The need for clarity

This post is also available in: Nederlands (Dutch)


In the Netherlands we have this saying when we want to describe how we “translate” complex documents in esoteric language for a larger audience: “Jip en Janneke taal” (the language of Jip and Janneke). Jip and Janneke are the names of the two main protagonists in a series of  children’s novels by a great Dutch writer, Annie M.G. Schmidt. The series was written in the period between 1952 and 1957 and is still required reading for kids all over the world, since the series has been translated in a number of languages, including Chinese.

Jip and Janneke

Anyway, Jip and Janneke language is the layman’s language or Plain English version. We as architects produce a lot of documents. Let a project manager, or any other role in the enterprise read those documents and they may exhibit a number of symptoms, most notably an irrepressible urge to fall asleep, or as a board member of an organisation I am involved in most eloquently cried out: “Disgusting! Really disgusting!”

The question is: do we, as architects, fall short in communication skills because of the esoteric nature of our documents?

I don’t think so. It is in the nature of our work that the models we use to get to grips with the complexity of our world are complex as well. We use special languages for them, and I for one am convinced there is no problem there, on the contrary.

I always illustrate my view of those complex models and the role they play in communication with another role I played in my youth, sometimes for days (and nights …) at an end: that of a Dungeon Master.

A Dungeon Master or DM is the game leader of a game called Dungeons and Dragons, in which characters play the roles of elves, gnomes or wizards in a mythical world. This world usually is created by the DM: he has a number of maps and a variety of tooling to create a tantalising and entertaining story. He has for example a number of dices with which stochasticity is introduced: does this monster appear now? does the wizard’s spell work? does the fighter win a fight?

The DM sits behind a screen that hides these apparels from the view of the players. He uses the representations of the complex world of the game to steer the game but the players are unaware of that. As they should be. They only know what the DM tells them their senses experience. In effect the DM constantly creates viewpoints that each character can use to visualise his or her place in the world at the particular point in time that the game is on.

This is exactly how I use my tools and models. They are never meant to communicate directly with the people I talk with (except when they are architects as well), but they help me to create the illusion to those people that I understand what they talk about, that I understand their world, their perspective, their concerns. And of course if there is a problem there, the problem lies with me, with my models with which I attempt to capture their world. Those are the viewpoints of course, and often these end up as documents or models as well. But they are not the architecture, and they should always have a prominent disclaimer that, no, this is not the architecture, this is the viewpoint for this particular stakeholder at this particular point in time. Because, yes, the architecture is much much more complex.


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