The IA Summit Blues

The conferences I remember as simply wonderful are the ones I didn’t want to leave and couldn’t wait for more of the same a year later. Today, a few days after the tenth IA Summit, all I can say is that if next year in Phoenix will be more of the same, I doubt I’ll be there.

That’s not to say that it was crap – far from it. There were plenty of interesting sessions, and I’ll be getting to those later. But the quality was overshadowed by a discussion – in the sessions, breaks and evenings – that seemed, to this first time summit attendee, to be equal parts navel-gazing, tree-pissing and back-biting.

The House Must Evolve or Die Divided

“Big” vs. “little” IA, academics vs. practitioners, tribe vs. community – the posturing around these semantic issues in sessions with melodramatic names like “Evolve or Die” and “A House Divided” surprised me, as it had never occurred to me that they were issues. The summit old-timers, a.k.a. ten-years (tenures?), seemed to be talking to and about each other, leaving us newbies scratching our heads in irritation. Judging by how little this embarrassed anyone involved, it seems to be par for the course. For me, a great reason to skip Phoenix.

There was also much talk of job titles and “a place at the table.” I’m sorry, but no one outside of the field of information architecture knows what the words mean, so what’s your title got to do with anything? A place at the table is earned through competence. Do excellent work, work that unquestionably demonstrates the value of what you do, and your place is guaranteed. Leave the titles fight for those who want to differentiate themselves form their colleagues, and get on with your work.

By the end of the summit it seemed that those in need of catharsis had achieved it. When Jesse James Garrett delivered the theatrical closing keynote, there were applause and cheers, growing in fervor until the penultimate statement:

We are not big or little information architects, we are not interface or interaction designers, we are user experience designers!

This speech earned JJG a standing ovation, and I almost expected him to whip out a big black “designer” flag and the crowd to build a barricade, though to keep what out I couldn’t say.

Hello Navel!

Right about then, I realised I’d been inordinately irritated by the whole discussion. I’d frowned and ranted my way through the conference, which wasn’t like me at all. Why was I so miffed?

The project process begins with strategy and information architecture, which leads to “visual” design, which leads to coding and launch. As an Art Director in a large agency I had a pretty stable position in the middle of the process for the last seven years, with a clear job description and title. Jobs just magically landed on my desk without me marketing myself, which left me free to expand my skill-set “backwards”, towards the start of a project. I already “owned” the visual design territory, but by the time I quit last year I was also heavily involved in sales, strategy consulting, sitemapping, wireframing and more.

Since I moved to Sydney and made the leap into freelance work six months ago, I’ve found it hard to define and communicate what exactly it is that I do, and find, if possible, something to call myself. The struggle of the IA community that I witnessed at the IA Summit mirrors my own struggle, and it’s pretty annoying to have an issue you’re avoiding and ignoring thrown in your face.


So I’m a user experience designer (um, and graphic/visual designer), and the rest of you are too. What now?

Well, I’d say you traditional IAs should all take a deep breath. There’s plenty to be happy about, and lots of work to do:

  • As an experience designer, you’re no longer locked in the HCI box. Experience is everywhere.
  • Design is a tradition extending back into at least the nineteenth century, so there’s tonnes of work to look at and plenty to read and learn from.
  • As a designer, you’re related to the “visual” designers you seem to have so little respect for. Get to know them, integrate them, and your work will be better for it.
  • Look around at how much the concept of experience design can include, and start dismantling the tiny fences of exclusion that you’ve built.

One Love…

And as snarky as all of the above may have sounded, the very last moments of the IA Summit washed away all of my irritation. Five Minute Madness – a summit tradition where anyone who wants to can address everyone about anything for up to five minutes – showed the IA community to be a close-knit, warm, passionate and yes, dysfunctional, family. Speakers honestly shared what they thought and felt. They sang, clapped and were moved to tears.

I found myself wanting to belong, to be one of these great people who obviously care so much about what they’re doing. I found it hard to believe that these people were the ones nit-picking about irrelevant definitions and job titles. And I found myself wishing them the best, wishing them the clarity to get over the pettiness and get on with some epic shit, and wanting to see them all again, maybe next year in Phoenix.

How was your summit?


  1. Leisa says:

    first up, your spam-guard requires way too advanced maths.
    but seriously…
    … I’m sad that I didn’t get to make it to the IA Summit this year because this is, kind of, my tribe.
    I was really interested in that throwaway remark about the lack of respect we/they have for visual designers. I think that the UX/VisDev relationship is one of the more important and interesting going forward and yet… I feel like I know why you say that. We have a lot to learn.

  2. Matt Balara says:

    Yep, that throwaway remark was a strong reaction of mine (as a visual designer) to what seemed to be the IA view of visual design. And it was only a throwaway remark because it’s something I’m planning on writing more about soon…

    And I was also sad you didn’t make it – I was looking forward to seeing you again!

  3. Great summary. As an old-timer (attended 6 summits and chaired 1.5) I was extremely embarrassed about the weird in-fighting. I’m glad 5-minute madness redeemed it somewhat, and hope that meeting & talking to some folks did too 😉

    I’ll write my summary on the weekend… (I hope)

  4. xian says:

    Matt, I think you touched a real nerve with the IA/visde thing. A lot of the residual angst in the community (I believe) comes from the various territorial grabs that have occurred as people have figured out how to strategize, plan, design, and execute connected digital experiences.

    The IA “identity” in some sense marginalized the graphic/visual designer profession as it arose, relegating visde’s to “coloring in” the wireframes and usurping most of the strategic planning and conceptual design work.

    The IxD “identity” pushed back against that by re-centering itself on design and welcoming the form / color / presentation / typography concerns of visde’s into the fold.

    I think the dialectic may be eating itself now, perhaps for the good.

    Although I would never position myself as a graphic designer, I have an art background and nothing but the utmost respect for good visual designers. I work closely with them and rely on them to collaborate with me in figuring out how things ought to look, feel, and function.

  5. It’s no wonder developers don’t take us seriously (designers of any stripe). We can’t even decide what we do or what we call ourselves!

    I read many tweets from this year’s IxD09 conference and was disappointed at the open dissent among the attendees regarding the presenters not being “up with the play”.

    Designers are communicators, so why are we so unable to reach the masses with what we do? Is it because our content is so subjective? Why is it most IxD sites look like crap?! It’s like IxD is a brain that can’t ever fully understand itself, and yet can see the world as it truly is.

    Anyway, I agree with most of what you’ve said in your post, and thanks for putting your thoughts out there. Hopefully we can all reach a consensus and move on. Though that continues to be an uphill battle.