Information Architecture: Building Meaningful Information with Data

This is big data. Can you find what you’re looking for?

What is Information Architecture?

If Architecture is the practice of designing and constructing buildings. Information architecture (IA), similarly, is the practice of designing and constructing in the 2D. Richard Saul Wurman is credited with coining the term “information architecture”. He defines IA as:

“The art of expressing a model or concept of information used in activities that require explicit details of complex systems. These activities include library systems, Content Management Systems, web development, user interactions, database development, programming, technical writing, enterprise architecture, and critical system software design.” (3)

IA brings the principles of design and architecture to the digital landscape. Many IA principals come from The Bauhaus (meaning house of building in German), which was the most influential modernist art school of the 20th century, one whose approach to teaching, and understanding art’s relationship to society and technology still has a major impact long after its closing. The Bauhaus stressed uniting art and industrial design, and it was this which ultimately proved to be its most original and important achievement.

Modern Architecture, with Bauhaus inspired elements (6)

Information architects took a few critical lessons from the Bauhaus. A few of the most important principles: form should always reflect and enhance function. Utility comes first. Never sacrifice your message for your design. Focus on readability, narrative, and information first, artistic flair and frills second. Use your design to reinforce your message, never the other way around.(4)

Why is IA Important?

Good IA is what makes navigating the internet easy and enjoyable. Users can find what they’re looking for when the information is organized and accessible. When navigating a website, as opposed to a physical place, there is no sense of scale, direction or location. Users depend on the categorization, taxonomies, hierarchies, and the navigation of sites to find what they’re looking for. In the words of Steve Krug:

“Navigation isn’t just a feature of web sites, it is the web site. In the same way that the building shelves, and the cash register are Sears. Without it, there’s no there there.” (5)

Information architects are interested in mapping data. All data can be seen as maps. A map is just a pattern made understandable. With the huge amount of data available online we need maps and filters to navigate to the information we want. Filters allow us to see patterns and understand data on a human level. IA filters the data to make it understandable. Most of the data we get is not understanding. Computers process data, people understand information.

Poorly designed architecture leads to a poor user experience. (7)

We are able to navigate websites easily because of conventional interpretations of the symbols and placement. We expect to find the navigation menu and search bar at the top of a webpage. If it were at the bottom of the page users would get confused. They would get frustrated with the website because the information they were looking for was not easily accessible. There are many standards that are recognized internationally, the USB (Universal Serial Bus) is replacing the plethora different of cables and connectors found on older machines. In order to have a conversation and understand each other, we first need to be speaking the same language. Once we understand each other’s words we can begin to understand each other’s ideas, and that’s when incredible things start to happen. In IA these standards come in the form of labeling systems, navigation and search systems. These standards facilitate communication, understanding, and ease of use.

The Future of Information Architecture

The only thing we can say with absolute certainty, things will change. If we take a look back at the technology and methods in which we organized information 20 years ago, we can easily see the advancement in information architecture. Many of the hot, new technologies from 20 years ago are obsolete now.

The leaders in technology and innovation today will probably not be the same in another 20 years. What does remain the same are people and human behavior. All technology is designed by and for people. No matter how advanced technology becomes, we, humans, must be able to interact with it. We must be able to take the data from machines and make information that is usable to people.


(1)Video: “Explaining Information Architecture”:

PDF of above video w/transcript:

(2)2012 Interview with Richard Saul Wurman:

(3) Information Architecture:

(4) Bauhaus Movement:

(5) Krug, Steve. “Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web and Mobile Usability

(6) Image source:

(7) Image source: