Learn a Second Language

Do you want to become a better information architect? Learn a second language.

IA is focused on establishing distinctions. You do this with words. As a result, mastery of language is important for information architects. You master language by reading and writing — especially reading things that are outside your comfort zone. (One of the under-appreciated wonders of reading using tablets and e-readers is that they allow you to look up the definition words on the spot.) The broader your vocabulary, the more nuanced the distinctions you’re able to draw. (That said, you should avoid obscure terms when designing something for a mass audience. Not everybody will have as broad a vocabulary as you.)

But even having a broad vocabulary in one language may not be enough. Language is so foundational to how we experience reality that we can easily take it for granted. It’s the ground on which we stand. If we only know the one ground, we risk assuming everyone is standing on it. That isn’t the case.

Learning a new language forces you to realize that languages are constructs. Yes, they all have certain things in common. All languages have words for numbers, for example. But things like categorization schemes can vary significantly. Some languages have category terms that don’t exist in other languages. Some have more categories for a particular domain, others less. This video makes the point:

You can learn about these things intellectually. But you only grok the differences deeply when you must communicate with people who speak a different language. You start questioning things you’ve taken for granted most of your life, such as figures of speech and metaphors. You become aware of the historical contingencies of languages. None of the major ones have emerged fully formed; they’ve changed and influenced each other over time. And you, too, have the power to influence how they change.

Wittgenstein said that “the limits of my language are the limits of my world.” You must know the limits. This requires you to transcend them. Learning a second language — and putting yourself in a position to rely on it — pushes you beyond the limits of your mother tongue. A second language throws contrast, making the edges between distinctions visible. It’s an important skill for people who aspire to design worlds through words.

Information Metaphors

The ways we deal with information since the advent of the web are new. Although people have dealt with information in the past — through spoken language, print media, in the environment, etc. — the web changed how we produce and use information. We don’t yet have precise language to describe the effects of this change upon us as individuals and societies.

Language reveals how we think about things. Given the newness of the experience, I’m curious about the metaphors we use to talk about how we use of information online. I’ve noticed three come up often:

  • information as resource,
  • information as sustenance, and
  • information as an environment.

Let’s look at them in more detail.

Information as Resource

Under this metaphor, we see information as something to be bought, sold, mined, traded, shared, etc. We can own information, gain access to it, stream it. We must protect our information lest it fall into the wrong hands.


“A new commodity spawns a lucrative, fast-growing industry, prompting antitrust regulators to step in to restrain those who control its flow. A century ago, the resource in question was oil. Now similar concerns are being raised by the giants that deal in data, the oil of the digital era.” — The Economist

“Think twice about sharing your social security number with anyone, unless it’s your bank, a credit bureau, a company that wants to do a background check on you or some other entity that has to report to the IRS. If someone gets their hands on it and has information such your birth date and address they can steal your identity and take out credit cards and pile up other debt in your name.” — Christina DesMarais, TIME

Information as Sustenance

This metaphor posits that information is like food and drink; it changes us as we consume it. Information enters you and transforms you. You are what you eat; you are what you read online. As with food, you have the ability to say “no” to information, to change your consumption patterns. You could go on an “information diet” if you wished.


“We monitor what we eat and drink, optimizing our diet for health and performance, not just enjoyment–and yet we can be heedless about what we read, watch, and listen to. Our information diet is often the result of accident or happenstance rather than thoughtful planning. Even when we do choose deliberately, the intent behind much of our media consumption is simply to soothe or distract ourselves, not to nourish or enrich. It’s like having french fries for every meal.” — Ed Batista

“We define digital nutrition as two distinct but complementary behaviors. The first is the healthful consumption of digital assets, or any positive, purposeful content designed to alleviate emotional distress or maximize human potential, health, and happiness. The second behavior is smarter decision-making, aided by greater transparency around the composition and behavioral consequences of specific types of digital content.” —
Michael Phillips Moskowitz

Information as Environment

Another metaphor is that of information as something you inhabit; an environment. Under this metaphor, information defines the boundaries of spaces where we interact. We’ve been using this type of language from very early in the online revolution; we’ve been talking of “chat rooms” and “home pages” for a long time.


“When all discussion takes place under the eye of software, in a for-profit medium working to shape the participants’ behavior, it may not be possible to create the consensus and shared sense of reality that is a prerequisite for self-government. If that is true, then the move away from ambient privacy will be an irreversible change, because it will remove our ability to function as a democracy.” — Maciej Cegłowski

“Dark forests like newsletters and podcasts are growing areas of activity. As are other dark forests, like Slack channels, private Instagrams, invite-only message boards, text groups, Snapchat, WeChat, and on and on. This is where Facebook is pivoting with Groups (and trying to redefine what the word ‘privacy’ means in the process).

