A Simple Overview of the Origins & History of Information Architecture

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In 1976, Richard Saul Wurman coined a term, later to have a much more proliferate effect. This term, information architecture (IA), is currently defined as the structural design of an interface that allows a user to access the right content at the optimal time so that she can navigate the product most effectively. IA requires identifying all types of content within a product, sorting them, and then mapping them out in a way that feels familiar to the user [1]. Wurman was specifically concerned with with the static, visual design of large quantities of information, organizing and making the complex clear [2]. However, he would be unaware that he will become the source of inspiration that will later inspire a new field and profession [2].

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As chair of the AIA conference in 1976, Wurman first introduced the idea called the architecture of information [3]. Though the threads of this concept have been lost among his colleagues within in the twenty years following the conference, Wurman closed his architecture practice and started a new firm called The Understanding Business [3]. Later in 1996, he would push his ideas even further, publishing his new book, Information Architects [3]. This book would create the foundation basis for defining Information Architecture [3].

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Two years after Wurman’s book, Peter Morville and Louise Rosenfeld book, Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, would become an instant best seller and awarded technology book of the year by a then new company called Amazon [3]. This book was intended for technology audience presenting frameworks for designing and organizing the information within complex websites [3]. With each new edition of the book, the definition changed and grew [3].

With the abundance of definitions, we find ourselves hard-pressed trying to explain IA. For the sake of the field, this profession does not seem to be suffering from a lack of a concise definition, evidenced by a robust job market and millions of pages referencing IA [3]. There’s also a professional organization of IA with 1500 members across 80 countries [3]. We can easily see that we’ve come a long way since 1976.

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To reiterate on this history,

“the evolution of information architecture is characterized by a progressive widening of perspective, from the single page, to the website, to the system — a collection of several channels and devices that participate, from the user’s point of view, in the same experience. This roughly comes down to three identifiable movements: (1) IA as a synonym of information design (Wurman), where the focus is on the single item or page. (2) Classical IA (Rosenfeld and Morville), where the structure and navigation of the whole website become central. (3) Pervasive IA, where the structure flows across channels.” [4]

How will our needs change for our upcoming tomorrows? I can definitely forecast that information will not be getting simpler. With this abundance and complexity, information will serve to reshape our perceptions of ourselves and how we interact with the world around us. If our upcoming needs change, our information architecture needs to adapt and reshape itself for the purpose of meeting these same needs [2]. Though confused by its lack of a concise definition, its flexible components as a field will allow itself to accommodate for our constantly changing future.

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  1. http://trydesignlab.com/academy/interaction-design/4/

2. http://journalofia.org/volume3/issue2/03-resmini/

3. https://vimeo.com/8866160

4. http://pervasiveia.com/blog/history-of-information-architecture