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How can a library student prepare to become an information architect?
April 4, 2011 11:54 AM   Subscribe

How can a library student prepare to become an information architect?

I'm working on a library degree (MLIS) part time while I work in an academic library, and will finish up around this time next year. After much exploration and after making many, many lists, I believe I've found what I'd like to do after I graduate: I want to become an information architect. I took a class on information architecture last year, and the subject strongly appeals to me. I get excited about making site blueprints and wireframes. I like organizing, simplifying, and classifying things, as well as making systems easier to use. I think I would be good at this, and some statistics on the profession I've seen say that around half of the people in the field have MLS/MLIS degrees.

So many of the job listings I see are for what seem like hybrid jobs--they ask for people who can be information architects and also user experience designers. I plan on taking a class in human-computer interaction, but would a single class really prepare me for the UX side of the job? If not, how can I gain the needed skills?

I have better-than-average technical skills, but I'm not sure which skills are necessary and what's "nice to have." I am good at using HTML and CSS, and have used Visio in class. I'm fairly proficient at using Photoshop and Illustrator, but am definitely not a graphic designer. I think I'll be able to teach myself most additional things I'll need to learn. Which skills (tech-y and non) are essential for beginner IAs?

What should I be working on or taking full advantage of while I'm still a student? I just joined the Information Architecture Institute because I think their mentoring program sounds fantastic and I'd like to find a mentor. I'm reading Boxes and Arrows and Jakob Nielsen’s website, on the recommendation of my IA professor. Are there any other groups I should join or websites I should read to learn more about the profession?

I see that most job listings call for a portfolio. Aside from class projects, I don't really have anything that could constitute a portfolio. What is the best way to handle this? Should I find a website and produce IA documentation on the existing site structure? Become involved in a project somehow?
posted by zoetrope to Education (4 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
 
I am one of the people who interview people like you!

First off: you're doing the things you should be doing. School projects are what we expect from a student portfolio. If you can find other opportunities to demonstrate your skills- like doing the IA for a friend's little website - you can show that you are passionate and able to think independently.

I don't know much about Nashville, but in Toronto we have a couple groups that meet semi regularly at bars to discuss information architecture and user experience design. If i were you, i'd hop on LinkedIn, Google Groups, and whatever Nashville specific sites might list similar events. You'll meet people who you can impress with your enthusiasm and intelligence, and learn something (because these events often feature speakers, or, at least, really smart chatty attendees.)

Also, to help get your head around the process and teams involved in information architecture and experience design, read the book Communicating Design.
posted by Kololo at 12:46 PM on April 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


So many of the job listings I see are for what seem like hybrid jobs--they ask for people who can be information architects and also user experience designers.

This does tend to be the case, in part because the definition of what is a UX (or Experience Design - XD) designer can be fluid. It may encompass both of those qualities and more, or there may be gigs within larger orgs (in particular) where you do IA and that's all you do. But in my experience it's just one of the many hats a UX professional wears. It's cool.

I plan on taking a class in human-computer interaction, but would a single class really prepare me for the UX side of the job? If not, how can I gain the needed skills?

A single class is a nice start, but I'd be far more interested in how you discuss the field, your passion, and your abilities in it. If this class helps you out with that, great. If you don't have a deep portfolio of wireframes and/or IA documents, that could be fine, so long as you were open to doing design exercises and are a great communicator.

Which skills (tech-y and non) are essential for beginner IAs?

Visio, OmniGraffle, Axure, Balsamiq - you generally try these tools and find one you like, and stick with it. I'm an OmniGraffle guy myself, but you don't need to be. The core idea here is that there's some tool you use which allows you to produce wireframes and/or organizational documents.

Photoshop and Illustrator are bonuses. (You may want to do mockups and/or wires in those tools, too.)

HTML and CSS are definitely great to have. Knowing jQuery and basic JavaScript - simply to serve the creation of prototypes - would be super great. While UI (HTML, CSS, JavaScript) experience isn't a must, you're a lot more marketable that way, from where I sit.

As a potential UX person, too, don't skip the soft skills - you really need to be able to talk with and engage with a lot of different stakeholders. Business folks, product folks, developers, testers, peers, and of course end users.

Read a lot of UX-y stuff and get involved in meetups. You mentioned Jakob Nielsen; he's great. Also don't miss UIE, Jared Spool's organization. UX Mag is good too.

Oh, and since you have some skills across the board, it might be a nice idea to volunteer to help a local non-profit or some organization with a site refresh. You can also just explore ideas, put them into wireframes, and talk about those too.
posted by hijinx at 1:00 PM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


To jump on something hijinx said: one of the things that really impressed me in the past was when a potential intern had a pulled together wireframes for a fake redesign of one of his favourite sites (i think he might have redesigned iGoogle). Doing stuff like that it is a great way to advance your thinking on the subject, and is a great addition to your portfolio.
posted by Kololo at 2:03 PM on April 4, 2011


Yep, it's true, everybody gave me best answers! Thanks so much, you guys, I think this info is going to be very helpful.
posted by zoetrope at 5:24 PM on April 20, 2011


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