Older Is Wiser: An Interview with Alex Wright

I’m really excited about the upcoming IDEA conference in New York City. Not only is its lineup of speakers the very people I’ve been looking to for inspiration recently, but it’s being put on by the Information Architecture Institute.

OK. It’s true. I’m on the advisory board of the IAI, but I’m still thrilled to see an event sponsored by an IA-related organization reaching outside the typical boundaries of what’s considered to be “information architecture.”

I’ve been doing a series of interviews with the conference’s speakers posted over on IDEA’s blog.

Here’s the first in the series:

Most people look ahead for inspiration and direction; look to the unknown. And while the past is just full of powerful examples, we openly disregard and often rudely shun what’s come before.

Enter Alex Wright who, with a single book, Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages, offers us a historical framework for what we’re doing as information architects today. Alex teaches us how the past is relevant. With Glut, we finally have context. I talked with Alex about what he has in store for us at the upcoming IDEA 2007 conference:

IDEA Q: Describe what it’s like being an information architect for The New York Times, talked about as one of the most progressive examples of what’s going right online today.

It’s no secret that the newspaper business is struggling these days. What drew me to The Times was the company’s willingness to innovate in the face of adversity.

Its old Gray Lady image notwithstanding, The Times is doing some breakthrough interactive work these days, and I’m honored to play a small role. On a day-to-basis, what I do is not much different from what most IAs do: user research, prototyping, going to meetings (and more meetings), and occasionally enjoying the satisfaction of seeing a project actually launch.

IDEA Q: You’ve just finished the renowned book Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages. How should people rely on the history of a craft when doing the work that they do?

Most of us who work on the Web seem to operate in a kind of historical vacuum. It’s such a young and potent medium that its sheer dominance tends to obscure the history of what came before. But if we, as information architects (or whatever we call ourselves), define ourselves solely in terms of the Web, we limit our horizons.

In my book, I try to situate what we do in a deeper historical context to suggest that organizing information is a fundamental act of human culture. While I don’t necessarily expect that reading my book will change the way anyone draws their wireframes, I do hope it opens people up to the possibility that at least some of what we do transcends any particular technology.

IDEA Q:We understand that you’ve recently moved to New York City from San Francisco. How does the place you’re in affect the kind of work you do—either on a small or a large scale?

We are all shaped to some extent by the places we live, but I think you can appreciate and work with those energies without necessarily having to take sides.

IDEA Q: Where do you look for inspiration or direction outside the field of design?

I can barely pretend to play piano, but for some reason my favorite role models have always been musicians. I especially admire virtuoso instrumental groups, who seem to share the qualities of great design teams: individual mastery coupled with a willingness to collaborate and improvise.

IDEA Q: What should the audience remember about your talk when they go back to their desks on Monday morning?

I hope they’ll remember a few good stories, and come away with a sense of belonging to an ancient, living tradition.

Can you describe what you’ll be talking about at IDEA in just one word?