As information architects, we deal in categorising information and using language to give meaning to the categories we create. This shapes the world around us. The categories we create determine what is deemed possible/impossible, real/unreal, natural/unnatural. Our work is hence not only a matter of sense-making but also of meaning-making: it normalises certain ways of living while obscuring or even invalidating others.
Inspired by critical discourse studies, a discipline that concerns itself with the way in which language (re)produces social power, this talk addresses the way in which our work as designers and information architects shapes realities that, frankly, can be quite exclusive. In particular, I want to draw attention to the role that our own, often privileged experience plays in this.
While there have been great efforts in the design community to address inequality recently – one must only look to the surge in articles and talks about ethics, inclusivity, or accessibility – little attention has been paid to our own role and position, and to how our own privilege can shape the solutions that we, often with the best of intentions, put forth. With this talk, I invite all of us to take a hard look in the mirror, and to consider the ways in which we often unthinkingly and unknowingly recreate social power structures through our work. Ultimately, I aim to address how IA thus deals with more than sense-making (i.e. making something comprehensible), and that it is in particular through the ways in which IA is implicated in meaning-making (i.e. shaping what something stands for) that our work produces only certain realities while negating many other ones.
Key takeaways from the session:
My aim with this talk is to open attendees’ eyes to some of the hidden consequences of our work. There are three things I hope to share with attendees:
(1) I will show how IA is about sense-making as well as meaning-making, or in other words: how IA does not just structure information but also shape reality. By introducing this critical angle, I mean to also show ways in which we can all approach our own work more critically. In particular, I will point out how our own, personal background impacts our work, and illustrate how we can become more aware of how this happens.
(2) Through the three-part framework/heuristic that I present at the end of my talk, I aim to give attendees a concrete tool that they can take home and apply to their own work. My aim with this is to not just talk about what we ought to do ideally but to offer a concrete starting point for making small changes in our day-to-day work. My main message in this regard is that there is always something that we can do: it’s not about doing everything perfect all the time but about identifying that one thing that we can improve. With my talk, I thus aim to help attendees get to a point where they can identify these small steps that they could take to change their everyday work.
(3) Finally, this talk introduces attendees to the field of critical discourse analysis, which, as a discipline that concerns itself with how language shapes reality, is closely allied with information architecture. My talk is far from a comprehensive introduction to this field but offers a glimpse into critical discourse analysis so that those who want to dig deeper know where to get started.
About the speakers
Lara works at Nothing AG, a digital design agency in Bern, Switzerland, where she is responsible for doing things with words. Sometimes, that means UX writing, sometimes it means information architecture, and sometimes it just means writing plain old content.
Next to this, she is also starting a PhD at the University of Bern, where she looks at UX writing and its cultural-political consequences. This involves asking questions such as: How is language used to imagine and design users? How do UX professionals describe and make sense of their own (language) work and its consequences? How are such design practices connected to ideological structures of, for instance, class, gender, or race?
Lara’s research interests revolve around critical sociolinguistics, social semiotics, and multimodal communication in the broadest sense (e.g. looking at communication beyond text and image). Her practical interests include UX writing, content design, information architecture, and, more broadly, how language shapes the world around us.