Karen Parolek

Karen Parolek

In one of those "Doh!" moments, I realized that it's been a few years since I sat down with a "real live architect" and discussed our respective fields and how they relate. Fortunately I had the chance to run into Karen Parolek, someone who bridges both fields (and whom many of you met at the ASIS&T IA Summits). She has a Bachelor of Architecture (with a minor in Graphic Design) from the University of Notre Dame, and specializes in information and interaction design. Her firm, Envision Design, is an interdisciplinary design practice that spans urban design, architectural design, graphic design and web design. Prior to joining Envision Design, Karen held senior design positions at NBC Internet and Pentagram Design.
-- Lou Rosenfeld

Lou: Karen, as someone with a "real architecture" background, are you at all concerned that we IAs are perverting the true meaning of the term?

Karen: Part of me is a little concerned that we are unfairly benefiting from the long-established reputation of the architectural industry. Architects have worked long and hard to earn the respect they have in our society. In the architectural industry, one can get in a lot of trouble for calling oneself an architect without a license.

On the other hand, this last century has been a rough one for the architectural industry, and they have lost a lot of respect for good reason. There are a lot of very bad buildings out there. Some may be stunning, but they are not in the least bit useful or enjoyable. Others are just plain bad. It seems to me that the architectural industry is doing a fine job of "perverting the true meaning of 'architecture'" without any help.

Lou: How strong do you think the analogy to physical architecture is?

Karen: This is a tough one to answer without getting into the debate about our specific roles and titles. I agree with most everyone else at the conferences that the continuing debate about what we call our industry is futile and that we are nowhere near an agreement on our job descriptions. But, to answer your question, I have to get into it a little.

I actually believe the analogy to physical architecture lies in comparing it to web design as a whole, not just to information architecture. Architecture involves the designing and building of buildings. Web Design involves the designing and building of web sites. From a process standpoint, both architecture and web design involve a definition or schematic design stage, a design development stage, a documentation and specification stage (construction documents), and a building stage.

However, when you look at the roles that the individual players have, the analogy changes a little. An architect does not design and build a building alone no matter how large or small a project is. S/he is more of the guiding force for the project. On small projects, the architect is the most active player in the first three stages mentioned above and oversees the last stage, although various specialists are involved throughout the entire process. On large projects, various architects with different specialties are involved, and there can be several architects overseeing the project. In some cases that we've seen, this is also true of Information Architects. Those that play a broad role in the process, varying from thesauri design to information design to interaction design seem to be playing a similar role in the process to an architect on a small project. Those that pick just one of these specialties seem to be more like an architect with a specific focus, such as a specifications writer, a design architect or an associate architect.

This leads to an idea for resolving our internal debate by looking at the training, licensing and roles of professional architects. In reality, any medium to large size building requires multiple architects, as well as various specialists. None of the architects play the same role on the project. They have all gone through the same basic education and training, they have all demonstrated their expertise by passing a rigorous licensing exam, and they all have a broad enough knowledge to call themselves an architect. After they are licensed, they can choose to work on small projects and play many different roles, or they can work on large projects in a more specific capacity.

Consider an education or training system for Information Architecture that required, at a minimum, courses in business, library science, graphic design, interaction design, information design, thesauri design, usability, html and database design. This would give an IA enough knowledge to communicate with all of the various specialists involved in any given project, and then allow him or her to specialize if desired. If not, he or she can just work on small projects, where one person can effectively handle many of these responsibilities, except for the programming (building) of the site. Note that I am not in any way suggesting a licensing program for IAs.

Lou: What lessons can IAs learn from physical architects in terms of interacting with others in the "construction" process?

Karen: Architects are required to have a fairly intense knowledge of the construction process. This enables them to design, detail and write specifications for buildings that can actually be built. This also enables them to "speak the same language" as the construction team to facilitate good communication. Throughout the process, one of the roles of the architect is interpreter, between the client, the designers, the engineers, the builders and everyone else involved.

Another lesson to be learned here is cooperation. The architectural process is easiest and most successful when everyone involved in the process gets along. Many architects have reputations for being prima-donnas and very difficult to work with. This makes everyone else on the team miserable and less willing to do a good job. I can see similar animosity growing between IAs and Engineers and Graphic Designers. I hope that this does not happen. The best work is done when everyone is respected for his or her knowledge and no toes are stepped on.

