Digital systems — such as Facebook, Wikipedia, and your bank’s website — are more than products or tools: They create contexts that change the way we interact, think, understand, and act. In many ways, they function like places. This presentation covers three perspectives from architecture that are essential if we are to create digital products and services that serve our needs. These perspectives are:
The importance of having a solid conceptual structure
Understanding these structures as part of a broader system
Accommodating change by ensuring the system’s sustainability
The presentation is based on a book I’m writing — also tentatively titled Living in Information — which is scheduled to be published by Two Waves (a Rosenfeld Media imprint) in 2018.
The most astonishing innovation introduced at this week’s Apple event is the entrance to the Steve Jobs Theater in the company’s new campus.
This design raises so many questions. How does this roof resist the force of gravity? (It’s made of carbon fiber, so it must be incredibly light. It has to be since there are no columns; the roof is supported by the building’s glass walls.) How do the lamps get electricity? (I’m guessing there are thin wires between the panes of glass.) How do you drain water from the roof? How do you insulate this space? How does heating/air conditioning work? I have no idea and would love to find out. This looks like a structure that should not be physically possible. And yet, there it is. Achieving this “floating roof” effect required rethinking many architectural precepts.
That buildings like this exist says something about the maturity of architecture as a design discipline. “We’ve figured out the basic problem of safely sheltering people from the elements,” the Steve Jobs Theater seems to say, “now let’s go for the gusto.” Clients have the sophistication to assign considerable resources to realizing the implications of this statement, and architects have enough self-confidence to go through with it. Both parties are willing to explore the possibilities offered by new materials and take expensive risks.
Contrast this with another event that has been in the news recently: the breach of Equifax’s security systems, which led to the confidential information of 143 million people being compromised, and the company’s botched response. Following the disclosure of the breach, Equifax put up a website so incompetently designed that it led people to question whether it was actually a phishing site. Equifax’s information environment hasn’t mastered the basics yet; it’s not even effectively keeping us from getting soaked in the rain, so to speak. And yet, given the scope of the breach and the importance of the information that was leaked, it’s clear this information environment has a larger impact on our society than any building. We are willing to assign resources to playful bravado in one type of environment, while in the other we seemingly haven’t mastered the basics — even though the stakes are much higher. Why is this?
I delivered this Ignite-style presentation at the Reframe IA pre-conference workshop at the 2013 IA Summit in Baltimore, MD.
The design of information environments is an increasingly complex challenge. The combination of variables such as the amount and diversity of information, business goals and requirements, legal, social, and cultural issues, heterogeneous audiences, and the diversity of access device form-factors makes it difficult to design comprehensive information architectures that achieve what the architect Christopher Alexander calls “goodness of fit”.
The field of architecture — the design of physical environments — also faces similarly convoluted design challenges. The design of an urban complex, for example, presents many challenges which mirror those outlined above. Over the centuries, architects have developed various different approaches for meeting these challenges. One such approach is the design method outlined by Alexander in his 1964 book Notes on the Synthesis of Form, which later evolved into his more popular work on pattern languages.
Alexander proposes a method which proceeds from a structured analysis of requirements to a synthetic design solution based on “diagrams”, which are predecessors of the patterns in his later work. In producing solutions to design challenges, he identifies three possible paths:
The unselfconscious process, which has been employed by traditional societies to resolve simple design challenges by direct interaction with the built form and its context, developing fitness-to-purpose over multiple iterations.
The selfconscious process, which is practiced by most working architects today, who are working in a detached conceptual position with regards to the built form and its context, and therefore using an incomplete picture of the challenges involved.
The model put forth in the book, in which the contextual and programmatic challenges of the project are formally defined using set theory. This allows the architect to resolve design challenges at different levels of focus, from the most granular and simple, to the broadest and most complex.
Although Alexander’s work is explicitly aimed at solving architectural issues, it has applications in other design fields as well. This presentation takes the position that the methods proposed in “Notes on the Synthesis of Form” and Alexander’s later work can be applied to the field of information architecture to achieve humane information environments that also meet programmatic needs.
People often ask me: “How does an architect get into designing websites?” I tell them that when I was studying, there were few academic disciplines as relevant to web design as architecture. The reason for this is that successful architectural design balances a series of forces that pull a project in different directions: