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Information Architecture: A Guerilla Guide to Breaking In

Robert Stribley is a Senior Information Architect or “IA” at Razorfish, New York, NY. He’s worked in the IA field for over 12 years and his many clients include Wachovia, Oppenheimer Funds, Ford, The American Red Cross, Women’s Wear Daily and Travel Channel. He also teaches a regular workshop entitled “Introduction to Information Architecture and Design” at the School of Visual Arts. Find him on Twitter as @stribs.

In addition to working as an IA at Razorfish, I enjoy teaching a class in information architecture at the School of Visual Arts here in Manhattan. The number one question students ask me after my full-day workshop is, “How do I get into the field?”

Often, these students are talented designers who want to make the switch from graphic design to interaction design. Sometimes, they’re individuals who are brand new to the field — who’ve simply developed an interest in what sounds like (and is!) a fascinating and potentially rewarding career space.

What’s my answer to these hopeful folks then?

I’ll be honest with you: It’s hard out here for a newbie. While companies are hiring in this field, they now have the luxury of hiring people with a decade or more of experience. Whereas you might’ve busted into this field in the ’90s if you had a friend in the business and a pulse, now employers are looking for skills and experience.

Here are my suggestions, however, for how you can crack the market:

Build a Portfolio

Before you can expect to land a job in information architecture, you’ll need to build a portfolio — and hopefully one which includes a variety of work. “But how can I build a portfolio if I don’t have a job?” you might protest. I agree it’s a bit of a chicken-or-egg problem. There are opportunities out there, however, and in some cases, you can create them.

If you’re working on a project at your current job, which requires an IA deliverable, offer to complete it. Notice a gap that a solid deliverable could fill? Suggest that additional deliverable (a site map, a wireframe), and offer to complete it.

This worked for me as a freelancer who was scrounging for work when the dotcom bubble burst: not only was I able to build out my portfolio, I was also able to bill additional hours. Most companies have some sort of digital presence these days, so even if your current position seems unrelated, you might be able to offer your help with projects and do some work on the clock.

Before I got into this line of work, I worked for a nonprofit organ donation agency, and I offered to help with our first web site. I learned a lot, and when I interviewed at my first web design firm, I was at least able to point to a modicum of experience and, perhaps more importantly, to demonstrate my own initiative in getting into the field. You can do the same.

Investigate Volunteer Opportunities

Not really finding these opportunities at your current job? There’s still a solution: Volunteer your smarts to a nonprofit or a local small business. Hearing that word “volunteer” may make you cringe – especially if you’re currently out of work — but in this competitive landscape, the awarded are given to those willing to go the extra mile to be noticed.

Got a favorite local nonprofit that could use some help with their site? They may not even be aware of the issues. Email them and offer to help. You may not be paid in cash, but you’ll get paid in experience, which has value too. And you can add the work you do to your portfolio.

One great site to help you in your search is Catch a Fire, which lists volunteer opportunities at nonprofits by city and by skill set.

Research Internship and Entry-Level Programs

Some agencies have not just intern positions (which tend to be seasonal) but also programs to attract and hire entry-level employees, who may not have much or any previous experience. Do your research and/or reach out to digital design agencies (like Razorfish!), who might have these programs.

You may have to start out at an entry-level position, but if you prove yourself, you may also be promoted quickly. And you may not even need an IA portfolio to land one of these positions, if you can establish that you have the aptitude for such a position via your previous experience or studies.

Keep Networking

Most larger cities will likely have a UX, IA or Usability presence of some sort. You can find these groups by searching for “information architect,” “user experience,” “usability” or “interaction design” on or LinkedIn. Or simply start your own group if one doesn’t exist. You’re sure to meet other people, whom you can strategize with and learn from.

Yes, there’s still an element of “It’s not what you know, but who you know” in this industry, so developing genuine, fruitful relationships with people in the field can only help your cause. Plus, recruiters tend to make a beeline for these events in the hope of discovering talent.

What haven’t I mentioned? Taking classes, and getting an education. These seem like obvious initial steps to me. And frankly, I didn’t take a single class in information architecture before entering the field. (I studied journalism and English, which are certainly good fields to have as a background.) Of course, educating yourself can only help you, but taking classes is also simply another way to ensure you’re accumulating experience and connections, which mean more to recruiters in this field, honestly.

Good luck breaking into the field! I hope to see you out there.

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