Lou: What about the problem of being pushed out by builders? Are we IAs in similar danger?

Karen: Yes, many architects have been pushed out by builders, and the results are horrendous. A perfect example is the stereotypical cookie-cutter house in the suburbs where the only difference between it and the house next door is the color of the siding. I once saw a lecture that touched on this issue. There was a house that was designed by an architect in one photo. In the next photo, the builder who built the first house then built a second one without the permission or involvement of the architect. The builder did seemingly harmless things when cutting corners, such as leaving out window mullions, but the difference was amazing. These seemingly small details can really make the difference between a well-designed and a poorly-designed building. Addressing this level of detail is when an architect's involvement is critical.

As far as the danger of being pushed out, I think that IAs are actually in the opposite position. I think web design started out without us, and people are now beginning to realize how necessary we are. Unfortunately, we have a long battle ahead of us. The biggest reason architects are pushed out of the process is cost, both the cost of the services and the cost of building a better building. However, at least there are good buildings out there to hold up as examples. We have the same cost issues in addition to the fact that Web sites are generally being built without us and there aren't many good ones to show our value. In addition, engineers are generally (excuse the stereotype) used to having there way, so web sites are designed based on what the engineer decides is easiest or most exciting to build. Alan Cooper's "The Inmates Are Running the Asylum" discusses this exact issue.

Lou: Of course, it's hard for IAs to find examples of "good buildings" because the quality of an information architecture is difficult, if not impossible, to measure quantitatively. And because our field is so new, we IAs may be more subject to strict and often unreasonable ROI challenges than traditional architects are. Do you see these problems with our work's acceptance going away? And do you have any advice on how to make that happen as fast as humanly possible?

Karen: I don't see these problems going away anytime soon. Every design industry that I know of, from architecture to industrial design to graphic design faces these battles continuously. One suggestion, though, is to study how these industries, especially graphic and industrial design have convinced business of the value of good design. This is just as difficult to measure quantitatively as the value of good IA, but they have fought and seem to be winning their battle.

A current example is the new Volkswagon Beetle. I understand that the California designers had a very difficult time convincing the parent corporation that people would pay for the new design, but now it is a hit specifically because of the design. Another example is the money being invested in logo design. It is due directly to the campaign fought by the graphic design industry in the first half of the century. Plus, we do have some quantitative data that we can add to our argument by bringing in usability data. Unfortunately, it is expensive to get hard numbers. I would love to see the entire IA community pitch in to create a few solid reports that include both qualitative and quantitative data for us all to use.

Lou: Any other things that you feel that we as IAs had better learn from traditional architecture? Mistakes we can avoid making?

Karen: There are two in particular that I would like to see us avoid. The first is mean-spirited rivalry within the industry. The architectural community is very argumentative and closed-minded. Once an architect has determined his or her viewpoint on various architectural issues, such as style, construction materials, responsiveness to the site and responsibility to the community, s/he tends to be very close-minded to any other approaches. It gets very petty, and it can be an awful environment to work in. Also, this often makes it very difficult for the industry to put forth a unified front to the public when an issue needs to be addressed.

The second is the lack of responsibility to the communities in which they design. Too many architects view themselves as the king or queen and everyone else as a village idiot. This includes the client (believe it or not), the consultants, the community where the building is to be built, and even his or her employees. Again, this creates an impossible atmosphere in which to work and often results in a building that belongs in the architect's back yard as a piece of sculpture and not in a town as part of the built environment.

Lou: Are there any interesting developmental parallels between our fields? Were physical architects so self-aware and concerned about defining their field as we are?

Karen: Well, it's hard to say, considering the first recorded architect was Imhotep, the architect to the Egyptian pharaoh Zoser circa 2680 B.C.E. His name is recorded on the tomb of Zoser and is referred to as "first after the king of Upper and Lower Egypt." (from A History of Architecture: Settings and Rituals by Spiro Kostof) My sense is that architects started at the top and have worked their way down to where they are today. Again, I think we have the opposite problem.

Lou: I hope that working our way up won't take as long as traditional architects have taken to work their way down. Thanks Karen!

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