History & Origins of Information Architecture

What do you think of when you hear “Information Architecture”? Are you preoccupied with thoughts of wireframes or does a simple image of a polar bear come to mind? You may be surprised by how prevalent information architecture, or IA, is in your own life. IA is defined by the Information Architecture Institute as follows;

“We define information architecture as the art and science of organizing and labeling websites, intranets, online communities and software to support usability.”

But where does this concept of information architecture come from?

The notion of modern information architecture was introduced by Richard Saul Wurman. Richard Saul Wurman was an architect and graphic designer and later the creator of the now highly regarded and viewed TED conference. In 1976, during an address to the American Institute of Architecture, Wurman spoke of the idea of the architecture of information. Wurman’s focus on the presentation of information eventually led to the opening of The Understanding Business and later the 1996 release of his book “Information Architects”.

Just 2 years after the release of Richard Sual Wurman’s book, “Information Architecture the World Wide Web” by Peter Movile and Louis Rosenfeld was published. This book was aimed at managing, organizing, and navigating information in the new environment of the world wide web. This book quickly became a best seller. There have been a number of editions throughout the years, continually redefining the dynamic world of technologically based information architecture.

The cover that brings back a wave of 90’s nostalgia

“Understanding is a path, not a point. It’s a path of connections between thought and thought; patterns over patterns.” -Richard Saul Wurman

The definition of modern information architecture has evolved since its initial conception. Although there isn’t one concise and definitive definition of information architecture, through years of research there have been fundamentals that are thought to define good IA. Information architecture can be broken down into the interplay of the principles of ontology, taxonomy, and choreography.

Ontology is concerned with the particular meaning of the content. Ontology is all about context. Designers need to be able to determine and recognize how the use of language suggests certain meaning to themselves and how that language may be confusing to others.

Taxonomy considers the arrangement of the elements to achieve specific goals within contexts. The arrangement is accomplished by using classification and hierarchy.

Choreography fosters specific types of movement and interaction anticipating the way users and information want to flow. This user flow should engage the user and not distract them from their goal.

This progression from meaning of content (ontology) to arrangement of elements (taxonomy) to the flow of the users interaction with the information (choreography) combine to form the foundations of information architecture.

It’s hard to postulate about the future of information architecture, especially that I am new to design and the field is quickly progressing. Knowing that its definition has developed and evolved since its fairly recent conception in the 70’s proves it’s not going to be a stagnant concept.