A Brief History of Information Architecture (IA)

And how it differs from UX Design.

Information Architecture, Information Design, User Experience Design… What’s the difference between them? And when did they start becoming professions?

Information Architecture, as a practice, can be defined as ‘The organisation of functionality and content into a structure that enables intuitive navigation’. The role of an Information Architect, as defined by Peter Morville, is a “systems thinker, focusing more on the relationship between pages than the pages themselves’. By comparing these definitions it is possible to start building an abstract idea of what Information Architecture is. In truth, information is used in so many fields that the definition of IA changes depending on who you’re speaking to.

In this article I hope to provide a background context on the idea of information and how it found its way to being one of the most prevalent ideas of the Information Age and present in every digital device.

IA 1.0: Before computers

Information has been around since humans decided to record what we said and did. The first written forms of information are the Egyptian hieroglyphs and Cuneiform script form around 3000BC.

Complaint Tablet to Ea-Nasir in Cuneiform script, the earliest known recorded complaint dated to 1750BCE.

After 1300BC, the Phoenician alphabet (pictured below) became widely used, spread by Phoenician merchants across the Mediterranean.

Derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs, the Phoenician alphabet went on to be adapted into Hebrew, Aramaic (which later became Arabic) and Greek (which later became Latin and then English) among other languages. The forms below are the basis for near all the text on the internet as we know it today.

The Phoenician Alphabet

In 300BC, the Library of Alexandria was built. A collection of (estimates of) up to 400,000 scriptures, it was the first known example of the application of Library and Information Science (LIS).

From then until about 80 years ago, the nature of information changed very little. We used alphabets and numerical systems to record information on paper or other similar materials. These scriptures can then be labelled, categorised and stored in alphabetical order or otherwise to assist with the sorting of information. Cultures of scholarship arose in times of peace and prosperity, such as the Islamic Golden Age, when the Muslims showed a strong interest in assimilating the scientific knowledge of the civilisations that had been conquered and are responsible for preserving and translating many of the classic works of the Greeks and other civilisations that are widespread in popular culture today.

IA 2.0: The advent of computers

The earliest definition of a ‘computer’ was in the 1640s, meaning ‘One who calculates’.

Although not directly related to the architecture of information itself, the development of computers enabled the practice. Over the 19th and 20th centuries there were various attempts at creating machines that could perform calculations. Charles Babbage devised an ‘Analytical Engine’ in the 1830s and Alan Turing released in 1936 his paper titled ‘On Computable Numbers’, which defined the principle of the modern computer as a ‘Universal machine’; a machine capable of computing via a program stored on tape, allowing the machine to be programmable.

Over the following decades electromechanical computers were developed, which were then superseded by much faster all-electric computers.

In 1964, an IBM research paper entitled “Architecture of the IBM System/360” described “architecture” in the computing context as “the conceptual structure and functional behaviour, distinguishing the organisation of data flows and controls, logical design, and physical implementation.”

By 1968, Douglas Engelbart gave ‘The Mother of All Demos’, demonstrating the basic idea of modern computer as we understand it today, including the first personal computer with a user-friendly interface, mouse and keyboard and a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) text editor.

Around 1975, Richard Wurman, an architect by trade, thought information must be constructed in the same way as a building, with a solid foundation. He first used the term “Architecture of Information” to describe a new profession that gives structure to information to yield meaning.

By 1981, the Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC) developed the first commercial system which included everything we understand from a computer today in the Xerox 8010 Star. The Graphical User Interface (GUI), seen below, hasn’t changed much in its fundamental design since.

GUI for the Xerox 8010 Star

1989: Tim Berners-Lee invents the World Wide Web.

1996: Richard Wurman releases his book, titled ‘Information Architecture’. While influential, it was primarily concerned with information displayed on a single page, or ‘Information Design’, not necessarily referring to a system of information.

1998: Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Marville release their book, ‘Information Architecture for the World Wide Web’. Written from a librarian perspective, it was intended for a technology audience, presenting frameworks for organising information within complex websites. They define IA as the “Combination of organisation, labelling and navigation schemes within an information system”.

2004: Rosenfeld and Marville expand on their ideas, saying that ‘organisation, labelling, navigation and search were the touch points around which they structured their practice’. For them IA was the design of what was between the pages (links, structures and connections) whereas for Wurman it was the design of the pages themselves. They were designing for ever-changing, dynamic content and brought user research and usability engineering into the mainstream of IA tools.

Throughout the late 90s and early 00s, Information Architecture was understood as an IT function built on the ideas of structure and functionality.

UX Design, as a field, started gaining traction in industry with the advent of the iPhone. There is certainly a crossover between IA and UX Design, as they both use usability tests, user flow diagrams and sitemaps to enable intuitive navigation of information. The difference, however, is that UX is built on a foundation of emotion and empathy with a user-centric approach.

IA 3.0?

Around 2005, consumers also became producers of information, heralding the idea of the ‘prosumer’. With mobile phones now being connecting to the internet, there is no certainty of the physical context in which a certain piece of information is produced. Information follows us in real-time and IA therefore becomes more pervasive, opening up a conversation about ubiquitous computing and service design.

With the advent of cloud-based file storage and mobile, information is increasingly accessed and presented in a very contextual sense. With Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, big data sets are fed into algorithms that create their own sets of rules using the scientific method. Information is no longer necessarily just presented for human storage, navigation and consumption, but also used as the food on which machines are grazing to better serve humans.

Where is Information Architecture headed next? It’s hard to say. One thing that is certain, though, is that the digital world is changing at a rate that guarantees huge shifts in practice and methods over the coming decades. Information Architecture will either continue or cease to exist as an applicable field, be amalgamated into another field such as UX Design or evolve in its meaning for some new context that has yet to be created.