Postbox: good info

Crikey, it’s a very long photo of a postbox – read on for some thoughts about information architecture and the Royal Mail.

From a distance

  • Everyone knows what a postbox looks like – if you’re looking for one, they’re easy to find
  • Anyone who isn’t looking for a postbox can ignore the postbox at no cost to their time and attention
  • Most local people will remember where this one is even if they’ve never used it – so they know where to go when they do need it, or when others do. (Top British Question: “Excuse me, but do you know if there’s a postbox nearby?”)

Close up

When you want it, when you’ve found it, it’s got all the info in the right place, in the order you’ll ask for it:

  • Is this postbox in use? (answer implied)
  • When’s the next collection?
  • What’s the latest I can drop my letter today and have it collected? (If I’m happy with this, I can stop reading straight away).
  • If I’m in a hurry, where’s the nearest place I can go for an earlier collection?
  • If I’ve missed that too, what’s my last chance at a collection?
  • If I have other questions, where can I find answers or who can I call?*

*With apologies that I was in too much of a hurry to architect the second photo well enough to include everything!

Bits for atoms

We’re repainting our house – this is one of the colours about to be mixed at our local hardware shop.

A small snippet of the colour catalogue looks like this:

Say you needed to have five tins of each colour you sold in stock – how big a shop would you have to have to stock them all? How much money would you have to have tied up in stocking colours that you rarely sold?

Here’s the wonder of the mixing station – it replaces thousands of tins of paint with a few base shades of paint, a computer, a mixing-machine and some well organised information. The result is that the selection of paint that you used to have to go to specialist paint shop for – a paint warehouse – is available at my local hardware shop, and is only a small part of what they stock.

Information (bits) for atoms.


Which physical parts of what you do could be replaced by bits? What would this save? What new things would this enable you to do? What would this cost – you, your team, your clients?

Peter Morville on Category and Taxonomy (1)

While findability comes first, we must also remember that categories are about more than retrieval. Classification helps our users to understand.

Through splitting, lumping and labeling, we reveal choices and invite questions.

Of course, all taxonomies are imperfect, as is the language they’re built on… like maps and myths, taxonomies hide more than they reveal. They bury complexity to tell a story, and they always miss someone out. Some things, like luggage, get lost by accident, while others – people, places, ideas – are buried by design.

Either way, each glitch in the matrix subtly changes understanding and behaviour, which is why this work has moral weight. Classification has consequences, as Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star argue in Sorting Things Out:

“Each category valorizes some point of view and silences another. This is not inherently a bad thing – indeed, it is inescapable. But it is an ethical choice, and as such it is dangerous – not bad, but dangerous.”

Peter MorvilleIntertwingled (Amazon link here)

The new possible

My sister (let’s call her Sharky) bought me a book for Christmas.

Sharky lives in Argentina.

She bought the book from a shop in the UK.

I’m on holiday in a remote part of Indonesia.

She bought the book, told me about it, and I was reading it, in less than ten minutes.

This is the new reality – actually, not even that new anymore. Any information product (book, film, music, software, design) can go anywhere, in effectively no time.

The new possible consists of the things that this reality enables – not just instant access to information products, but information to go into products (3d printing designs, specifications) or for the delivery of products and services (your exact requirements or preferences, your real-time location, your purchase history, your credit rating).

What becomes possible in your field when the information is so relevant and so available, when the transaction becomes so fast, so frictionless?

AirBnB, and Uber are cannonical examples of the new possible, to which I’d add the fact that this year, Sharky bought me a Christmas present.

Deep literacy: Kevin Kelly on more than reading

… producing books with ease on Gutenberg’s press did not fully unleash text. Real literacy also required a long list of innovations and techniques that permitted ordinary readers and writers to manipulate text in ways that made it useful. For instance, quotation symbols make it simple to indicate where one has borrowed text from another writer. We don’t have a parallel notation in film yet, but we need one.

Once you have a large text document, you need a table of contents to find your way through it. That requires page numbers. Somebody invented them in the 13th century. Where is the equivalent in video?

Longer texts require an alphabetic index, devised by the Greeks and later developed for libraries of books. Someday soon with AI we’ll have a way to index the full content of a film.

Footnotes, invented in about the 12th century, allow tangential information to be displayed outside the linear argument of the main text. And that would be useful in video as well.

And bibliographic citations (invented in the 13th century) enable scholars and skeptics to systematically consult sources that influence or clarify the content. Imagine a video with citations. These days, of courses we have hyperlinks, which connect one piece of text to another, and tags, which categorise using a selected word or phrase for later viewing.

All these inventions (and more) permit any literate person to cut and paste ideas, annotate them with her own thoughts, link them to related ideas, search through vast libraries of work, browse subjects quickly, resequence texts, refind material, remix ideas, quote experts, and sample bits of beloved artists.

