A review of
Living in Information: Responsible Design for Digital Places
by Jorge Arango
About this book
A good reference for UX Theory
Primary audience: Researchers designers, and technical roles who are new to the topic or have some or significant experience with the topic.
Writing style: Academic
Publisher: Rosenfeld Media, Two Waves Books
Text density: Mostly text
190 pages, 10 chapters
Living in Information: Responsible Design for Digital Places is a thoughtful look at how design impacts how we view and navigate the world, from lived architecture to the digital world we interact with every day. Written by former architect and now seasoned information architect, Jorge Arango, the book examines how we can create digital spaces that improve and support society, rather than exploit or otherwise harm it.
Arango first begins by addressing the ways in which focus and attention, power imbalances, structure, mental models, and motivation shape how we navigate and perceive the world around us. He then discusses and defines design, not just as something aesthetically pleasing, but as part of a larger context influenced by business goals, time constraints, and other mitigating factors. To design is to balance all of these practical factors, and yet the end result has the immense power to inform our culture and self-identity.
He then goes on to discuss that how we structure and present an environment, or the information that serves as the architecture for that environment, shapes how others interact with it. We can leverage visual distinctions, metaphors that are familiar to our users, and labels that convey meaning to help others better understand their environments, both digitally and physically. We then need systems to connect the elements within these environments and to allow them to function in a way that is of use to someone. As Arango says, “One of the most challenging aspects of designing information environments is seeing beyond their user interface to the concept structure that underlie them, and how elements in those structures interact with each other.”
This may all sound pretty abstract, and it can be at times, but Arango does a wonderful job of grounding these ideas by using architecture and the built world as an underlying concrete example of how and why it is important to design environments that reflect these ideas. He uses examples of theaters, art galleries, and other everyday structures to illustrate how people navigate the world, and the power design has to shape that. He also takes it a step further and relates information architecture and digital design to a garden that needs to be growing and evolving in order to be sustainable and resilient. Nowadays, as well, our environments are not constrained by gravity, space, and other physical constraints—as built environments are. Many of our environments, like social media as an example, are generative and are created and upheld by those who use and contribute to them as well as those who built them.
So, why care? Because, Arango argues, “digital information technologies can be the most powerful force for good the world has ever seen. Never before have so many people accessed so much knowledge so cheaply, nor connected with each other so effortlessly.” These environments require intentional architecture to be created for good; this is a call to action for all of us in the design world. We, ultimately, have the power and obligation to shape environments to have a positive impact for those who use them and society as a whole.
Digital information technologies can be the most powerful force for good the world has ever seen. Never before have so many people accessed so much knowledge so cheaply, nor connected with each other so effortlessly. But positive use is not inherent in the technology itself; it must be consciously sought and designed for. When used carelessly or maliciously, these same technologies can trap our minds in opinion bubbles, foster addictions, and create contexts that lead to personal and societal ruin. Generative Information environments will not emerge organically. They require intentional design – they were architecture. And if they are to remain generative over the long term, they also require stewardship. This calls for leadership, vision, and the courage to think deeply, broadly and long term.
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