The Informed Life with Jason Ulaszek

Episode 53 of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with Jason Ulaszek. Jason is the founder of Inzovu, a design collective, and UX for Good, a nonprofit dedicated to providing “elegant solutions to messy problems.” Our conversation focused on a very messy problem: healing Rwandan society after the 1994 genocide.

Alongside with others, Jason worked on the design of the Kigali Genocide Memorial, which commemorates the genocide and serves as the burial ground of over 250,000 victims. This required that Jason interview genocide survivors – people lived through horrors, including seeing loved ones brutally assassinated. And yet, Rwandan society has survived. As Jason put it,

Rwanda has really tapped into kind of the secret code, if you will, around unity and reconciliation. They are experts in it, from my point of view.

Given where we are in the U.S., with extreme political polarization that has led to physical violence, I wanted to know more about how Rwanda did it. This is what Jason said:

Strong leadership, a strong sense of cultural values. Putting others first. There’s an African proverb that I think… from an outsider’s perspective, “I am because you are, you are because I am.”

I was especially intrigued by Jason’s comments about empathy and values:

We talk about a word… I think it’s so overplayed and over pronounced so much time, the word ‘empathy.’ That’s an important part of what you can take away from this story. What was part of the Rwandans cultural value system well before the genocide against the Tutsi and is now swung fully back — and they’re working hard to ensure that that’s the case — is a really strong sense of cultural values. What they’ve really tapped into — and I think this is where it gets into design a bit — is that they’ve tapped into ways to embody these cultural values inside of the experiences people have within education. And there are lots of different ways that they have work to focus on unity and reconciliation inside of the country, amongst its people.

But this only works if you have leadership willing to help society move beyond divisiveness towards developing (or rediscovering) a shared set of values. That leadership — and those values — have been sorely missing in the U.S. The key question is: How might we rediscover our shared values and enact them towards what Rwandans call ubumuntu – ‘greatness of heart’?

This powerful conversation with Jason has given me much to think about. I hope you get as much value from this interview as I did.

The Informed Life Episode 53: Jason Ulaszek on Healing Social Rifts

The ‘Culture’ Layer

As someone who cares about the longevity of systems, I love Stewart Brand’s Pace Layer model. In case you’re unfamiliar with the idea, the Pace Layer model explains how complex systems change over time. Such systems don’t change uniformly; instead, they’re composed of elements that vary in scale and rates of change.

The model has roots in architecture, and that’s how I usually introduce it. Mr. Brand’s book How Building’s Learn presents the following version, which is based on the work of architect Frank Duffy:

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The Assault on U.S. Democracy

Last week’s events in the U.S. — the deadly ransacking of our Capitol by a mob seeking to overturn the election — shocked and distressed me. I’ve felt emotionally drained since the attack.

I am an immigrant. My family made the U.S. our home in great part because I love this country and the principles it was founded on. Naturalized citizens like me must pass a higher bar than native-born citizens; we’re not here by accident, but by choice. (This isn’t rhetorical flourish: In completing the naturalization process, I had to overcome a series of tests — including a civics exam — that I suspect few of the people who desecrated the Capitol would’ve passed.)

From my perspective, the violent attempt to overturn the election stands in direct opposition to the U.S.’s core principles. I’m sure the insurgents would disagree. From the language I hear in the news, these people see themselves as patriots who are trying to save the country. How can you reconcile such differences in fundamental principles?

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Finding Our Way Podcast, Ep. 24

My friends Peter Merholz and Jesse James Garrett invited me to be a guest on their podcast, Finding Our Way. Our conversation focused on architecture, design education, standards, and whether designers should be certified, much like architects are licensed.

As I mentioned in the show, I’m undecided about certification. On one hand, I understand why some folks want it: the systems we’re designing today have an oversized impact on people’s well-being. On the other hand, the basic technologies are still evolving too fast; we risk formalizing interaction mechanisms that would be quickly made irrelevant.

There’s much more in the show. I greatly enjoyed this conversation. I hope you find it valuable too.

Listen here:

Or visit the Finding Our Way podcast, which includes a transcript if you’d rather read the conversation.

The Informed Life with Grace Lau

Episode 52 of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with Grace Lau. Grace is an information architect and UX designer based in the Greater Los Angeles area. Since early in her career, Grace has been organizing local professional community events. Now she’s a leader in two important information architecture events: the IA Conference, where she’s one of the 2021 chairs, and World IA Day, which she co-presides.

Our conversation centered on these upcoming community events. Grace acknowledged that information architecture can be a difficult concept to grasp:

When people hear “user experience,” they’re like, yeah, I got it! You know? Because UX is good, right? But then when you say, “oh, IA…” Because if you’re seeing good IA, then it’s invisible. So, it’s not something that is top of mind for most people. But when there is bad IA on a site, on an app, on an experience, you hear all about it. But then people want to know that the reason behind it is that it’s because it’s a bad IA.

But participating in these communities can help — not just by shedding light on the subject, but by allowing you to find your community of practice. As Grace put it,

Being part of the IA community has been really grounding for me… It’s a great way to meet other people. It’s a great way to network. [Participating is] also a great way to feel a part of another larger community of people.

I enjoyed my conversation with Grace. I hope it encourages you to participate on either the IA Conference or World IA Day — or both!

An administrative note: this episode marks the show’s second anniversary. I’m thankful for all the guests who’ve carved time out of their busy schedules to share with us on the show over the last two years. I’m also thankful for your attention. I hope these conversations are valuable to you. Onward!

The Informed Life Episode 52: Grace Lau on Information Architecture Events

Worth Your Attention

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Ways of Thinking

Drawing might best be thought of as manual thinking. It is as much tactile as cerebral, as dependent on the hand as on the brain. The act of sketching appears to be a means of unlocking the mind’s hidden stores of tacit knowledge, a mysterious process crucial to any act of artistic creation and difficult if not impossible to accomplish through conscious deliberation alone.

— Nicholas Carr, The Glass Cage

Something special happens when I put pen to paper. I almost wrote “magical,” but that would oversell it. Still, the experience of “unlocking the mind’s hidden stores of tacit knowledge” is special. Special yet cheap and easy. Science fiction posits machines that reveal the contents of the mind or capture the elusive imagery of dreams. But no elaborate technology is required. Pen + paper + time = profit.

Because most of my work happens in the digital realm, I’ve tried sketching with computers for many years. (I’ve documented my evolving setup here, here, and here.) The latest iteration of this setup — the Concepts app on the iPad Pro with second-generation Apple Pencil — is terrific in its own right. But it’s not pen and paper. I can’t get the same flow when sketching on a screen as with a simple notebook. The screen-based setup is excellent at polishing ideas for sharing, but paper is better for the type of “manual thinking” described in the quote above.

I’ve also become adept at thinking with words — that is, through writing. It’s a different modality altogether, which I find easier to do with an outlining or mapping tool. (My favorite, which does both, is Tinderbox.) This type of thinking is best for making sense of a conceptual domain with known ideas, such as research results. As with digital sketching, it comes downstream from sketching on paper.

Bottom line: there are different ways of thinking. The mind is a crucial component in the process but not the only element in play. You can’t swap out your nervous system, but you can change other aspects of your thinking setup. Knowing which tools and environments to think with (and in) – and when to switch between them – can unlock tremendous cognitive powers.