The subject of one of my less successful critiques.

The Connection Between Art and Information Studies

I just finished the most recent draft of my resume, and at first glance it seems a little scattered. I studied studio art in my undergraduate degree and now I’m in my second year in the Information Management program here at the School of Information Studies. When I tell people about my academic background, they usually say “Whoa! That’s a switch.” Yes and no… let me tell you why.

The Art of Critique
The art program I where I studied was conceptually focused. I worked in a variety of media, terming myself a ‘sculptor’. Regardless of the ‘artist’ label, what I was really exploring was how the conceptual, material, contextual and aesthetic choices I made in my pieces informed the way the piece was considered. One of the processes that every art student takes part in is the critique, which usually happens once or twice in the life-cycle of a piece. A critique is an examination of the things that you did or did not consider when you were bringing your piece into the world.

For those of you who have never sat through a critique, let me tell you a little bit about how it went for me:

  1. Your peers gather around what you made and look at it for a while.
  2. People start talking about what they are looking at. They tell you what they notice. They tell you what ideas, feelings, or sensations  the piece evokes. They may ask you questions about why something is a certain way. They may tell you they hate it, but won’t give you a reason why.
  3. Then, they start talking about things it reminds them of – ideas, memories, other works that are in a similar vein. They give you some names of other artists whose work you should look at.
  4. They talk about the material execution of your piece; tell you your overall aesthetic is nice, or maybe say they think you were really sloppy with the details.
  5. You ask questions too. Ask them what they think about a certain choice you made. Ask them if they noticed a particular aspect and whether it made a difference to them or not.

Information Professionals are Artists In Their Own Right
For information professionals, every day is a big critique. Users interact with what you made, complain about why it isn’t a certain way, totally miss what you were trying to do in some cases, ask you questions about things you didn’t even consider. Being an artist is information design. Information professionals must approach their work like art.

When creating a presentation, designing a user interface, modeling a system, or designing an information experience, as information professionals it is our responsibility to consider things that may initially seem outside of the scope of our project.

  • What are the boundaries of this experience/ system?
  • What is informative within these boundaries?
  • Who is our audience?
  • What are some scenarios that might happen within this system?
  • What are we consciously including when handling information in this system?
  • What are we excluding? What is lost by making these inclusions/exclusions?

These questions are the same ones that irritated me to no end in art school. If I didn’t consider them, it was a guarantee that my critiques would be brutal. My facetious younger-self would rage against these questions, making things because I wanted to. Inevitably, people felt alienated or confused by what I made and my cycle of spite would continue.

The Issue of Perspective in Art and Information Systems
People who develop information systems can go through something similar. Maybe they collect all of the traditional requirements as far as technical specs, data flow, and organizational alignment, but fail to see the less tangible factors that inform how information really flows or is used within the system boundaries.  It’s ok, this is a really hard thing to do! It’s uncomfortable to climb out of your own perspective and really scrutinize what is happening in a system. Naturally, we will miss things. That is the inherent nature of perspective. Realizing the limits of your view on the world is unsettling, it causes cognitive dissonance. However, it is critical that we ask these questions when designing systems.

This seems like a lot of work. However, if there is one thing I have learned at the iSchool, it’s that good planning is crucial and lopoking for what you missed may make the difference between a success and a failure of your system. I realize that my experience creating art makes systems analysis and design really exciting. The context in which these systems will be deployed is rich with nuance and exploring those nuances can open my perspective and inform the choices made in design.

So, artists and information professionals? Not so different.

Contact Gwynnie at or on Twitter @gwynniem.