Design as an Antidote to VUCA

A short presentation I shared as a videoconference with Rosenfeld Media’s Enterprise Experience Community.

In the early 1990s, the U.S. Army War College created an acronym to describe the geopolitical situation following the Cold War: VUCA. It stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, four characteristics they saw as defining the multilateral post-Cold War world. The rise of information technologies — and the internet in particular — has radically transformed our political, economic, and social reality. We are all now living in a generalized state of VUCA. We see signs of it everywhere — including the enterprise.

Design can be a powerful organ for organizations dealing with VUCA. In this presentation, I give some reasons why. I also cover some reading materials that have led me to this line of thinking. I was gratified to see participants in the videoconference suggest other resources worth investigating if you’d like to delve into design’s more strategic value; I’ve added those recommendations into my reading list.

Books I referenced in my presentation:

I also called out these recent Medium posts:

Other folks in the call suggested the following additional resources. (I’ve listed them here in the order in which they were suggested.)

I have a lot of reading to do! I was familiar with some of these resources, but not all of them. That’s one of the upsides of sharing incipient ideas with a smart group of folks like the Enterprise Experience community: you get to hear from other folks who know more about other parts of the domain. I’ll be digging into these books, posts, and videos for sure!

Living in Information

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:

  1. The importance of having a solid conceptual structure
  2. Understanding these structures as part of a broader system
  3. 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.

Leaving Your Mark

Update 2016-12-26: I’ve published a post based on this presentation.

Closing keynote for the 10th Italian Information Architecture Summit, delivered on November 12, 2016 in Rome.


What mark are you leaving in the world? Look around you. Rome is a testament to the power of architecture to create places that stand the test of time, marks of people long gone. Stone, metal, wood, pozzolana: Architects design for the ages.

Digital information environments, on the other hand, are among our shortest-lived designed artifacts. What was once a cutting-edge application quickly becomes outdated as device form factors and operating systems evolve. It seems those of us who design and produce websites, applications, and other information products and services are constantly trying to catch-up so our designs can remain relevant. Instead of designing for the ages, we work for and within an ever-smaller now.

But not everything changes at the same speed. The structure of information environments, in particular, evolves at a slower pace than its forms. Because of this, information architects can and should design for the ages too.

In this closing keynote, we will look at information architecture as a discipline in the broader context of design for purpose, and how as an information architect you can leave a mark that endures.

Dejando Huellas

A Spanish-language version of my keynote Leaving Your Mark, delivered at Interaction South America 2016 in Santiago, Chile.


¿Cuánto duran los productos y servicios que estás diseñando? ¿Cinco años? ¿Dos años? Dados los constantes cambios en las tecnologías que los subyacen y las características esenciales de los medios interactivos, los apps, sitios web, y otros artefactos informáticos son algunas de las cosas más efímeras que hemos diseñado. Estas cosas están transformando el mundo, creando ecosistemas que impactan la forma en que entendemos el mundo e interactuamos los unos con los otros.

Esta presentación ofrece un modelo para pensar sobre longevidad de los productos y servicios digitales que diseñamos, y así velar por su eficacia a largo plazo.

Architects Everywhere

Keynote presentation for World IA Day 2016 San Francisco.

Update 2016-03-03: I’ve published an article based on this presentation.


Architecture is everywhere. Look around you: The place in which you are reading these words has an architecture, and somebody designed it. Less obviously, the wesbite, app, and operating system through which these words reach your eyes also have architecture — and this is one which you can design.

As we gather to celebrate the 5th World IA Day, we will ponder the question: In what sense is our work “architecture”?

In this presentation, you will learn:

  • What we mean by “architecture” in IA.
  • How being conscious of the impact of architectural decisions can help you design products that can grow and adapt to changing needs.
  • How you can design more effective architectures.

… For Everybody

This is a transcript of the keynote speech I delivered at the 2015 Information Architecture Summit in Minneapolis, MN.

Thanks for giving me this opportunity to stand here before you. This is my tenth IA Summit, so in many ways I feel like I’m addressing friends and family. As a result, I feel comfortable telling you about one of the most exciting and terrifying episodes in my life.

It happened in early 1994. It had been about 18 months or so since I had graduated from architecture school, and I was working as a junior architect in a small architecture firm in Panama, where I’m originally from. I was doing the sort of menial, entry-level design tasks that usually get delegated to junior architects – designing bathrooms, taking measurements on site, etc. – and I was frankly starting to feel anxious and panicky. I had started questioning my choice of career.

Continue reading

Give a Hoot! Mapping (and Caring for) the Semantic Environment

I delivered this presentation at the 2014 IA Summit in San Diego, California.

En Castellano: El diagramado y cuidado del entorno semántico

Presentation Summary:

Before an architect designs a building, she must first understand the environment it will be designed for: the plot size, shape, and location, the conditions of the ground, exposure to the elements, access to essentials like water and sewage lines, traffic patterns, and more. Only after she’s carefully measured and analyzed the place can she propose a meaningful and practical intervention.

Information architects must also understand the environment we will be designing for. However, ours is not a physical environment but one made of signs: instead of earth, vegetation, roads, and neighboring buildings, we deal with words, ideas, rules, roles, and relationships. Ours are semantic environments, and just like architects do, we must thoroughly understand them before we start proposing designs that change them.

This presentation will introduce the concept of the semantic environment, as it has been developed in the field of general semantics, and will teach you a method for mapping the various semantic environments that affect your project. I will argue that one of the information architect’s responsibilities is to avoid polluting these environments (“Give a hoot!”), and will show you specific ways in which you can do this. I will also present a case study that explains how this technique helped in the creation of a multi-channel information architecture for a service-focused organization.

In this presentation, you will learn:

  • What the semantic environment is, and why it’s important to your projects.
  • How to avoid polluting the semantic environment.
  • How to create a map of your project’s various semantic environments.
  • How that map can inform the design of a cross-channel information architecture.
  • How my team helped develop a cross-channel IA for a service-focused organization by using this technique.