Known as the father of industrial design, Raymond Loewy practically invented the look of “modernism” in industrial and consumer products. The iconic S-1 locomotive with its streamlined design became a model for everything from locomotives to automobiles to toasters in mid-century America.
The point is not that we need streamlined access tools (well we DO, but not in this way), but that maybe we should look to industrial designers as inspiration for the design of our access tools as much as we look at information architecture. This thought was inspired by a conversation I had at the recent IMLS WebWise conference here in Denver a couple of weeks ago. Jodi Allison-Bunnel of the Northwest Digital Archives and I were talking about building user interfaces and how the idea of user-centered design could lead to stagnation unless it was possible to translate users often unarticulated desires into something completely new. At which point I pulled out my iPhone and said something like “If somebody had asked me what I wanted in a handheld communications device I wouldn’t have described this!” Yet the design of my iPhone (and other smartphones) suits the needs of my mobile information seeking activities very well even if I couldn’t have explained it to someone ahead of time.
Does this mean we should design all of our discovery portals to mimic the experience of my iPhone? Perhaps, perhaps not. I know that there is an entire academic discipline of Human Computer Interaction, and there are Information Architects galore. But maybe we need to broaden our thinking a bit and reach out to people who are not necessarily in the world of information management but are a part of a world that makes useful things elegant as well as utilitarian. Should I feel a sense of joy or excitement when I use an archival discovery and delivery system rather than just satisfaction that I discovered something? When we designed our access tools we spent a lot of time thinking about the functionality, and by and large we got that right. Maybe we should have taken a bit more time to think about the elegance of the tool as well. Maybe we will pretty soon.