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Just Critical Thinking

Today was the first day of my information architecture thesis class at SVA Products of Design. We did all the normal “review the syllabus” first day stuff and then jumped quickly into our first lecture and workshop for the semester.

Five or so minutes into the workshop, one of the students asked me to come over to clarify something for him. After a brief discussion about the class objectives, he said “So this class is just critical thinking?” — to which I replied:

Yes, that’s all it is.

I sensed annoyance in my voice and heat in my cheeks as I responded but it took a few beats to realize what was bothering me. The framing of his question put critical thinking onto the proverbial back burner, like an optional or easy step in this process.

This moment was a reminder (and teachable moment) about the power of language choice. I wrote “Just Critical Thinking” on the whiteboard and asked the students to tell me what word was likely a reason for my annoyance. They all knew right away which word it was. Just. When we use the word “just” we reduce importance and/or priority, whether we mean to or not.

The words Just Critical Thinking written on a whiteboard. Just has been crossed out.

Whether you are working on your thesis dissertation or the latest mobile app for your company, critical thinking is a fundamental ingredient to doing good work. In my opinion, making time for critical thinking is something that too few people do. Allowing my students the venue and time for critical thinking is what makes me excited to teach information architecture.

Information architecture is a practice of thinking critically about the language you choose and the structures you enable. Clarity about what you are making is the only result of critical thinking. Unfortunately clarity is harder to measure than other things like documents created, screens designed or clients made happy.

Next time you are working on something, ask yourself if you have thought critically enough or if instead you are limiting yourself with an unstated just.