This article is written by Becky Stern, and is part of "What is Design, Now?", a series of primers on design featuring faculty and friends of the MFA in Products of Design Department at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Learn more about the series and find more essays here.
What is Information Architecture
Information architecture is the practice of deciding how the parts of something will be arranged to make sense as a whole.
Information architecture is practiced by anyone making things for other people to experience. For example, if we are designing a digital product, we will need to make decisions about what the features of this product are, and how they are accessed and navigated in relationship to each other. If we are designing a physical place, like an airport, we will need to decide how people will understand the flow of the different spaces. To do this we would think about how to label things and create wayfinding systems through elements like signage.
Information architecture is important to design because it provides the structural underpinning that makes clarity possible. Without thinking about structure, designers can make missteps that lead to things that look good, but aren’t actually good.
Without thinking about structure, designers can make missteps that lead to things that look good, but aren’t actually good.
Information architecture is a bit of a retronym. It was not invented with the rise of any particular technology, but every technological advance has impacted how IA is practiced. When publishing first became possible, we had to think about how to make books navigable (and later findable in libraries)—when train travel emerged we had to think about how schedules are communicated to travelers—and when the web was born we had to think about how hypertext-based spaces are best organized and accessed.
Information architect as a term is largely attributed to Richard Saul Wurman and he is largely known as the father of IA. In the late nineties, Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Morville brought IA to the tech industry at large with their book IA for the World Wide Web—this text is the source that most modern IAs, designers, and technologists were first introduced to the concept and practice of IA.
Christina Wodkte, along with Lou and Peter, started the Information Architecture Institute as a professional organization to unite those interested in IA. Marcia Bates is another leading thought leader in the field, with her focus on information theory. Karen McGrane is know as one of the first IAs to bring information architecture to the agency market, serving as the first IA at Razorfish.
Today there is a thriving thought leadership community surrounding IA that I am honored to be a part of, with people like Andrew Hinton, Andy Fitzgerald, Andrea Resmini, Carrie Hane, Dan Klyn, Jorge Arango, Marsha Haverty, Mike Atherton, Nathaniel Davis, Stuart Maxwell and Ren Pope.
One of the biggest challenges in information architecture is getting people to understand the difference between content and information.
Some key terms within information architecture are:
Content: Things that are being arranged or sequenced. For example, the words in this essay
Information: Whatever is interpreted from a particular arrangement or sequence of things. For example, whatever you are individually taking away from reading this essay
Ontology: The declaration of meaning for terms and concepts within a specific context. For example, when we decide what labels to use to describe functionality in our product
Taxonomy: The classification of something. For example, the groupings we assign to content on a website to be findable by our users
One of the biggest challenges in information architecture is getting people to understand the difference between content and information. In order to discern the difference, we need to be able to let go of how we think about the world and instead think about how our users think. When we make a piece of content, it is easy to judge it on things like grammatical or empirical correctness. But when that content goes through the process of being interpreted, it can turn into misinformation if we are not careful about understanding what our users already believe and are expecting. A good example here is the classification of produce: If we are designing a grocery store website, we might not want to hide things like zucchini, tomatoes and eggplant under “fruit” (even though they are empirically defined as fruit— people think of them as vegetables).
In the last decade however, there has been a resurgence of IA as a democratized skill that can be applied to many forms of design.
Another contentious topic is: Who practices IA? When IA first emerged as a profession, it was generally practiced by someone who was called an “information architect.” As technology became more ubiquitous, and more designers and technologists starting doing design work on user experiences, the practice of IA began to be practiced by people who did not identify themselves under that title. This led to a brief but dark period in which people stopped talking about or teaching IA principles and practice. In the last decade however, there has been a resurgence of IA as a democratized skill that can be applied to many forms of design. There are still some purists who believe IA should only be practiced by specialists, but they are starting to dwindle in numbers compared to those working to make IA a skill that everyone can understand and use in whatever they are making.
Information Architecture for the Web & Beyond
Intertwingled: Information Changes Everything
Information & Information Professions
The Information Architecture Institute
Pervasive Information Architecture
Abby teaches the Thesis II course in the MFA in Products of Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and is a staff information architect at Etsy. She specializes in delivering a collaborative information architecture process and teaching those that she works with along the way. She speaks and writes under the pseudonym Abby the IA, focusing on sharing information architecture content with those working within the design and technology communities. She is the author of “How to Make Sense of Any Mess” a book about information architecture for everybody. She also holds credit for the invention of World IA Day.