Information Is Beautiful and Necessary
Information architecture (IA) deserves a lot of love. Beautiful things, learning, and having fun, IA is all of these.
What is it?
Though we know a good infographic when we see it, information architecture is somewhat tricky to define. The best definition I’ve heard comes from Dan Klyn at Michigan:
“IA is the thoughtful contriving of ontology, taxonomy and choreography in the service of utility and delight, making the complex clear.”
Richard Wurman, a forerunner in IA and the founder of TED, offers another nice definition of the field in his 1976 book Information Architects:
“[Information architecture is] 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.”
Boiled down, information architecture uses principles from brick-and-mortar architecture to make traversing concepts easy and fun.
A Tiny History of IA
The history of IA is a bit different depending on who you ask. The Journal of Information Architecture takes the concept back to the early ’70s, when the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) started working on on ‘the architecture of information’ in the arena of human-computer interaction. Dan Klyn cites 1976 as the birth year of information architecture, when the architect Richard Wurman (bettern known as the father of TED) made a presentation at the 1976 AIA Conference called ‘the Architecture of Information’. Fast forward 20 years when Wurman wrote Information Architects in 1996.
Regardless of who you ask, 1998 was the ‘boom’ year for information architecture, when the term began to get popular traction. In that year, ‘Information Architecture for the WWW’ was Amazon’s best selling technology book, and the book has made it into several new editions.
In A Galaxy of Data
These days, information is everywhere, oodles and oodles of it. We have more data than we know what to do with. Thankfully, the information architects of the world are working hard to help us navigate, absorb and make sense of it all.
Take Wikipedia, for example. I love Wikipedia and how easy it is to slide effortlessly from concept to concept. When I was a kid, I wasn’t really into using the encyclopedia, but I can use Wikipedia for hours, because Wikipedia’s architecture makes learning the same content easier, more fun, and more intuitive. Check out Wikiverse for a visual representation of the wonders of Wikipedia’s linked structure.
All Hail the Infographic
To me, the purest example of the spirit of information architecture is found in the infographic (also known as a data visualization or data viz). With such a heavy load of information to make sense of in today’s world, infographics compel us to reach greater understanding of complex topics. Data journalists rely heavily on infographics to communicate pertinent information to their readership. This is so important for maintaining an educated citizenry, which is basically what keeps the wheels of democracy turning. Data journalists are like the civic architects of IA.
Tell Me Again
In the current moment, information architecture seems pretty crucial to our social development. Not convinced? Check out the video below featuring data viz badass David McCandless. Microsoft made it so it’s an ad for Excel, but watch it anyway!