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Thomas Vander Wal: The InfoDesign profile

By Peter J. Bogaards (July 29, 2004)

Regularly, InfoDesign profiles a thought leader in the design industry, focusing on people who are identified with or show strong sensibilities to the design of information and experiences. This time, Thomas Vander Wal is our 'victim'.

Thomas Vander Wal is Web Support Program Manager and Senior Internet Technologist at INDUS Corporation. He is also member of the Founding Leadership Council of the Asilomar Institute for Information Architecture, an Alumni Tech Lead of Boxes and Arrows, and member of the Steering Committee of the Web Standards Project. He lives in Bethesda, Maryland with his wife Joy and son Will. In the blogosphere, you can find him at 'Off the Top' (

Most Valuable URI, except when I need to sift by categories, as when I want to separate Paris Hilton from the Paris Hilton.

Best PDF/PPT To Download

Jesse James Garrett's 'Elements of User Experience'.
But very recently Nate Koechley's PPT 'First Things First: IA and CSSPPT logo has intrigued me as it closely mirrors what I have be putting together and using over the the last three years.

Best Read Book(s)

Chaim Potok's My Name is Asher Lev is a great story about learning the craft of art by learning and perfecting the basics.

Neal Stephenson's Cryptnomicon and Snow Crash are also great stories that are well crafted reads by an author unafraid to use the words in the English language.

Person's Work To Follow

As a collective, the works coming out of Adaptive Path offices, including Douglas Bowman, have been very good and provide a good broad framework of wise approaches to Internet design and development.

Favorite World Company

Apple for its passion of great design and usable products and the BBC for is incredible breadth of information and media attention to their information gathering, producing, and dissemination craft.

Best Non-profit Organisation

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). They work to protect technology, protocols, and digital rights from government and other entities that have a very limited view.

Your Role Model

It is pieces of a lot of people, Wayne Gretzky (follow your passion everything else will fall into place), Nathan Shedroff's work at Vivid Studios (great process and shared what he knew and what he learned), Jef Raskin (drive to find a better interfaces that humans can use), Marc Rettig (approach to problems and solving with design), and Steve Jobs (attention to detail and ability to draw very talented people around him, in spite of his reputation).

Book(s) You Always Return To

Thomas Davenport's Information Ecology: Mastering the Information and Knowledge Environment, Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville's Information Architecture (2nd Edition), and John Cato's User Centered Web Design.

Article(s) You Always Return To

Other than the ones I have been trying to write for more than 18 months? The Semantic Web from Scientific American written by Tim Berners-Lee, James Hendler, and Ora Lassila.

Best Recent Quote

"The difference between mediocrity and excellence is attention to detail." - Sebastian J. Barbarito

Company Ever To Work For

My dream company is passionate and has the resources for working on improving the relationship between information, its users and better empowering the user to have control over the information when they want and need it. Good, if not great, design is essential as is understanding how people interact with information through out the full information life-cycle.

Person Ever To Work With

I am fascinated with Marc Rettig's approach to thinking about problems and working through them with design. His approach to problem solving is great. I would love to work on projects with him and just absorb.

Person To Meet

Steve Jobs is an icon and has a great legacy, but I don't know that I would get a great conversation out of the meeting even though it would be a great honor. I like good conversation and the people that have provided great discovery through reading their writings often trigger good conversation that drives learning.

The three in this category are Steven Berlin Johnson (Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate, Emergence: The Connected Lives of ants, Brains, Cities, and software, Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life), Clay Shirky, and Malcolm McCullough (Abstracting Craft: The Practical Digital Hand and Digital Ground: Architecture, Pervasive Computing and Environmental Knowing).

Favorite Place on the Web and for breadth of information on sites that innovate, test, and cover a lot of territory and do it with ease for the user.

First Site(s) on (Weekly) Morning(s)

Washington Post for local news, Wall Street Journal for business perspective, and (in all honesty) InfoDesign. All with smoked fish, a piece of good cheese, and a large cup of dark heavy coffee.

Killer Usability Argument

If it is not usable you only have decoration or art. The converse is not a corollary as some art and decoration can be usable. Example, MoMa's design collection.

Lesson(s) Learned From .Com Burst

Projects and products have an organic growth rate. No matter how good (or bad), it will not be ready for use before it is ready for use. Some great ideas bubbled up during the boom, but were written off as failures as they were pushed to grow at a rate that was faster than development could meet. Google is an example of a company that grew within its own limits and seems to still have that solid restraint and releasing to everybody when the product is mature enough to scale and meet demand.

Most Promising Technology

Operating System storage based on meta data (not directories), MIT's Project Oxygen, and the super mobile phone (Palm/Handspring Treo 600, Danger Hiptop). These meet at the intersection where the users have increased control of the digital information and media they have found and/or created crosses users having information follow them and/or their information is easily accessible.

Best Software Application

OmniOutliner and OmniGraffle.
To capture thought structures and to easily visualize the thoughts.

Your Advice For A Talented UX Designer

Learn everything you can from those that have gone before you. Learn to tear apart as well as defend everything you do. Test everything known and assumed. Learn where things break and why. Spend time with people that don't get it and understand why they do not get it.

Most Important Social Change

Digital information. It has created the possibility for user ease of control over information creation, access, and use.

Best Place on Earth

Where ever my son and wife are, next would be where ever bright, passionate, innovative people gather to work so to make things better for others (e.g. San Francisco Bay Area; Cambridge, Mass; New York, New York; London; or Amsterdam).