Structure and Change

I’m currently re-visiting Douglas Adams’s wonderful Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy “trilogy.” In coming back to these books after many years, I was reminded of a quote by Adams that’s dear to my heart:

I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.

Deadlines are important in book publishing. Putting ink on paper is irreversible — and costly. Packaging it is costly. Transporting it for distribution is costly. Shelving it in bookstores is costly. Therefore, making changes after the thing is done is mostly out of the question. There has to be a point in the process where the writer’s work is “done”; a deadline that triggers all these other interdependent parts of the process into motion. It’s a big deal. (Adams was famously late in delivering manuscripts to his editors.)

For most of our history, designers have worked to create artifacts that abide by the laws of physics in the same ways that books do. If you’re designing a wooden chair, someone eventually needs to cut the wood. At that point, you can’t take it back without taking some loss. The same is true for posters, miniskirts, teapots, automobiles, and — especially — the machinery necessary to produce them at scale. As a result, deadlines loom large in the world of design. Designers come to the process with the assumption that there will be a point when their work is “done” — it’s crossed a threshold when things must move on to the next stage in the process.

This is still true for many areas of design, but less so for information architecture. Information environments are never “done” in the same way that a book is done. Information environments are dynamic and interactive. They’re made of malleable stuff: code. Powerful feedback mechanisms are part of their very essence. It does information environments disfavor to think of them as fixed, static things. Deadlines are still important when designing information environments, but they must be put in the right context; they don’t signal the end of the work but a change in focus.

In the introduction to The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — the omnibus of all five novels, which is what I’m reading – Adams traces the evolution of the story as it moved from radio to books, to computer games, to the movies, and so on. The Hitchhiker’s Guide kept changing as it migrated to a new medium. Some versions are more definitive than others (the radio play and the novels being the leading contenders), but it’s hard to say any one of them is the “real” story. (Alas, it’s now done; Adams died in 2001.)

Information environments are only ever “done” when they stop being relevant; when the people who manage them stop investing in their continuing evolution. Those of us who design them need always to be thinking about the implications of our work down the line. We may think the object of our work is a taxonomy or some other structural construct, but the thing we’re working on at any given moment is never the final structural form of the environment. It’s only the articulation of a particular snapshot of structural stability in a process of continuous change. The system that shapes these structural relationships is a primary object of interest in information architecture.