Mess to meme to meaning

Last February I gave a lightning talk at the Manila leg of World Information Architecture Day (WIAD)—and I kind of love how it started from meta commentary but grew into something deeper. It’s totally my genre. These are my behind-the-scenes notes on it:

Meta level: it’s over 9000

Sunday night the week of, I was on Twitter doing what the kids these days call shitposting.

This happened while I was cleaning up a very messy bag. I dumped out all the contents, put similar things together, reorganized so they would be easier to find and bring out, then threw out the junk.

Then I had a very random brain fart: tidying up is kind of like information architecture, except the mess is intangible. Could we actually draw IA lessons from the life-changing magic of the Konmari method?

The tweet triggered an invite from organizer Pierce Jonota to speak about this, and it’s like my posts self-actualized, but I had to do the very thing I was joking about.

I asked for a day to think about feasibility by creating an outline. But really, how could I not enjoy this amazingly meta of a situation:

  1. Ia talking about IA on IA Day (salamat sa suporta, friends);
  2. realizing there was already an IA book relating it to mess;
  3. injecting a popular phenomenon turned meme into an industry talk;
  4. and turning that on its head by diving deeper.

I live for this stuff.

You can check out the presentation slides here. Click on the folded map icon for full annotations. (I totally tried to emulate the look of the book but couldn’t get a hold of the typeface. I also enjoyed the idea of inserting vertical Japanese as an additional design element.)

Difference in language and cultural understanding

This was the specific theme that I tackled in my talk, a revelation I still think about today. Yes, Marie Kondo’s book and Netflix show secured her spot in pop culture renown but also turned Konmari into this shallow, passing meme as I alluded to in my tweet above. It’s reducing how much meaning it carries, overshadowed by how “weird” it seems. So what’s really at work here?

Embracing the unfamiliar

Sure, when designers & developers joke “does it spark joy?” among their peers, it’s because of the friction and frustration with management and clients, timelines and budgets, limitations and scope creep. They want to achieve the “tidy” and “joyful” work, and it’s probably why they got into the profession in the first place, but life gets messy.

But it also signals a subconscious discomfort with the philosophy at the heart of Konmari that’s decidedly foreign to us (we’re not white or western here in the Philippines, but we’re highly influenced by them). It’s weird to watch her talking to and thanking inanimate objects. It feels foolish to do yourself. It seems silly to have so much ceremony about what is “just” cleaning up.

We talk about needing empathy for users; we talk about striving to understand why users behave the way they do. How people responded to Konmari should make us reflect we respond to something “different”, whether it’s an interface we’re not used to or a practice we didn’t grow up with.

In turn, we should think about how ordinary people behave when that happens to them.

Honoring the mundane

Household tasks aren’t just minor things to avoid or pawn off because they seem like “lowly” work. What is the impact of having a tidy, organized place and material things that are well-cared for? Peace of mind, better workflow, objects that last longer, waste reduction, a better environment?

Not so minor in the long view, after all.

Imagining the impact of diversity

Lastly, it should make us wonder: given how the design and tech industries that bring the biggest influence today are Western (we’re not just talking about Silicon Valley, but things like the industrial revolution and Bauhaus movement), how different would things be if other cultures and perspectives more significantly influenced the way things are done?

What would the effects be if a different ideology guided the companies that dominate today? Or if it guided us in the products or services we choose to support?

Would the challenges we face, e.g. privacy and inequality, still be happening today? Would our approach to them be different?

What would the world be like if we were led by different values?

Hi! Thanks for stopping by ★

Design + code + words for a better web, made in the Philippines by Sophia Lucero.