Nathan Shedroff

Nathan Shedroff

Many know Nathan Shedroff from his days as Creative Director at vivid studios, the pioneering information architecture and design firm that's now a part of ModemMedia. Before then Nathan was a student of that Wurman guy and worked at RSW's TheUnderstandingBusiness. We look back with Nathan on the good old pre-Web days of information architecture and learn that not a lot has changed.
-- Lou Rosenfeld

Lou: Nathan, you helped create vivid studios, one of the first companies to make information architecture central to its mission. You sold it, bought it back, and sold it again. Now you're happily unemployed. Your career has taken very much a dot-com path: would it have gone much differently if IA (Information Architecture) wasn't a big part of your background?

Nathan: Absolutely. I would have probably found my way to the Web world at some point, but I wouldn't have had as good a foundation. Information architecture has been a part of my life, professionally, for the last 12 or 13 years and when we started vivid it was one of the most important and interesting services we could offer. Besides that, it was a major point of differentiation from other publishing or design firms. As we grew more into the interactive industry--or more accurately, as the industry formed--IA became more important and more apparent and we were already there with a good track record.

While the Web is certainly the busiest medium right now--especially for innovation--it isn't the only one, nor does it necessarily offer the greatest challenges. Our background precedes the Web and even "multimedia" so we had a lot of experience in IA for print, packaging, and software development.

Lou: What was it like selling IA to your first clients at vivid?

Nathan: Well, we always had to do a fair amount of education about the processes, benefits, and needs for good Information Architecture. It's actually a good way of filtering your potential clients to see who can really take advantage of IA and who will support and value it. We've always published a great deal of our thoughts on IA and that's been a good way of educating clients and gaining their respect and trust.

Lou: Can you get into some more detail about how you were able to determine which prospects were enlightened about IA?

Nathan: Since most of our work needed to be sold in person, through conversations, it was easy to tell what our clients valued and what they came to us for. Often, they couldn't articulate what they needed but when we described our approach --and IA in particular--they reacted enthusiastically and some were almost visibly relieved.

It was also fairly obvious who didn't value it and that was a big indicator that a) we were probably not the right development group for them, and b) if they had trouble valuing IA, they probably would have trouble valuing all of our development group.

Another great opportunity to educate prospects was writing Apple's book on multimedia development, Multimedia Demystified which became the de facto text on the subject for many years and is still sought out by students and colleges, even though it's been out of print for many years. What we were able to do was make the role of IA and interface design a vital component of the process we were describing and, as a result, we were able to establish it as a necessity within the community from the start. The book taught a generation of developers that IA was a requirement, provided a foundation for establishing expectations of the results, and placed IA where it squarely belonged in the development process (namely, at the beginning).

When the Web came along, we naturally included IA in our processes for online development and it was described on our web site. I believe we were the first to describe our Web development process at all and it was always fairly detailed. You see it as a standard part of most developer's web sites now but more often than not the descriptions of processes are vague, pale, and shallow.

Lou: Have clients become savvier about information architecture? And are there still things they completely just don't get?

Nathan: As stated above, yes, many have their own in-house information architects. Most have now learned about process in the context of IA either from books like Multimedia Demystified or Information Architects, conference sessions on the subjects of IA, management, or process (including Miller-Freeman's Web conferences,, or most any design or Web conference today), or sites like vivid's.

There are always new things that some clients aren't going to know. That's why they come to us in the first place. In general, however, the more experienced clients understand the need for IA. What many still don't get is the need for user testing and the time it takes to do something well.

The last few years have been tremendously damaging for many companies because they have trained this generation to believe that time-to-market is the most important thing. While many designers don't understand the business pressures at play in starting a company or launching a new service, speed has been used as an excuse not to do something right the first time, which is often most to blame for a company's problems. Too much lip service has been given to user or customer experience but little has actually been done to address it well. The fact is that 80-90% of the companies weren't going to be first so their only chance was to be best and most of them blew that. If you can be both, then you've really got it made.

Lou: What characterized vivid's approach to IA?

