ron­ment, and do things like paint the stair­wells with pri­ma­ry col­ors so that we don’t get con­fused about where we are. So these are things that we’ve been doing for a long time in archi­tec­ture. And it’s impor­tant to notice that these things need don’t just serve as nav­i­ga­tion­al ele­ments. They also cre­ate the con­text.

Screenshot of a shopping site with some elements blacked out.

So one exer­cise that I like to do, and I invite you to try as well, is to vis­it web sites and cov­er up the brand­ing so that you can’t tell what it is. And just look at the nav­i­ga­tion bars and try to ask your­self how much con­text is just the nav­i­ga­tion giv­ing me. And if you do that you’ll dis­cov­er that these things— This reads like a bank. In very much the same way that 1 Montgomery served like a bank, right? In her keynote yes­ter­day Haiyan Zhang said that the screens for apps are a way of struc­tur­ing the world, and this is part­ly that what I think she was refer­ring to.

Two screenshots of the FedEx web site, one from, showing changes over time.

Now, an impor­tant point to keep in mind here as we think about the longevi­ty of these things is that these struc­tur­al aspects of the things we design are more long-lived than user inter­faces. So when I was work­ing on the polar bear book one of my tasks was updat­ing the exam­ples. And this is a book that was orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten in 1997. So there were some old things in there, right. And one of the things I noticed is yes, the UIs had changed a lot, because now we had big­ger screens, and greater col­or gamuts, and fonts, and all sorts of neat things. But the struc­tures, the nav­i­ga­tion bars, were pret­ty sim­i­lar, you know. So these things evolve more slow­ly than oth­ers. If you’ve seen Stewart Brand’s pace lay­er dia­gram, right? That’s at play here and the struc­tures are more long-lived.

So the sec­ond per­spec­tive is that these struc­tures don’t exist on their own. They are part of and par­tic­i­pate in sys­tems that are greater than them. So again, if you look at archi­tec­ture and a place like the build­ing we’re in, for this place to func­tion as such there are many dif­fer­ent sub­sys­tems that coex­ist, right. So there’s the phys­i­cal struc­ture that’s keep­ing this place up and stand­ing. There’s the elec­tri­cal grid. There is a heat­ing and air con­di­tion­ing sys­tem. And all these things must be designed as a whole so that this place func­tions for us as human beings.

Now imag­ine that you’re work­ing on the design for a ride-sharing app. Something like Lyft or Uber. If you’re tasked with design­ing say the pas­sen­ger app for this thing, you can­not con­sid­er that app in iso­la­tion to the broad­er sys­tem in which it func­tions. To do a good job you must under­stand that there is a dri­ver app that is the coun­ter­part to your pas­sen­ger app. There is an inter­me­di­ary set of ser­vices that match sup­ply and demand; so there’s a mar­ket­place. And there are things also, sys­tems that are out­side the bound­aries of your orga­ni­za­tion. So this app can’t work with­out GPS, right. And maps. Two things that your orga­ni­za­tion prob­a­bly would not be able to afford to build on its own.

So this ques­tion of the sys­tem and where its bound­aries lie is very impor­tant for us as design­ers. Because the bound­aries of the app you’re design do not stop at the bound­aries of your com­pa­ny. The soci­eties where these things exist are also sys­tems, and your app is a part of that soci­ety as well. So we need to be very con­scious of sys­tems and the impact that our things have upon the broad­er sys­tem that sup­ports them.

The third per­spec­tive is that these sys­tems are always evolv­ing. They’re dynam­ic, right, and we need to design them in such a way that they evolve to remain in exis­tence, both in and of them­selves and in the soci­eties that that sup­port them.

Again, archi­tec­ture has been doing this for a while. So when archi­tects work on a build­ing they must con­sid­er the con­text that they are work­ing with­in. And espe­cial­ly in recent times, there’s been a move­ment to do things like repur­pose sug­ar ware­hous­es into con­fer­ence spaces, right? Like this isn’t a build­ing that was designed for its cur­rent pur­pose, but there is this con­scious­ness to the cost asso­ci­at­ed with tear­ing down these struc­tures that kind of invites us to a more respon­si­ble rela­tion­ship with the arti­fact.