These tools, more than reading, are the foundations of literacy.

Kevin KellyThe Inevitable

Vectors of value

What if all of the value you created could be understood along one of three axes: time, energy (including matter, which includes information), and space.


We create value by changing the amount of time something takes.

This could be saving time, by making something happen faster. All other things being equal (an important caveat), people will pay more:

  • To get from A to B faster
  • To learn faster
  • To receive something they’ve ordered faster
  • For their computer to boot faster
  • To build things faster
  • To improve things faster
  • To have access to something – machinery, capital – faster 

It can also be by making things last longer:

  • Making machines, engines, clothes, houses wear out less quickly
  • More holiday for the same money
  • Helping people live longer lives
  • Making the same amount of something go further is a way of making it last longer – fuel, sweets, food.


Energy covers a lot, and I’ve fudged a bit by including matter and information in this section – but I think matter technically is energy, and seeing as information can be embodied in matter, my guess is that in some sense, information is energy too.

Adding value by saving physical energy:

  • The obvious – making energy efficient appliances and machines (which incidentally make the same amount of energy last longer
  • By bringing things closer to people, we save the energy they spend accessing them (see ‘space’)

Adding value by adding or reducing matter

  • Making something lighter – this can be a way of helping other things go further
  • Or heavier. I find myself wondering if. say, pegging down a tent is using a few materials (pegs, string) as a lever to add the weight of the world to stop your tent blowing away
  • Or by restructuring matter so that it goes further, is more useful, saves people time…

Adding value by improving the quality of information available, saving attention and emotional effort:

  • This can be done by adding, removing or re-structuring information
  • Good communication makes the most relevant and easy information easy to find.
  • Indexing and search do the same
  • Signposts add value by making it take less effort (time and energy) to find things in the real world
  • Brands and review systems save energy by making it easier to know who to trust – so you can spend less time checking things out by yourself.


Adding value by moving things through space, or by ‘creating’ more space

*Quotation marks because we can’t actually make more space, in the deep sense. Can we?

  • Transporting something something that you want to you
  • Taking something undesirable (rubbish, pollution) away from you
  • Smaller TVs are a way of buying floor space in your house
  • Smaller computers (laptops, phones) are more easily moved, creating new possibilities in new spaces (e.g. a fully functioning office in a coffee shop)
  • Clearing land to make it easier to move through, build on
  • Enclosing land so that things can’t move through it
  • By bringing people together at the right place, at the right time, so that something happens

Are these all the same thing?

It isn’t just time that costs money – energy and space are money.

And having written this, it’s clear that many of these things are overlapping:

  • A package delivery service saves me time and energy by bringing the package through space
  • The internet does the same by bringing data into my house – and google makes it take less effort.
  • A well written text book saves me time, energy and attention in learning

The fourth dimension

Those are all pretty straight forward, and useful angles for thinking through how a product or service creates value. But what about quality – the thing that makes a tool a pleasure to use, or that makes prolonging an experience like a movie – or life itself – worth it.

Is ‘goodness’ is a species of information, or its own dimension?

(Information) literacy

Unlike “the three Rs” of reading, writing and arithmetic which are woven within the K-12 curriculum, information literacy falls through the cracks. It doesn’t fit into any one subject area, and teachers fail to include in class. And it’s an big problem, because the internet makes literacy more important, not less.

When I was a kid, I had a mom, a dad, and a single volume of the encyclopedia, and I trusted them to answer my questions. Now Google offers us billions of answers, but the difficult question is trust…

Evaluating accuracy, objectivity, currency and authority is easier said than done.

Peter MorvilleIntertwingled

This is good, and true, and important – and I recommend the book.

But it also misses a trick: what Peter Morville describes so well in Intertwingled mostly falls within the scope of a good definition of literacy.

There is no literacy that doesn’t involve managing information. I’ve described literacy as:

… being able to read with fluency and with critical understanding, and to write both to communicate and to think.

That’s concise, but these information skills – understanding structures and relationships within and between pieces of information, and deconstructing or assembling them in a way that suits your purpose  – are key components of critical understanding, and of communicating.

We might need to extend the concepts of reading and writing to cover new skills, and the relative importance of organising information might have grown – but we should be teaching these skills wherever we’re teaching people to read and write.

And we always should have been, because they’ve always been vital.


In the era of ecosystems, seeing the big picture is more important than ever, and less likely. It’s not simply that we’re forced into little boxes by organizational silos and professional specialization. We like it in there. We feel safe. But we’re not. This is no time to stick to your knitting. We must go from boxes to arrows. Tomorrow belongs to those who connect.

Peter MorvilleIntertwingled: Information Changes Everything

Great title, Peter!