Navigating a Changing Digital Landscape: A Brief History of Information Architecture

Despite the pervasiveness of technology and the digital space in today’s life, it. is. still. young. And, as is so often the case, our direction forward relies on re-contextualizing what we know to understand what we are exploring. Methods for developing a navigable and understandable digital space are rooted in standards of understanding that predate them. IA or information architecture is born of that.

The term information architecture was coined in 1976 when it was presented at the AIA -American Institute of Architecture- conference in a presentation The Architecture of Information by Richard Saul Wurman. Wurman went on to be a champion of IA, writing the book Information Architects: Making the Complex Clear, in 1996, just three years after “the web” entered the public domain and started it’s acceleration towards what we know today.

That’s why I’ve chosen to call myself an Information Architect. I don’t mean a bricks and mortar architect. I mean architect as used in the words architect of foreign policy. I mean architect as in the creating of systemic, structural, and orderly principles to make something work — the thoughtful making of either artifact, or idea, or policy that informs because it is clear. I use the word information in its truest sense. Most of the word information contains the word inform, so I call things information only if they inform me, not if they are just collections of data, of stuff.

R. S. Wurman, 1996

The digital representation of information meant rethinking the ways in which users could navigate information. Suddenly there was the possibility of presenting large limitless amounts of information in an easy and understandable way. But how to go about doing it? It was just as easy to create a nightmare.

Ways and means to sort, contain and process the information were necessary. Another pivotal book, Information Architecture for the World Wide Web by Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville, was published in 1998 with this in mind, realizing the need for systems and methods that could make sense of the explosion of information, it looked to the developing field for best practices that could be used to create new standards for organizing information. In their book they note that the main components of this are organization schemes and structures, labeling systems, navigation systems, and search systems.

Since then, IA has become a foundational practice in the development of digital spaces. It has taken the best of now decades of growth, exploration, and research to come to the place we are today. Current practices in IA use ontology -a set of concepts and categories in a subject area or domain that shows their properties and the relations between them-, taxonomy -a scheme of classification-, and choreography -the art or practice of designing choreographic sequences- to tackle complex problems of designing information systems that help rather than hinder the user.

Websites are more navigable and intuitive than ever before, and information more accessible than it has ever been. But as more and more of our experiences move from the physical space to the digital, we will continue to see the field of IA changing and growing with it.