Organizing things

The world is full of things. How you organize them depends on what you want to do.

The much-revered information designer Richard Saul Wurman, author of Information Anxiety and Information Architects, has introduced a concept for organizing information that he calls LATCH. LATCH stands for the five ways he says that information can be organized: Location, Alphabet, Time, Category, Hierarchy.

Mr. Wurman’s claim is that any information can be organized according to the principles above, and I agree. However I believe an even simpler schema is possible, even preferable, to LATCH.

I first discovered this in a conversation with my brother Rick, who is a research scientist. He told me that scientists like to organize information into something he called “orthagonal categories.” Categories are orthagonal when they are both mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive (Sometimes abbreviated as MECE).

One problem with LATCH is that the categories are not mutually exclusive. Information that’s organized in alphabetical order, for example, can be seen as belonging to three of the above schemas: alphabet, category (Each letter of the alphabet is a category) and hierarchy (Alphabetical order is hierarchical).

It would be helpful if we could define categories that are both collectively exhaustive (as LATCH is) and mutually exclusive. Mutually exclusive categories are a necessary precondition if we want to develop rules of composition, or methods for finding the best way to organize information based on a given goal.

The world is full of things. How you organize them depends on what you want to do.

Before you can organize any information you must have a problem or goal. The human perceptual system is by nature selective and goal-oriented. If you are hungry enough, you will divide all the information in the world into two categories: Things that are edible and things that are inedible.

When you set a goal, your perceptual system primes itself to notice things that are relevant to that goal (a phenomenon known as priming). The best way to define a knowledge goal is to define a question that describes the knowledge that you are missing. For example, if you want to design a better mobile device, you might ask,

“What kinds of things do I do when I am out and about, and what information could better support those activities?”

You can see how the kind of question you ask already begins to limit the kinds of information you might collect.

There are only three ways to organize information.

In some sense, the entire world is made up of information, and the beginning of organizing is to collect, from the infinite possibilities available, the set of information you choose to work with, in order to support a given goal.

Before you begin, you can think of the universe of possible information as both infinite and random. This is not a theological statement but a way to think about possibilities.

By infinite, I mean that the number of ways that you could potentially break down the information is limited only by your imagination.

By random, I mean that there is no inherent way that the information is organized. In principle, you can impose any organizing scheme you wish, based on what you are trying to do.

Because it’s a beginning state, I don’t think of “random” as a principle for organizing information. However, in practice you will often encounter information that has already been organized, arranged or structured by someone else.

Any organizing schema will have built-in assumptions about what is relevant or important, which may not always apply to your goal.

In such cases, “randomizing” the information can be a useful and valid principle, because it will help you better approximate a beginning state and give you a more “blank canvas” upon which you can begin your work.

Organizing principle 1: Sequence.

Organizing by sequence sorts information according to some kind of value. This could be numerical value (1, 2, 3), relative importance (high, medium, low), difficulty (easy, moderate, difficult), or time (beginning, middle, end).

Any items that can be sorted by value can be arranged sequentially — by putting them in order. A story is a way of arranging information in time according to what matters — the point of the story.

The way to organize by sequence is to define a linear scale, based on what is important in a given context. Anything that can be arranged according to value can be arranged along a range which goes from least important to most important.

Arrange information sequentially by asking: “In what order?”

Organizing principle 2: Comparison.

Organizing by comparison sorts information into categories, according to similarities and differences. Any category, by definition, is selective. Even a grocery list, which may seem random, is a category defined by the common thread of things that I need from the grocery store.

The way to organize information by comparison is to sort them into categories that make sense based on the context of what you are trying to accomplish. Based on a given context, say, “Is it edible?”, any two bits of information can be compared and their similarities and differences analyzed.

Arrange information into categories by asking : “Compared to what?”

Organizing principle 3: System.

Organizing by system arranges information according to its connections and interrelationships. A map, for example, organizes visual elements so that you can determine where things are relative to everything else.

The operative method for organizing information by system is relationship. Based on a given context, relationships and connections can be explored to flesh out a holistic understanding of a larger system.

Arrange information systemically by asking: “What are the relationships?”

Combining methods leads to insight.

You can combine these organizing principles to generate insights. There are an infinite number of possible combinations, but you can generate many possibilities by remembering to ask these three questions:

  1. In what order?
  2. Compared to what?
  3. What are the relationships?

Now I have a question for you: What can you discover?

Dave Gray is the founder of XPLANE and author of Gamestorming.

Originally published in Marks and Meaning, version 0.5, 2009. Revised and updated.