Tracing Genres through Organizations

From Acting with Technology

Tracing Genres through Organizations

A Sociocultural Approach to Information Design

By Clay Spinuzzi

A sociocultural study of workers' ad hoc genre innovations and their significance for information design.





A sociocultural study of workers' ad hoc genre innovations and their significance for information design.

In Tracing Genres through Organizations, Clay Spinuzzi examines the everyday improvisations by workers who deal with designed information and shows how understanding this impromptu creation can improve information design. He argues that the traditional user-centered approach to design does not take into consideration the unofficial genres that spring up as workers write notes, jot down ideas, and read aloud from an officially designed text. These often ephemeral innovations in information design are vital components in a genre ecology (the complex of artifacts mediating a given activity). When these innovations are recognized for what they are, they can be traced and their evolution as solutions to recurrent design problems can be studied. Spinuzzi proposes a sociocultural method for studying these improvised innovations that draws on genre theory (which provides the unit of analysis, the genre) and activity theory (which provides a theory of mediation and a way to study the different levels of activity in an organization).

After defining terms and describing the method of genre tracing, the book shows the methodology at work in four interrelated studies of traffic workers in Iowa and their use of a database of traffic accidents. These workers developed an ingenious array of ad hoc innovations to make the database better serve their needs. Spinuzzi argues that these inspired improvisations by workers can tell us a great deal about how designed information fails or succeeds in meeting workers' needs. He concludes by considering how the insights reached in studying genre innovation can guide information design itself.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262194914 258 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 39


$30.00 X ISBN: 9780262527064 258 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 39


  • Spinuzzi takes issue with many in the user-centered design community, arguing that much of the work emerging from it implicitly assumes a 'worker-as-victim, designer-as-hero' perspective. To counter this view he argues strongly for an approach that respects and builds on the worker's own agency and abilities, showing how the workers themselves adjust the system in a myriad of ways in order to fit the system to their activities. A thoughtful, and at times provocative, read.

    Liam J. Bannon

    Director, Interaction Design Centre, University of Limerick

  • Tracing Genres through Organizations offers communication designers and information architects a fresh and important perspective on users in organizations. Moving deftly between theory and practice, Spinuzzi suggests methods for designing communication spaces that are not merely used but inhabited, adapted, and extended by their users. A must-read.

    Johndan Johnson-Eilola

    Director, Eastman Kodak Center for Excellence in Communication, and Professor of Technical Communications, Clarkson University