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So you want to be an information architect?

As anyone familiar with my work knows, I am devoted to spreading one idea; that information architecture is something that could improve anyone’s ability to communicate.

I end every lecture I give with a statement that I believe more than anything else in this world: Information Architecture is not just for information architects. In fact if you make anything you are already practicing information architecture.

This democratization of IA as a practical life skill has been the thesis of every interaction I have had in recent years. It continues to be the cornerstone of my life’s work.

And yet, there is one question that I dread that ends up in my inbox all too often.

I am currently a <insert title> and it doesn’t seem to be working out the way I had planned. Now that I hear about information architecture, I wanted to know what advice do you have for me to get a job doing that instead.

I dread this question because I can’t give them the answer that their question implies exists. I fear that information architecture as a specialty has no entry level. I fear that achieving expertise and eventual employment doing nothing but IA work is a hard path to forge. I fear that the only way to forge that path is perseverance and a will to make things be clear regardless of your context or job title at the time. I fear that is takes a commitment to setting your ideas aside for the betterment of the whole. I fear that it requires a rejection of genius. I fear it requires a dogmatic attitude toward helping other people deal with the messes that they face.

I say I fear these realities because I want to please other people. And in my experience, they want to know the entry points to IA jobs as if it was a brochure I could attach to an email, not a path they will have to figure out for themselves.

Maybe this reality is a sign of our times, where you can start a job training program and come out “ready to work” in 10-15 weeks time. Or maybe it is the education systems’ fault for leading students to believe they have the paths all figured out. Maybe it is the fault of those that get paid to make others believe that careers can be acquired via multiple choice questions. Maybe it is all the “what career are you meant for” link bait headlines most of us swim through on social media these days.

But I don’t think the answer is in fact better education programs, internships or certifications. And that is all quite hard to admit, because I have found myself wishing for all those things as I have moved through my career.

I do think improving those things would help the world to be a clearer place. I do believe education in IA as a practice would help more people prepare to do work that is fraught with uncertainty and ambiguity. I do believe that IA is a skill more people need to improve upon in order to get along in a world that is changing faster than most of us are comfortable with. But I also believe IA is a practice that takes time to master as a speciality. Because specializing in IA requires not only patience, but also experience working in a variety of mediums, contexts and problem spaces to be any good at.

Of course we can teach people to make more thoughtful taxonomies and to consider language, intent and structure in the work they are doing. And we should be doing more of that! But I am left believing that telling these people to seek junior IA positions without significant experience doing this kind of work in context to other fields of practice is both destructive and unhelpful.

I could end here. But that wouldn’t be helpful to most. So instead, I will share the advice I give to people with these questions of “breaking in” or “getting started” in information architecture.

My first line of questioning is to consider whether you are already playing the part of an IA in the role you have.

  • Are you already the person who clears up miscommunications between your stakeholders and users?
  • Are you already the person who decides how the pieces connect to form the whole?
  • Are you already the sensemaker who isn’t afraid to go down the rabbit holes of complexity and assure others that it isn’t so bad down there?
  • Are you already the person who others go to when issues arise around semantics and structure?

I ask these questions first, because the world needs these people, yet not even a majority of them need identify as an information architect to do the work that would make a measureable difference.

I ask people to think through this line of questioning before doling out further advice because it is often answered in the affirmative.

I guess maybe I am already doing this work at my current job or at least have the opportunity to.

When this is their reality it becomes quite a bit more clear that there are likely other motivations for wanting to change what they call themselves.

As Shakespeare reminds us in regards to roses, a word is merely a label for a thing. It does not change the nature of the thing itself. But what Shakespeare fails to impart with the simplicity of this statement is that the label DOES change how people might perceive the thing.

If your intention is indeed a label change not a job change, my advice is simple: Ask for a new title. Don’t ask for more money, don’t ask to be moved in the org chart or to change what you do everyday. Just ask for a new label on your business card and your email signature. Or even better, just change it yourself and see if anyone notices or even cares. Start calling yourself an information architect when people ask what you do for a living. And if the job title is impossible to change, start treating it like telling people you are a vegan or an avid cyclist. I can tell you from experience that when the words information architect are introduced to someone for the first time, there is generally the opportunity to define it for them. So take a shot at it and see what kinds of interesting conversations you could have with strangers, co-workers, and friends. Spend ten years calling yourself that and watch as the world accepts you as that.

But I have found more times than not, it is not a label change that is the motivation for this question. So over the experiences I have had answering emails and fielding questions after lectures and classes, here are the other motivations I have uncovered for wanting to be an information architect.

Motivation 1: You want to change medium.

This world is changing, as it always has, and with those changes there are many talented folks out there that have invested in forming careers around mediums that they are now scared will not be there tomorrow. People are losing jobs, seeing job boards stop posting jobs with titles they are accustomed to or were promised would be available while in school. These folks are also watching as other people who chose other mediums are demanding higher salaries and getting more respect, for doing similar things in other mediums.