Nathan: Well, there's philosophy and then there's process. Both are important, and both are described in detail on our site. Our philosophy states that information is only created when care is given to the organization and presentation of data. Also important, which we don't necessarily lump into information architecture or design, is interaction design. This isn't just about storyboards or flow and it certainly isn't about Flash or Shockwave or ambient audio. Interaction is about what the user/customer/participant gets to do at a site (or in an interface) in the first place. Most sites offer no real interaction despite the fact that they operate in an interactive medium. Interaction design doesn't exist merely to "spruce-up" what's already going to be there, but to understand what functionality should be there in the first place, and then design it well.

As for process, the most important thing is timing: answering questions of purpose, context, audience, goals, strategy, etc. before asking questions about technology, presentation, or appearance. What's often frustrating for clients is that there is actually a LOT of work to do before you get to see what it might look like. Clients often don't want to look at flowcharts and storyboards. They want to see pretty pictures that reflect what they'll be getting.

Lou: How has your own thinking about IA changed?

Nathan: It's become more integrated with other parts of the development process. One interesting thing about this medium is that, because the technology is so new and nonstandard, there is a LOT more teamwork required from a lot more people and this has to be closely coordinated. IA for print was never like this--we didn't have to reinvent the printing press every time.

Another thing that's changed in my mind is that interaction design, in some ways, is more important and needs to be addressed before information design. What happens on a site or in an experience of any kind is more important than how it is going to be arranged and presented. The concept and coordination of the entire experience is what is more important to focus on.

Lastly, I am extremely grateful to have learned IA before electronic media and especially before the Web. Too many new designers only understand IA as a function of "interactive" media--or worse, of Web design. They haven't been confronted with media that don't allow you to be so flexible or redundant. They aren't aware of the important solutions that came before the Web, which in many cases were far more interesting and more lasting than what's being done today.

Lou: So, you've become more focused on experience design. Or has that been the case all along, but you were calling it IA back then? What's the difference?

Nathan: Experience Design is an umbrella term and discipline that covers IA and interaction design as well as the sensorial media (graphic design, animation, writing, etc.). IA and other disciplines begin to address what it takes to create an experience for someone else. Often, in IA, the solution is derived only within the parameters of solving a particular information solution within a particular data set. As information architects, we can't always step back to think about how our readers will encounter and use the solution or what they can do with it. Seeing the information solution as an entire experience (which might often open it up to questions that are beyond the solution set is what differentiates Experience Design from Information Architecture.

As far as my own experience, my training was always in terms only of information design and narrow solution sets. I had to research on my own the possibilities, needs, applications, and processes associated with interface design (as a discipline) or experience design. As I learned more, I opened up to the other skills and needs of larger experiences and the disciplines and processes already used in other fields (like theater design, storytelling, and videography). Luckily I was trained as an industrial designer (specifically automobile design) so I already had some experience with non-2D, non-online design and, specifically, balancing multiple systems, needs, and constraints.

Lou: Do you feel your "Unified Field Theory of Design" is still applicable? What might you change if you were going to do it all over again?

Nathan: I think it's as applicable and appropriate as ever. It still can be the basis of a good understanding of information and interaction designs. I wouldn't change anything except to add more. There's so much more to say and think about. It was just one little paper that was published as a chapter in the book, Information Design.

My new book is an attempt to start widening the discussion but it will only be a beginning. This first book is meant more as a book of issues and inspirations with lots of examples than an in-depth description of everything to do with experience design (if that's even possible). More and more detail will have to come in later books.

Lou: How about some gossip: you were a student of Richard Saul Wurman. How did that come about? The Wired article paints him as a scary guy, to put it mildly; was the article accurate?

Nathan: I'm glad you've mentioned this. My approach to information design--especially where it comes to process--is very much a product of Richard's work. It formed the basis for what I later learned about interaction and experience design and gave me a great perspective with which to approach electronic media and technologies--mainly, to view them as nothing more than additional ways to communicate. I certainly learned not to treat them as holy media like too many designers do these days. Just because something can be done with a medium doesn't mean it should be; being ignorant of a discipline's history or prior art makes you look pretty stupid when you run around proclaiming "this is the first" or "this is the best ever."

