I.A.s in Isolation

For folks still recovering in whole or part from the exhaustion of the 2006 South by Southwest Interactive Festival, just think about those fellow attendees who went on to this year’s Dorkstock — I mean, this year’s Information Architecture Summit, wrapping up right now in Vancouver. I kid, I kid. Because if you follow the blog-borne reports coming out of the conference, you’ll see some really interesting stuff going on: tagging, tagging and more tagging, as one attendee told me, and lots of fascinating discussions on the organization, management and manipulation of information. Plus some flat out, wild and crazy fun. Look out.

Seriously, I’ve been following the events through excellent summary posts from Luke Wroblewski, among other bloggers, and feeling like I’m getting way more reporting value from the generally more analytical mindsets of the information architecture audience than I saw come out of South by Southwest. A lot of this ad hoc reporting is so good it’s almost like I’m there, but I’m not. It all sounds geekily absorbing, and it makes me think that maybe next year I’ll go.

You Don’t Got Your Chocolate in My Peanut Butter

Then again, I got to wondering why the I.A. Summit and South by Southwest — which is the de facto summit for Web development in general — are separate events at all? There’s probably a tale to be told here about professional solidarity, camaraderie and/or jealousy that would explain why these two conferences, held just two weeks from apart this year, are unlikely to ever be consolidated into a single conference, but it would make a lot of sense.

Information architecture, for every way we’ve benefitted from its rise in the past decade, often seems to succumb to arcane tendencies — a sometimes impenetrable craft conversed among insiders in exclusionary language. I concede there’s a benefit to devoting an intensive series of days in a strange foreign country (okay, Canada) solely to discussion and idea exchange among members of this still young field. But I can’t help but think that the discipline as a whole would benefit more acutely — that we would all benefit more acutely — from a forum more inviting to all-comers.

Maybe not before this point in time, but certainly at this stage in the growth of online practice, we’re ready to have visual designers, programmers, marketers and business from all over the world mingling and butting heads together, in the same conference center. I’d be very happy to attend a conference that combines the eclecticism of South by Southwest — ideas and practice from all aspects of the online world, side by side — with the more focused track that we see on the slate at the I.A. summit. I know that I would benefit greatly from it, which is the origin of this mild rant, but I’d venture to say that a lot of information architects would benefit from it, as well. I’m pretty sure.

  1. I completely agree. SXSW was a blast, and it’s really fantastic to meet great people, but the panels were, with some (ahem) exceptions, pretty ordinary. Or, at least, not worth flying a billion hours from Melbourne for. Something a bit more focussed and information-oriented would make the trip not just fun and useful, but really, really worthwhile.

  2. hear, hear. I agree.

    As far as I can see, the web dev. community at large could definitely benefit from prolonged exposure to IAs en masse… on the flip side, many IAs would do well to hear what’s being said at SXSW and getting their heads out of the ‘inpenetrable craft’, as you put it, and immerse themselves in the interactive environment.

    Having said that, I’ve had ‘virtual’ experiences of both events. Not sure which one I’d choose to attend if I got to choose one to do ‘in the flesh’. I think I’d lean towards SWSX, despite, as you say, the appeal of the absorbing geekiness of IA Summit.

  3. I definitely would love to see more IA at sxsw and let “how to start a web 2.0 company”. I want to get rich as much as the next guy but I want sxsw to be about the craft of web design and less about the business of it.

  4. I don’t think there is any instance where a more diverse group brought together for discussion is detrimental.

    IA is such an important part of the design process that to not have it represented at a web design conference seems extremely problematic. Hopefully there will be more vocational cross-pollination when it comes to design for the web.

  5. another vote of support here for that post.

    as a visual designer, i work with (what i think are) the best IA’s our country (downunder) has to offer. i wouldnt leave home without one. we make each others work muuuuch better.

    if i was tom cruise in jerry maguire i’d say they complete me. but then…. ah dont get me started on tom.

  6. I just got back from the conference (that’s me in the Mentoring booth!) and I can say that yes, it was geeky fun. It really wasn’t as exciting, however, from a pure energy level as SXSW was, but it was probably a little more interesting in a purely academic and theoretical way, more intellectually stimulating (then again, I do information architecture for a living).

    But that’s my critique, too, of the IA Summit. There are a lot os information architects and user interface designers who just don’t see the IA Summit as something for them. I wonder if any of Khoi’s readers think that an IA Summit might be interesting to them, but haven’t yet seen a compelling case for it. For example, are there topics you’d like to see that don’t seem to be covered? I’m trying to think of ways to get more people to come next year.

  7. I’m not sure who’s on the planning committee for the IA Summit, Chris, but you might start there.

    I actually (and very unexpectedly) regretted not going to the Summit this year, because it sounds like the new blood I’ve been wanting to see since ’02 finally showed up. With all due respect to those worthies, there are only so many times you can build a conference around Christina, Peter, Lou, and Jesse without it getting stale. I’d so much rather hear from the likes of Mike Migurski or Danah Boyd…or Khoi Vinh.

    I really hope this isn’t taken as a slam at the foregoing group. Their achievement in building a community from the ground up is considerable, impressive, and praiseworthy in the highest. But there are only so many facets (forgive me) of the evolving art that they’re going to be attuned to. I’d love to see an IA Summit that devoted at least 50% of its panels to substantive presentations from people coming at IA from a different perspective or problem domain.

  8. As a member of the planning committee I am glad to see this virtual trip report. I am not sure if we’re ready for a SXSW/IA-mashup, but who knows what happens in 2008 🙂

    As for Adam’s comment (you should have come man!): Both Mike Migurski and Dana Boyd were actually present and they rocked 🙂

  9. I’m conference chair for next year, so this is all great user research to me 😉 You may tell me anything any time about ideas and hopes and I promise to listen.

    Adam, really, Christina, Peter, Lou, and Jesse were not even close to the centre of this conference. One spoke, one was on a panel and one ran around showing off a baby. But the real stars were the hundred other people who presented papers and posters.

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