The History and Origins of Information Architecture

Over the years, the rapid growth of different technologies has continued to change our everyday lives in unpredictable ways. Ever since the rise of the internet, information has become so abundant and readily available at the touch of our fingertips. Yet, as the internet and information available to us continues to expand, how do we effectively manage the looming threat of an information overload?

There’s a certain set of people that can help our society navigate through the ever-changing landscape of the internet and information — they are the information architects.

Information architecture, also known as IA, can be a difficult concept to explain, since its definition has changed over the years. On a high level, the Information Architecture Institute explains it in a concise quote:

“Information architecture is about helping people understand their surroundings and find what they’re looking for, in the real world as well as online.”

In the context of constructing a website, one has to carefully think about findability and usability for the user. Information architecture helps create a structure for a website, application, or other project, that allows us to understand where we are as users, and where the information we want is in relation to our position. Its an essential component of the user experience as a whole.

Back to the Roots

Though it’s a relatively new field, information architecture has its roots in older fields and methodologies, such as library science and cognitive psychology. When it comes to library science, two areas information architects find valuable are the art of cataloguing and archival science. Both elements can directly impact user experience work, where the goal is to create an information architecture that has appropriate and usable metadata, within a well-maintained archive. In the case of cognitive psychology, information architecture draws on some different elements from this field to influence how information is structured.

From cognitive load to mental models and decision making, information architects may keep these elements in the back of their mind as they consider such things as how much and which information to include at what time.

The Formation of Information Architecture

Information architecture, as we know it today, was heavily shaped by an American architect and graphic designed named Richard Saul Wurman. In the mid-1970’s, Wurman coined the term “information architecture” as he addressed the American Institute of Architecture during a conference. He was one of the first to push the idea that architects could be as equally essential to the design and construction of remarkable works in two dimensions.

Within the same decade, a congregation of people who specialized in information science was assembled at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center and were given permission to develop technology that could support information architecture. This group would go on to eventually lead the way for the field of human computer interaction and spearhead innovative contributions, including a user friendly interface the first WYSIWYG text editor.

IA Taking the World Stage

The 1990s saw the first wave of modern information architects who were specialists in not only information science, but also user focused development. In 1998, a book called Information Architecture for the World Wide Web written by Peter Morville & Louis Rosenfeld became an instant bestseller. This book was intended for a technology audience presenting frameworks for designing and organizing the information within complex websites. It became so popular that it was named technology book of the year by Amazon, and the world was now fully exposed to the concept information architecture.

Building towards the future and beyond

Around 2005, users began taking on IA tasks themselves and heavily contributing to the structuring of the information for the world wide web. The popularity of wikis and blogs allowed users to act as producers, while creating and tagging content. At the same time, mobile devices were coming into their own into the computer world. IA was moving into new territory — beyond the web. This marked a new stage in IA — information became ubiquitous, and with that, came the need to address the design of these spaces as pervasive forces. It’s hard to say what IA will look like in 5, 10, or 20 years, but there is no doubt that it will be much different, especially when considering developing fields such as virtual reality (VR), AR, smartwatches and glasses, and other new formats of information.

Though, there is one thing that will remain — the mission of the information architect: to achieve an appropriate balance between inspiration, utility and delight, combining the use ontology, taxonomy, and choreography in order to make the complex clear in a world of vast information and data.

Sources:

  1. Information Architecture by Dan Klyn https://vimeo.com/8866160
  2. Information Architecture Lesson by DesignLab
  3. The History of Information Architecture — https://dynomapper.com/blog/19-ux/187-history-of-information-architecture
  4. Complete Beginner’s Guide to Information Architecture — http://www.uxbooth.com/articles/complete-beginners-guide-to-information-architecture/
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