As for Richard, he's a unique guy and it's his perspective that allows him to see possibilities and solutions where others don't. He really is amazing in that he pulls ideas out of a hat that are unexpected and often counter-intuitive at the beginning. Once you work through his concepts, though, you understand that he usually has made some kind of intuitive leap to a solution that is light years ahead of the normal ones and, as such, is often an amazing discovery. He's not beyond making mistakes, and, of course, he can't foresee everything (including refinements and improvements to his own concepts), but when he makes the attempt to understand and evaluate them, and they pass his tests, he's usually the first to try to incorporate them.

I think he freely admits that he's not the easiest person to work with, though he's not, by any means, one of the worst. His personality is incredibly tied to his work (and what he's thinking about at any time) so his relations with people are often affected by what else is happening in his life. He could be very brash and confrontational but he's mellowed a bit since the old AccessPress and TUB (TheUnderstandingBusiness) days. He's almost always fair--certainly in his own mind--and he does listen to people, but like all of us, he can be wounded by the conditions under which he grew up and he's not super-human. I don't know anyone who doesn't respect him in some way, though--obviously--he's rubbed some people the wrong way.

I came to work with him almost by accident. I was at ArtCenter in Pasadena and showed up to a lecture he gave at the request of one of my instructors, Ramone Munoz. Here was this guy with a lot more personality and a few less manners than any designer I'd ever seen and he talked about things that had interested me since I was in junior high (I read Third Wave at a somewhat early age). He opened up the possibility to me that people designed information and that the information age wasn't some kind of manifest technological destiny but that it could be shaped, indeed, it needed to be shaped and designed and created in as good an image as we could--and no one, it seems, was doing it.

I was fortunate that his new company (TUB) had opened in San Francisco, close enough to my home that I could commute there to work for the Summer. I had to interview four times before I could get an internship. The biggest problem was that I wasn't a graphic designer, which is what they were used to hiring since there was no such thing as an information designer back then. It's always hard to interview someone about their information skills, about how they think and approach problems. It was even more difficult back then without much of a vocabulary to use, and few experiences and examples to point to. Fortunately, they took a chance on me and I was added to a very small group (I was number three) that was working on advanced concepts for our biggest client, Pacific Bell Directory, and other odd projects. It was Michael Everitt who took me under his wing (reluctantly, at first, from what I heard) but eventually taught me everything he could about information design--probably even more than Richard, since Michael was there everyday and Richard was only in San Francisco for a few days every week.

Lou: What would you add that you'd want every information architect, budding or otherwise, to know?

Nathan: I think that communication is at the core of information architecture--both in terms of creating objects of communication and needing to be able to communicate concepts to so many people (team members, clients, our audiences, etc.). Designers need superlative communication skills--the most important of which is probably listening--as well as presentation skills (drawing, sketching, visual, verbal, etc.). A good understanding of language from a cognitive and a linguistic aspect has also been invaluable to me.

Beyond that, I think the skills are learnable--certainly within most processes. What isn't so easy are the attitudinal skills (keeping an open mind, always learning, keeping your hubris in check, courage, perseverance, etc.). Lastly, and most importantly from a design standpoint, designers must look outside their domains and certainly outside of electronic media to find concepts and inspiration that can help create better online solutions. Most "interactive" design--at least what passes for it online--is too inbred, uninspired, and disappointing.

Lou: What have you been reading lately?

Nathan: I'm devouring some books at the moment on thinking and cognition, especially by John Dewey. No one book stands out at the moment but there is a list of all the best resources that have been helpful to me in these and related subjects on my web site.

I'm also reading No Logo by Naomi Klein which is a great treatise on the rise of brands in our culture and their effect on our lives. It's given me a lot of ideas about where brands and branding might be headed in the future.

Lou: So how are you liking life among the ranks of the unemployed?

Nathan: Well, I don't feel like I am. I have one client who I'm supposed to be advising part-time, but they've been through so much chaos over the last two weeks, they've got me working pretty hard. Between that and the book, I don't feel very relaxed. : )

I have a feeling it won't be until the book is done that I'll feel very different.

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