History & Origins of Information Architecture

Vita Jay Schweighart

Information architecture (IA) focuses on solving the problems of information accessibility online and in the real world. Challenges exist when people are exposed to vast quantities of information. Good IA ensures that the data a user needs is accessible, useful, timely and clearly understandable. IA is commonly associated with best practices when designing web sites, but the concepts of findability, credibility, and value are not new. The perception behind the term now known as information architecture began to emerge years ago.

In 1964 an IBM research paper entitled “Architecture of the IBM System/360” (Amdahl et al 1964) referred to architecture as it related to computers. The concept related to abstract ideas rather than physical spaces. In the mid-1970s Richard Saul Wurman used the terms “information” and “architecture” together at an American Institute of Architecture conference. In 1970, an information scientist group was formed at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) to develop the “architecture of information” (Pake 1985) — what we may now consider to be human-computer interaction.

In the 1980s the concept did not develop much beyond the realm of computer and data frameworks. Ronda León developed a hypothesis that describes the development of the IA concept from information design in the 1960s-70s, to system design in the 1980s, and finally into information architecture — managing information for improved general use.

Morville and Rosenfeld (co-authors of Information Architecture for the World Wide Web) embraced the practice of information architecture in the 90s-2000s during which the term was closely associated with website design. By 2005 users became producers as mobile devices developed and allowed tagged content. Physical distances continued to decrease in importance even as ties with other people and places grew stronger. The architecture needed was not a physical kind, but was still related to the physical world. As defined by the Information Architecture Institute: “Information architecture is about helping people understand their surroundings and find what they’re looking for, in the real world as well as online.” The concept has expanded beyond the conceptual boundaries of websites and applications.

Developing logical navigation systems, site maps, and categorizations are practices of the information architect, but may also may be useful to the content strategist or designer as well. The primary concerns center around flow of information and how it helps the user. Psychology becomes involved when we realize how people structure information. A user should not be overloaded with excessive information at one time, overwhelming their cognitive load capabilities. Information should be located in a place that makes sense to the user and matches their mental models — or assumptions — about website interactions. The cognitive process of decision making should be made easier as material is presented in a logical order. Writing for Wired Magazine, author Gary Wolf states “the presentation of information can be more important than the information itself.”

The information architect has tools at their disposal for helping create an appealing and intentional experience. Through the processes of user research and analysis, navigation and hierarchy creation, wireframing, labeling, taxonomies and metadata, and data modeling, the Information Architect develops a sense of the target audience, the data that should be included in the website, and the technology relevant to the project. As technology develops and users’ need change, information architecture will change as well. Methods to keep information useful and accessible continue to develop as the need arises.

Journal of Information Architecture


The History of Information Architecture


Complete Beginner’s Guide to Information Architecture