Answering Ann: "What is the importance of arts education in the future of IA?"

 by Martin Belam, 12 November 2010

I had two awkward questions after my talk at the UK UPA's World Usability Day event last night. One was basically "Does journalism have a future? Discuss" a topic which frankly I could bore for England on. And you know that if part of your answer starts "Well I shouldn't stand here criticising other newspapers....but...." you've probably gone off piste.

The second question was from Ann Danylkiw, and she spoke to me afterwards to complain that I hadn't really answered it. Now, since I know her and have even interviewed her on currybetdotnet, and since I learned from the master I don't like passing up on the opportunity to turn a question into a blog post. So here is a fuller more considered answer than she would have got in the Q&A itself.

Ann's question was to ask "what is the importance of arts education in the future of IA?".

Despite a lot of people assuming I am a techie through and through, the most commonly quoted description of IA as a discipline calls it 'the emerging art and science of organising websites', and my own academic background is in the arts - I studied History at University. I've said before that I think a lot of my understanding of the journalistic process is because it isn't a hundred miles removed from 'doing history'. You don't get to do so many eyewitness interviews, but you do spend a lot of time digging through differing accounts of the same thing, trying to work out who is hiding what, and who has which agenda, to get to the truth of the matter.

Whilst there is clearly a lot of science in IA, I do think that some of the skills that you get from studying arts and humanities are important. The three key ones I would pick out would be:

Empathy. Your job as an IA is to understand how information is consumed, and to enable consumers to manipulate that information. Without empathy, which I think disciplines like literary studies and history help you to develop, you can't even attempt to get into the mind of the user.

Critical thinking. I find it vital to be able to critique ideas, systems and established practice in order to determine whether you have got your user flows, production tools and designs optimised.

Communication. I mentioned at EuroIA that a lot of the time deliverables are not about building a product, they are about providing material that enables a project to get started. If you don't have an understanding of tone and register, you'll never be able to communicate and sell IA within a business.

I hope that is a better answer than the one I gave yesterday, where, having given a presentation that featured a screen cap of a special feature from a Doctor Who DVD, my argument that I wasn't geeky was less than convincing.

1 Comment

You mention the soft and study skills developed by arts students, but the content of arts education helps too.

Surely a knowledge of history helps you understand what is new and what is a pattern repeating itself from the past. That seems vital for an IA operating amidst the hyperbole of the digital world.

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