I want to be clear, I am not talking about agism here. I am not comparing dinosaurs to unicorns. I am talking about mediumism. I am talking about companies that are unwilling to consider the experience that working in another medium could bring to the one they are after now. I have seen just as many recent graduates thinking they chose the “wrong” medium as those who have decades behind them in that same “wrong” medium.

If changing mediums is your reason, my advice is this: You must find a way to learn the medium you want to work in next, and this often involves a commitment to learning outside of acquiring a job in it. Eleven years ago when I went from a recent graduate of Graphic Design into an entry level role doing site maps, flow diagrams, wireframes and style guides for SharePoint systems I took a host of continuing education classes at the local college at night on things like HTML, Javascript and Web Design. I read books that were way over my head and education level, and this wasn’t because I wanted to be a developer or to ever use these actual skills at my job. Instead it was because I needed to understand the medium of the web and the language used in technology organizations in order to not feel like an idiot at my job. I knew a lot about typography, I even knew about information architecture in terms of page level hierarchies, but I also had to spend countless hours of my free time looking up terms that I heard developers and project managers say in meetings, and reading articles from people online that had written the books about and around the job title I was after.

The only way to learn a new medium is to immerse yourself in it and be ready to feel like a total beginner. This is a time of anxiety and self-investment that many people are not able to justify in practice.

  • You need to read the books people in that medium are reading or have read. Sometimes you have to look up every third word to even get what is being discussed.
  • You need to learn about the materials and jargon that make up that medium and how they are wielded in context to various problems that need to be solved.
  • You need to do work (often for free or low pay) that allows you to screw around, and even screw up within that medium before you are ready for primetime.

This is about when people start to freak out and say things like “but I am already in debt from this master’s degree I have” — or “I don’t have extra time, I spend all my time working” to that I say “what would lead you to believe that this transition would be easy? Think about the investment you made into the medium in which you are already trained.”

It is my opinion that more than money or the acquisition of advanced degrees, you need to commit time. And committing time to a path that isn’t laid out for you by a bursar in a course booklet with a graduation date attached can be the hardest pill for people to swallow. No one wants me to tell them that they need to devote their nights and weekends to learning about something that cannot yet pay their bills. And yet, that is the only advice I have for those of you that have fallen out of love with (or have lost faith in) your medium.

Motivation 2: You want to make more money. 

If you think that being an information architect is a path to riches and fortune, turn back now.

This is not just a reality of information architecture, but of any specialty. It takes a tremendous amount of time and dedication to craft to build a career out of doing just one thing. You have to not only be good at that thing, but also good at talking to other people about the value of that thing. You also have to not be bored stupid by doing that one thing all day, everyday.

Once you have put 10,000 hours into IA as a side job, subtask or hobby, perhaps you will find you still love it and want nothing but to do just that. When that happens, perhaps you will be able to build a business out of it, or apply for/inspire a role that does that exclusively. But just like any other speciality, you have to prove yourself to be not just capable but also committed to that specialty.

For those with money as their motivation my advice is this: If you love the work, the money will come. If you love the money, it will always feel like work to earn. Changing your job for more money is the surest way to wind up in another job you hate.

Motivation 3: You want more respect.

Whether it be your parents, your partner, your peers, your boss or yourself, there are many opportunities to search for a new label to hide behind when we are not feeling respected for the one we have already chosen. This is the hardest ball of wax to melt for this mentor. When people come to me with this motivation, I struggle to advise them. Often they are in a tough place that have less to do with the career they have chosen and more to do with the people who they choose to surround themselves with.

I was recently talking to someone who told me that they have spent the last 7 years trying to help a company to clean up their vocabulary. She complained that they just didn’t listen to her and that they had such a mess that it felt like one she could never make sense of. She was asking me for the magical tool or technique that she could use to break through to them. She had tried everything I was able to come up with and seemed like quite a capable person with over a decade of experience in her field. Instead of coming up with some magical tool she hadn’t been able to find herself, I asked her “Why do you still work there?” — First, I thought she was going to cry. But then she smiled, chuckled to herself and said “You know, I don’t know anymore… maybe it is time for me to move on.”

These are heart breaking and inspiring moments of which I have had many. Because IA, just like anything can seem like the perfect hard candy shell to protect the oooey gooey insides of our own self esteem. But I can promise that there is no title that can protect you from people who don’t respect you.

Motivation 4: You want success, right now.

I love reflecting back on my first few years in the working world and remembering how impatient I was to succeed so I could get on with my life. How entitled I felt to a senior title just 18 months into my first job. How I felt disrespected for the lack of autonomy that came with being new to an organization. I left my first job for these reasons, and rode a wave of jobs into titles and levels I was not at all prepared for.