These are all spaces where depressurized conversation is possible because of their non-indexed, non-optimized, and non-gamified environments. The cultures of those spaces have more in common with the physical world than the internet.” — Yancey Strickler

While all three metaphors are valid, you won’t be surprised to learn I favor the “environment” metaphor — as evidenced by the title of my book.

The “resource” metaphor brings with it the language of ownership and trade. The “sustenance” metaphor reduces our agency to which types of information we choose to let in. (After all, most of us don’t produce our own food.) While both are valid, they miss an important angle: the fact that our interactions with each other and our social institutions are increasingly mediated through information. The language of inhabitation nudges us to consider the pervasive influence of information on our actions and empowers us to reconfigure our information structures to affect outcomes. It gives us agency with regards to information while acknowledging the degree to which it influences our decisions.

Have you found other information metaphors? Please let me know.

Karl Popper on Definitions

Although it’s less common today, in the past, my peer community has engaged in what we call DTDT — “Defining the Damned Thing.” The term describes a discussion that devolves into the ​definition of terms. For example, a discussion about user experience design may lead someone to ask, “What do you mean by ‘experience’?” whereafter the conversation can go down a semantic rabbit hole.

Some folks have a strong aversion to DTDT. However, it’s crucial to ensure that we’re aligned on meaning — especially when we’re using relatively new terms. Despite its popularity among designers and techie folks, “user experience” is still a new term; I’d bet that most people don’t have a clear grasp of what it means. So there’s value to ensuring that everybody’s on the same footing with the language we’re using.

As my friend Andrew Hinton has eloquently written, definitions play an important role in a maturing discipline — and that necessitates these conversations. That said, there’s a flipside to DTDT: it can give the illusion that intelligent discussion is happening when, in fact, no progress is being made. I suspect this is what upsets most people who protest against DTDT.

I was reminded of this issue when I saw this clip from an interview with the philosopher Karl Popper:

In my opinion, it’s a task in life to train oneself to speak as clearly as possible. This isn’t achieved by paying special attention to words, but by clearly formulating theses, so formulated as to be criticizable. People who speak too much about words or concepts or definitions don’t actually bring anything forward that makes a claim to truth. So you can’t do anything against it. A definition is a pure conventional matter.

He goes on to expand on why he thinks definitions aren’t helpful to philosophy:

They only lead to a pretentious, false precision, to the impression that one is particularly precise. But it’s a sham precision, it isn’t genuine clarity. For that reason, I’m against the discussion of terms and definitions. I’m rather for plain, clear speaking.

That’s the goal: alignment through plain, clear speaking.

Karl Popper on Definitions (1974)

A Bold Example of Semantic Pollution

Sometimes language changes slowly and inadvertently. The meaning of words can change over time as language evolves. That’s how many semantic environments become polluted: little by little. But sometimes change happens abruptly and purposefully. This past weekend, AT&T gave us an excellent example of how to pollute a semantic environment in one blow.

Today’s mobile phone networks work on what’s known as 4G technology. It’s a standard that’s widely adopted by the mobile communications industry. When your smartphone connects to a 4G network, you see a little icon on your phone’s screen that says either 4G or LTE. These 4G networks are plenty fast for most uses today.

However, the industry is working on the next generation network technology called — you guessed it — 5G. The first 5G devices are already appearing on the market. That said, widespread rollout won’t be immediate: the new technology requires new hardware on phones, changes to cell towers, and a host of other changes. It’ll likely be a couple of years before the new standard becomes mainstream.

Despite these technical hurdles, last weekend AT&T started issuing updates to some Android phones in their network that change the network label to 5G. Nothing else is different about these devices; their hardware is still the same and they still connect using the same network technology. So what’s the reason for the change? AT&T has decided to label some advanced current-generation technologies “5G E.” When the real 5G comes around, they’ll call that “5G+.”

This seems like an effort to make the AT&T network look more advanced than those of its competitors. The result, of course, is that this change confuses what 5G means. It erodes the usefulness of the term; afterward, it’ll be harder for nontechnical AT&T customers to know what technology they’re using. It’s a bold example of how to co-opt language at the expense of clarity and understanding.

