My Voice and the IA Summit

I’ve been thinking about the experience I had chairing the Information Architecture Summit. The event has been key to me throughout my career. I got involved in Septemeber of 2008 because I was called to help Samantha Bailey with the 2009 conference. She needed to know that her in process work chairing the event was going to be left in reliable hands. I took that responsibility on and due to that, had the honor of being the volunteer in charge of curating the event in 2010. In retrospect, I wanted to share some of my thoughts.


As the chair, I was empowered to make decisions. These are the some of the things I decided:

1) Most of the conference speakers are amongst us. They are our colleagues and they are sharing to help all of us grow.

There has been much talk about how the conference needs to be one track. Well, I remember the days when it was one track and the thing is it’s not TED. This is a practitioner conference.

That does not mean we shouldn’t try it. But consider this…Isn’t thinking about how many tracks first sort of backwards? Content first. Forms follows content. (Maybe this is what the content strategists are trying to tell us….)

An example from the planning this year –  the conference was originally 3 tracks. We got so many great submissions, I made a game time call to add a track. We had the content. Why restrict it based on a notion of the format?

2) Keynotes & Plenaries

I outlined goals for the keynote and the closing speakers. I had an archetype in my mind of how I wanted the keynotes to impact the event. I then searched for people who met my criteria. I sought out lots of advice as well and got assistance from past IA Summit conference chairs and advisors.

Dan Roam

On day 1, Dan Roam painted the picture.

For the first day keynote, I wanted the kind of person that would lift the attendees up and provide a combination of forward thinking and orthogonally related value.

One person I was really excited about getting to speak was robotics professor Cynthia Breazeal but she was not available.

Many lists were shared with the advisors – and then Dan Roam‘s name came up……that clicked. I knew he would be very engaging and he would relate to the audience in a way that would fit within the framework of the event and provide value to the attendees.

Listen to Dan’s talk.

Richard Saul Wurman

Richard Saul Wurman – Where the heck did he come from?

RSW came to us through the people in the community. Dan Klyn submitted a proposal to have a session with RSW. When I saw it I contacted Dan right away to find out more about this. Through several conversations a plan was hatched and RSW was coming to speak on the second day of the three day event. Symbollically this was important to me because one of the things he always talks about is “the spaces in between”. The opinions of his appearance at the event were varied. He caused much discussion and people were either very happy or very upset about the things he said and the manner in which he delivered those messages. BUT-he is ‘the guy’ who wrote the INFORMATION ARCHITECTURE book. So there’s that. You know, history? As the event chair, I didn’t think that kind of serendipity should be ignored. So we made it happen.

Listen to RSW’s talk.

Whitney Hess

How and why I chose Whitney Hess as the closing speaker.

I saw Whitney speak at the IA Summit in Memphis. I was never more inspired by someone at an Information Architecture related event than her. She made me want to do better work. She inspired me to think more deeply about it each day. That was the person I wanted speaking to everyone just before they left the conference that I led. The goal was inspiration. Sure it’s esoteric, but I think energy is essential to push us through challenges. Isn’t that part of what these conferences should provide? She brought that to the event in a way that nobody else could have.

Listen to Whitney’s talk.

3) The Theme

Once the keynote speakers were in place and the proposals were chosen, we had a schedule. I felt the keynotes presented a trifecta of varied and appropriate personalities to frame the event. This trifecta was part of a whole story about my thinking around the theme.

It was a two part theme:

I believe what I said to open the event sums up why I chose the theme.

“Why “This one Goes to 11?” It’s a cultural reference and it aides us in building connections. Connections to each other strengthen our community. These connections are strengthened even further when we come together and meet in person to share, listen, collaborate and hopefully disagree.  When we come together we inevitably have those hallway conversations. Every year that I have attended the IA Summit, I’ve heard people say that exact phrase, ‘the best conversations happen in the hall.’ But those hallway conversations have context when we gather, they are fueled by the input we experience and a continuation of the discussion.”

  • Dan Roam helped us think about communicating visually.
  • RSW spoke to us about getting out of the notion of thinking about the ‘modality’ so much.
  • Whitney reminded us that anyone can at anytime be a hero for the user and that great ideas are just that – ideas. We need to work with the people that build the ideas to make them real.


I was a volunteer. Since I helped Samantha with the 2009 IA Summit, I was at it for 20 months. It took many hours every week to make sure things were pushing ahead. Events like this tend to have lots of opinions without manpower behind them. When people offered advice, I did what I could to balance the value of the idea and the lack of resources. In the end, I’m pretty happy with all that we got done.

I started getting help from Abby Covert around October 2009. Her contribution was essential. We would not have gotten across the finish line without her. We reached out to people through Twitter and got more help. Lots of people contributed to the event and it would not have been the same without those contributions. I am grateful for every single person who helped.


The thing that excites me the most about what happened this year is the fact that Livia Labate, the 2011 chair, is getting help. People are reaching out and sharing great ideas. I think that’s a remarkable outcome. Who could ask for more.


Somehow in the process of all of this, I have felt oddly silenced by the experience. It might be due to the fact that I was focused on performing the role of conference chair as a way of exercising leadership and I have not yet identified a new goal. It might be related to something else. For two years, I didn’t feel it was appropriate for me to give a talk at the event because I was the chair and it would be inappropriate for the chair to take that opportunity from someone else. So even though I was able to orchestrate it, I was really only viewed as the person giving the announcements. It put me in a position that took me by surprise and I had an interesting revelation. Organizers are not seen as thought leaders but rather administrators. And in general administrators don’t have a voice because they are busy doing things behind the scenes.

I think that’s where my voice went. I started to respond to others because they had an assumption about me. As I’m slowly recovering from this, I’ve begun to get my voice back. One of the first things I felt should be shared out loud were the reasons behind my choices which were intentional not accidental or administrative.


I learned so much working on the event. Here are some of the most valuable lessons that came out of it for me:

  • When you take on something bigger than you, understand it will consume you
  • Let it guide you as much as you intend to guide it
  • Leave room for serendipity
  • Have a plan, but be willing to adjust
  • Great ideas are plentiful, dependable volunteers are rare – discern the difference quickly
  • Grow a thick skin

I want to thank the American Society for Information Science and Technology (ASIS&T) for presenting the IA Summit throughout the years. They are the sponsoring organization and the people there do all they can to support us. I enjoyed my time working with them as a volunteer.

And on to IA Summit 2011 in Denver.

View my photos from the IA Summit on Flickr.


  1. Jennifer,

    I will always remember IA Summit Phoenix as my favorite one! You did an amazing job!
    In the end, you should be *very* happy with all that we got done. It was fantastic!


  2. Thanks for giving us a look at what was going on behind the scenes! I thought the keynote selections, in particular, were excellent and well balanced.

    I hope you’re enjoying a much needed break now! 🙂

  3. Hi Jennifer,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. The Phoenix conference was very interesting from a content POV and superbly organized. You did your job exceptionally well. Complaints regarding individual speakers do not reflect on you, but on the speakers themselves.

    This is the sixth year I’ve chaired EuroIA. Believe me, if you take the criticism personally, you’ll die young. So do what your heart tells you is right and ignore the nay-sayers.

    Much love and tons of respect,

  4. BRAVO!
    What doesn’t kill you will only make you stronger 😉

    I just want continue the sentiment here – YOU did an AWESOME job! Volunteering is a largely under appreciated effort. I know, I have taken on similar endeavors, but you did it with passion and great leadership.

    It was a fabulous event as always, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world! I hope you can look back on it through the eyes of those of us who were inspired and awed enough to appreciate your own efforts.

    With Love, Larisa

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s