I wish I’d gone to the IA summit this year. The notes, presentations and wrap-up articles are starting to appear, and it sounds like one hell of a wide-ranging and open-minded discussion of digital design.

One debate that seems to have opened-up is on spatial metaphors of information space versus more semantic approaches. My background in architecture probably biases my approach to the subject. I’ve done a lot of work looking at wayfinding and spatial/urban metaphors for building wayfinding systems, more of which later.

Butterfield and myself have had some good-natured ding dongs in the past over this. I can’t find the comment now, but Stewart’s general drift in these matters is summed up here:

” genuinely think the spatial metaphors are badly broken and if we begin our thinking in terms of “structures” which facilitate “navigation” thorugh “information space”, we can’t help but come up with designs which are saturated with spatial concepts.

But perception and cognition don’t go on in a spatial framework (with certain exceptions which aren’t trypically relevant to this conversation), and bits of information don’t relate to each other spatially (concepts don’t exist below or beside or to the west of one another). Call me Whorfian, but how we talk affects what we do. If our talk is wrong, our work will be too.”

Andrew Dillon, in the “Wayfinding and Navigation in Digital Spaces” panel, presented something [powerpoint, 60k] that opened my head up like a can of anchovies, and rearranged a good few things in there. From Dorelle Rabinowitz’ notes on the panel, at B&A comes the memebullet, for which I stop only short of using the blink tag to emphasise:

“We talk about navigating when we mean understanding.”

This is resonating so powerfully for me that my teeth are on edge. I’ve had several rather painful conversations at work in the last couple of weeks about “navigation systems”. We have “cross-platform global navigation” projects, “navigation standards” – invoking the mysterious power of ‘consistency’ the tyrannical L-shaped shadow of the ubiquitous navigational menu looms large over me. I’m starting to experience NaviHate.

I mentioned I’d pursued spatial/urban metaphors in proposing wayfinding systems. I did a bunch of work when I first rejoined the BBC based upon Kevin Lynch’s 1963 “The Image of the City”, and how the sprawl of might become a more “imageable” datapolis.

Lynch’s work enables me to reconcile the spatial and semantic approaches, precisely because it studies the semantics of urban space, and how we build our images of the city from them.

Andrew Dillion’s presentation zeroes in on this approach as well I believe, with the final slide of the presentation presenting the diagram of a “semantic spatial model” wherein we process our experiences into a shape, a space built of semantic meaning. That great navigational driver of “consistency” does not necessarily support this, rather it is coherence and comprehension; a narrative that can be easily internalised, that is the goal.

Wayfinding structure, language and narrative build this: rich understanding built of many storyshapes bourne on, and of a rulespace – a physics that meaning, coherence can be condense out of consistently.

[Tangent, related: Matt Locke on Kevin Lynch, mnemonics, and Rachel Baker’s “platfrom” project]

I have to give a talk internally tommorrow on “findability” with the awesome Margaret Hanley, which I hope can start to explore some of this.

With a big site like the BBC’s where it is hard-enough to achieve “navigational consistency”, it might be a bit much to start getting into all this, but I think it’s vital to think critically about some of the ingrained idioms and metaphors – the final word on which I leave to Andrew Dillion:

“Metaphors are like sex. talking about them makes everyone a little uncomfortable. They all think that everyone else is ‘getting it’.

» IA Summit 2003 links

UPDATE: Butterfield was hoeing this row last year, mais oui.

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