AT&T decides 4G is now “5G,” starts issuing icon-changing software updates

Working in a Second Language

Love this exchange between Daniel Kahneman and Tyler Cowen:

COWEN: Do you think that working outside of your native language in any ways influenced your ideas on psychology? It makes you more aware of thinking fast versus thinking slow? Or not?
KAHNEMAN: It’s something I used to think about in the context . . . I’m from Israel, and it was thinking whether there was something in common to Israeli intellectuals operating in a second language. And I thought that, in a way, it can be an advantage to operate in a second language, that there are certain things . . . that you can think about the thing itself, not through the words.
COWEN: It’s like lower sunk costs in a way.
KAHNEMAN: I don’t know exactly how to explain it, but I thought that this was not a loss for me, to do psychology in a second language.

This resonates with my experience as somebody who operates primarily using a second language. Working in English has made my work better, not worse. It’s been a forcing function that has made me more aware of the contingency of language; a significant effect given how central language is to information architecture.

Daniel Kahneman on Cutting Through the Noise (Ep. 56- Live at Mason)

How To Frame an Argument

“The way in which we frame an issue largely determines how that issue will be understood and acted upon.” So begins an article by Dr. Biljana Scott that analyzes President Obama’s 2010 Nobel speech to illustrate how to frame an argument.

Dr. Scott highlights several effective framing mechanisms:

  • assertion,
  • pre-emotive arguments,
  • appeal to authority and precedent,
  • typecasting,
  • selective disclosure,
  • semantic categories,
  • appeal to emotion through stories in a capsule,
  • clusivity,
  • shared aspirations,
  • redress,
  • the use of musical devices, and
  • ethos and credibility.

The objective? “To change the attitudes and associated behaviour of another party in line with one’s own beliefs (or a set of beliefs which suits our purpose).” This calls for a mix of force through assertion and grace through attentiveness—achieved through the mindful use of language:

The person who takes the initiative in assigning members to categories, defining key terms and pursing a well-reasoned argument is likely to maintain control of the topic under discussion.

Framing an argument

The Meaning Vampires

Let’s look at a painting:

Mona Lisa

Surely you’re familiar with this one. It’s very famous! By the time I was a university student, I’d seen reproductions of this painting many hundreds (if not thousands) of times in a great variety of contexts: history books, art books, magazines, print ads, TV commercials, etc. In my last year of university, I visited The Louvre, where the “original” is on display. It was on a wall, behind thick glass.

My first thought upon seeing the “real” Mona Lisa was that it’s smaller than I expected, perhaps because I was very far away. There was a large crowd surrounding the painting. Immediately in front of me was a man with a child on his shoulders; he’d propped him up so he could see. “Son,” he said, “there it is! The most famous painting in the world!”

The most famous painting in the world. Not just a beautiful portrait of a particular individual, an excellent example of Renaissance painting or of the sfumato oil painting technique: This painting represents something else, something broader. It’s the uber-painting, the one that represents all other paintings. If you were to stop a random person on the street and ask them to name a painting, the odds are high this is the one they’ll mention.

Mona Lisa’s fame has resulted in (and been the result of) endless reproduction and re-contextualization. What was once a stand-in for a real person is now used to convey lots of other meanings: Renaissance, painting, art, genius, and so much more. With each new reproduction, each new act of association between the painting and an idea, a little bit of its original meaning erodes.

Painting, art, and genius are abstractions; they need signifiers to help us discuss them in concrete ways. Mona Lisa fills this need beautifully. We latch on to the new signification and repeat it. In so doing, the painting’s original meaning wanes. As familiar as you are with the image itself, I’m willing to bet you’re not as familiar with the name Lisa Gherardini, the ostensible subject of the painting. (This post, too, layers new meaning onto the Mona Lisa, nudging it ever slightly further from its original role and meaning; the irony isn’t lost on me.)

Of course, this doesn’t just happen with paintings; all signifiers can be subject to this sort of meaning shift. For most of our history, it’s happened relatively slowly: Mona Lisa’s meaning changed over a long period of time. However, in digital information environments — and social media, in particular — this process can happen much faster.

Consider the appearance of the word “BREAKING” at the beginning of a news item. I still remember a time in my life when seeing this word in this context would cause my heart to skip a beat. “Oh no!,” I’d wonder, “What terrible thing has happened now?” “BREAKING” used to mean something like, “an event has occurred that is important enough for us to immediately ask for your attention.” It’s useful to have a signifier that serves this purpose; sometimes we need to stop what we’re doing to pay attention. (“BREAKING: 100-foot waves spotted heading towards San Francisco as a result of a ​tsunami. Evacuate now!”) “BREAKING” is thus a sort of incantation that makes us prop up.