So when I talk about sus­tain­abil­i­ty I’m talk­ing to sus­tain­abil­i­ty in three spheres. One is the eco­nom­ic sphere; the social sphere; and the eco­log­i­cal sphere. And I’m going talk real­ly briefly about all three.

Don't understand why #Twitter can't figure out to be a successful business model. It's an extremely powerful, far-reaching, immediate tool.

Alan Lee, Twitter

So the eco­nom­ics I’m not going to spend too much time on because I think it’s obvi­ous. The thing you’re work­ing on needs to pro­duce enough val­ue to make it worth everyone’s while. I think this is kind of self-evident, but it’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly so for some impor­tant infor­ma­tion envi­ron­ments.

The next sphere, the social sphere, is relat­ed to this, and Alan Cooper touched on it on Tuesday, you know. This idea that we have to be care­ful with exter­nal­i­ties. Like there is a cost to soci­ety to doing some of these things, and we need to be mind­ful that the sys­tems that we put into the world are con­tribut­ing to the long-livedness of our soci­eties.

Screenshot of an Android preferences screen for a news application.

The third sphere is per­haps a lit­tle trick­i­er, which is why I want to spend a lit­tle bit more time on it. So this is the idea that there is an ecol­o­gy to infor­ma­tion. And we’re famil­iar with ecol­o­gy in the phys­i­cal envi­ron­ment, right. Like this idea that you don’t go out and pol­lute the riv­er, for exam­ple. Because we all depend on the riv­er. So what’s the anal­o­gy here with infor­ma­tion?

Well, the media the­o­rist Neil Postman had this term he used, he called it seman­tic envi­ron­ments,” this idea that for lan­guage to func­tion well, we have to have a set of con­di­tions that make our shared mean­ing con­ducive to cre­at­ing under­stand­ing between us. And seman­tic envi­ron­ments can become pol­lut­ed when we start shift­ing the mean­ings of words. And I think we are doing this unwit­ting­ly all the time. So think of what’s hap­pened to the word news” over the past two years, right. This is a term whose mean­ing is shift­ing, and is shift­ing in a way that makes it impos­si­ble for us to use it for its intend­ed pur­pose. And I think that that is at least in part due to the fact that we as design­ers, as tech­nol­o­gists, have shift­ed the mean­ing of news from some­thing that was a reverse-chronological list of the lat­est to some­thing that is algo­rith­mi­cal­ly designed to some­how keep you engaged. We need to be very care­ful with this stuff because lan­guages are… It’s one of the things that dis­tin­guish­es our species, I would say, and we’re mess­ing around with this stuff, right.

So to recap, I want to echo Alan Cooper’s call on Tuesday for us to be bet­ter ances­tors. I think that aim­ing for the long-term via­bil­i­ty of the con­texts where we live our lives is a good way of going about it. So as you go back to work on Monday, I want to ask for you to ask your­self these ques­tions. Are the things that I’m design­ing cre­at­ing con­cep­tu­al struc­tures, dis­tinc­tions in the world, that are viable? Are the sys­tems that I’m work­ing with respect­ful of the broad­er con­text that they’re in? And are they sus­tain­able, eco­nom­i­cal­ly, social­ly, and eco­log­i­cal­ly?

Making whole­ness heals the mak­er
Christopher Alexander [pre­sen­ta­tion slide]

As we move more and more of our activ­i­ties to infor­ma­tion envi­ron­ments, inter­ac­tion design­ers have greater agency than ever to make a dif­fer­ence. Through our work we can bring whole­ness and heal­ing to soci­eties that des­per­ate­ly need them. We can and must choose to do so. So, I thank you. I have a book com­ing out on this sub­ject in the sum­mer, so if you are inter­est­ed in this top­ic please check it out. And I’m hap­py to talk with you lat­er. Thank you.

Further Reference

Architect Everywhere, by Jorge Arango, exploring related topics.

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