I realize now how flawed that line of thinking was and how it robbed me of the innocence of being new to work and learning on the job. These days I meet a lot of young people going through this same process. Thinking they could do their boss’ job, thinking 9 months as a junior should equal senior pay, projects and perks. I can only hope that after a decade, they too will have the sense to look back and laugh at their immaturity.

The ladder of progression from book learning to expertise has many rungs. Some of these rungs are so close together it can feel like you are not moving up at all as you climb them. But they are no less important to climb. Because without those small steps you have to make big leaps. Leaps can be good. But more often leaps can be unsafe and irresponsible. Leaps can put you into positions that keep you up at night or push you further away from learning to get better at your craft while safely in the wading pool of your career. Suddenly you are focused on managing others when you never learned to manage yourself or you are asked to sell to clients, when you haven’t had the experience to sell to your colleagues. It can all seem exciting, and even come along with more respect or money. But those feelings are fleeting, and often followed with anxiety and the want to break down or run away.

My advice to people with faster success as a motivation is not often taken, but regardless it is simply stated: Slow the Fuck Down. Take it one step at a time. Savor the time you have as a junior, because once you take a leap up the ladder, the fall back down can be a real ego bruiser; one many people never recover from and long impacts their future in the working world.

Motivation 5: After all this, you still think you want to be an information architect because you are in love with the idea of spreading clarity and understanding even though it is thankless, slow and trivialized or ignored by more people than respected.

I am always thrilled when I find those people that pass all my tests of motivation and are left really wanting to be an information architect knowing the reality of what it takes. These are often the people I end up having many more coffees and conversations with as they navigate their career. These people become a part of my growing cohort of proteges and eventually even my closest friends.

Here is the advice I give to those people:

  • Practice IA anytime, anywhere you can: Take on a pro bono project for a non-profit or small business run by a friend or family member. Bring IA to your current job. Maybe reverse engineer the IA of your favorite brand to see how it all comes together. Then reverse engineer their nearest competitor the same way and compare them. Share these experiences with anyone who will listen.
  • Read everything you can get your hands on about and around IA: Start by reading everything you find searching your networks for the term “information architecture” then click on every link those pieces mention and read all those things. Allow yourself to fall down the rabbit hole for quite a bit of time. And when you think you have run out of things to read. Google a word you don’t quite get yet like “Semantics”, “Semiotics”, “Ontology”, “Taxonomy” or “Controlled Vocabulary” and then fall down another rabbit hole. Look up all the terms you don’t understand and try to write simpler definitions in language you could use to explain to a little kid. Invent metaphors to explain these concepts to colleagues and friends. Try to use IA language in everyday conversation and be prepared when people’s eyes glaze over.
  • Ask questions, volunteer your time and write about the field: Join the Information Architects Group on Facebook, the IAI Group on LinkedIn, or follow various thought leaders and authors on Twitter. Answer one of the myriad requests for volunteers to do projects in the community. Volunteer to help at a local event where IA-minded people might gather, like World IA Day. Our community is full of people who love to help others understand this practice we see such value in. We will welcome you with open arms, assuming we can tell that you have passed the tests of motivation stated above.
  • Don’t assume we have it all figured out: We don’t! IA is still in its early years of self discovery. And every time we think we have it all down pat, the technology or business world throws us for another loop. And we live for these loops. They keep the world of IA interesting, so expect to come along on that journey as you explore IA as a career.
  • Share what you already know: There is some common thread between your experiences prior to learning the words IA and the moment you decided to ask for permission to practice it. We are always seeing new people from different walks of life enter our circles, and with them comes new perspectives we could not and would not have seen otherwise. I myself came from Graphic Design and have spent the last 11 years trying to distill what designers could take away from the theory of IA. Others I know have come from writing, education, philosophy, administration, finance, database architecture, physical architecture and the list goes on.
  • Be prepared for a lifetime of learning: The only IAs I know who are any good at what they do are lifetime learners. We are a nerdy bunch that loves to semantically circle topics of theory and practice, commenting on and arguing with each other’s work and findings along the way. This is not only part of the job of an IA, it is also what will make you stronger as you start to discuss IA with people unfamiliar or less familiar with it.
  • Apply for jobs you are not at all qualified for: Write a cover letter about why you want to be an IA and what you think you could bring to the role as a completely green junior. Admit what you are and where you are in your journey. Work the words of the practice into the communications you have with prospective clients, bosses and partners. You never know what might happen.

If you made it this far, thanks for your time. If you find yourself preparing to attack the bulleted list above, welcome to the wide wild world of information architecture. If you find yourself perturbed by this list of things, don’t forget where we started this discussion: Information architecture is not just for information architects.

Now go forth and make the world more clear.