Or rather, it used to be. You see, this usage doesn’t come for free: it only works as intended if we use it infrequently and for really important things. When we overuse the word, its meaning starts to erode — and once gone, we’ve lost it. At some point, somebody recognized the power of “BREAKING” to get us to pay attention​ and used it for something slightly less than truly urgent or relevant. Other people picked up on the usage, and from then on it was a slippery slope to irrelevance:

The original meaning of the Mona Lisa has mostly eroded. But that’s OK; Lisa Gherardini and the people who loved her (and would’ve cared about the verisimilitude of her representation) are long gone. The painting is now serving a new role. This shift in meaning is useful to us​, even if we can no longer appreciate the painting as such and only do so as an abstract concept. However, in diminishing the potency of “BREAKING” through repetition and re-contextualization, we’ve done ourselves a disservice: we’ve lost a powerful signifier that used to play a useful (and necessary) role.

Those of us who structure information environments are continually repeating and re-contextualizing signifiers, often for novel purposes. We must approach the task with great respect to the power of language, being mindful not to trivialize the words, phrases, and symbols we use. It’s frighteningly easy to drain signifiers of their meaning, and once that’s happened, their potency (and effectiveness) cannot be regained; the life is sucked out of them.

Note: I first learned about the erosion of meaning through reproduction—using Mona Lisa as an example—from one of my university professors. I wish I could remember her name so I could give her credit for it.

The Power of Labeling

“And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.”
— Genesis 2:19

A storytelling trope: a child finds a derelict, perhaps injured, animal and starts caring for it. An adult then advises: “Don’t give it a name.” The adult knows what happens next: The act of naming the animal will mark a change in the relationship. Suddenly, this is not just a random dog; now it’s Skippy. In granting the dog this label — which sets him apart from the other dogs in the world — the child has taken more responsibility for Skippy. A strong bond is established.

Naming things is a superpower all humans share. We see something novel, and need to discuss it. Long descriptions won’t work. “The dog we found yesterday in the alley” is too long and awkward. We need a label we can use to stand in for the thing. Not just any dog; Skippy. If we’re learning a language, we may ask someone else: “what do you call this?” They may say, “We call it pamplemousse.” The label pamplemousse gives you new abilities. Now you can get juice, for example. In some cases, there will be no existing label; we need to produce one. “Let’s call it Large Hadron Collider.” Bam! Now you can ask for funding.

When you’re considering a new project, naming it is a key step towards making it real. Before you’ve named the project, it’s just a vague set of ideas in your mind. But once it has a label, you can make a folder in your computer, start a notebook, email people about it. The label makes the project a more concrete thing. You can think and talk about it in more precise terms. The label establishes boundaries around the project; it concretizes it as a set. It also gives you a way of operating on that set. You can kick off the project, work on it with other people, transfer it, archive it, etc. Think of a hot frying pan; you can manipulate the pan because it has a handle. A label is a sort of handle that lets you manipulate ideas.

But labels do more than that. They also frame things in particular ways. Imagine you name a project “Tahoe Vacation 2018.” That label establishes several frames. For example, it’s clearly not a work project. (Unless you work as a travel agent.) It’s implied that this vacation applies to the year 2018; perhaps you only take one vacation per year, or you go to Tahoe every year and this particular project applies to the one in 2018. In any case, time is now part of the framing. It’s also implied that you’ll be going to Tahoe; by giving it this particular label, you’ve ruled out lots of other destinations.

We give our children labels. My name is Jorge, just like my dad. This frames our relationship — and my relationship to the world – in a particular way. It sets expectations on all sides. Naming firstborn male and female children after their father and mother is a common practice in some parts of the world. My wife and I decided not to follow this practice; our son’s name is not Jorge.

Most often, we don’t give as much forethought to labeling as when we name our children. We label things all the time, sometimes casually. But either way, the names we give things (and people) has great import. It affects how we think about them and sometimes (as in the case of children) what they think about themselves.

Labeling is central to information architecture. The essence of IA is establishing distinctions between things and naming them in ways that allow people to understand those distinctions. The job requires that we exert this superpower — that we give names to things — on a daily basis. As with all superpowers, we must wield it responsibly.

An Example of a Semantic Environment Map

I’ve had folks ask me for examples of a semantic environment map. Here’s one for the confessional, a semantic environment within the broader environment of the Catholic Church:

Did I get it wrong? It’s likely. If you can spot problems, the map is serving its purpose: to help us have discussions about contextual issues that often go unnoticed or unexpressed.

If you want to create a map of your own, you can download a PDF of the Semantic Environment Canvas.