On Architecture as "rhetoric for spaces"

Summary: Information architecture defines what experiences are possible while design facilitates specific experiences. Understanding this distinction helps identify when you should or shouldn't persuade your project team that they need information architecture.  


In "Rhetoric for Spaces", Dan Klyn references Andy Fitzgerald's description of architecture as "rhetoric for spaces". It's an interesting read that inspired me to expand on the difference between architecture and design.

As Dan writes, Architecture, the discipline, provides a rhetoric for discussing space. I was worried he was replacing a fuzzy word, architecture, with a fuzzier word, rhetoric, so it might be useful to describe architecture as a language that architects use to discuss and critique space. Architecture, as a discipline, provides a way to evaluate space. But evaluate against what? 

Your culture.

Your culture explains everything you know about your world: An object's properties, what you can or can't do related to that object, and what you should or shouldn't do. For example, you can use a hammer to hit someone, but you shouldn't. 

For more information about how objects and culture intersect, see Lakoff's Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, required reading for any IA.  

Architecture, the discipline, provides a language we use to evaluate the cultural implications of a space, the possibilities our culture implies for a space.

In "Rhetoric for spaces", Klyn describes architecture — not the discipline, but the object — as the argument for how space should be used. This will seem petty, but I think it's important to step back and define architecture not as the argument, but an argument for how space can be used. An architecture imagines a set of possibilities for a space.

That is what I take Klyn to mean when he describes architecture as the argument for space. An architecture is how an architect believes what experiences should occur in a space. Architecture fights to allow those experiences in that space. And an architecture always describes multiple, possible experiences. Architecture instantiates culture into a space, a view of what can and can't be done and what should and shouldn't be done. 

Architecture defines the possible. 

This is where I think Andrew Hinton would describe cultural possibility as context. Check out his post, "Context Book: A Shape Emerging" for more on how he describes context as possibility. 

In contrast, Klyn suggests that Design chooses a specific possibility from the set of possibilities defined by an Architecture. Design facilitates one of the many possibilities within an architecture.  (You could make an argument that good design facilitates good experiences and inhibits bad experiences within an architecture.) Architecture describes the possible experiences. Design prescribes one actual experience.

At this point, it feels like we're knee-deep in semantic bullshit. And we probably are. Why is it useful to distinguish Architecture and Design in this way? 

Glad you asked. 

If you can distinguish between the description of possible experiences (architecture) and the unique, actualized experience (design), then you can identify why information architecture isn't important on some projects. If you understand what IA is good for and what design is good for, then you can know figure out when you need information architecture. And also when you can save the time and effort and skip the IA.

I believe this distinction is really useful, or I wouldn't have blathered on for 640 words. I hope you agree, or are at least curious, or you wouldn't have made it this far. And I have another 600 words on what this means for how you practice user experience. The answer to, "why should I care?"

But before I talk about some of the implications and lessons you can take away, I'd really like to hear what you think about this distinction between architecture and design. Add your comments below, or post to your blog, and add a link to your post in the comments below. I'd like to hear what you think.

In part 2, "IA's place in the design and development process", I talk about agile and lean's predisposition against architecture, the push and pull tension between IA and IxD, and how project constraints define whether you need IA or IxD, both, or neither.

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