A Brief History of Information Architecture

Wikipedia defines IA as the art and science of organizing and labelling data to support usability within websites, intranets, online communities, software, books, and other mediums of information. The term itself was coined by Richard Wurman in the 1970s to encompass the groundbreaking concept of giving structure to information in order to yield clarity. Richard Wurman was said to be ahead of his time when sharing his ideas surrounding IA; he eventually published a book called Information Architects that speaks to a profession of people who organize data into logical maps that direct human understanding.

The concept of navigating vast amounts of information in an accessible way was further developed and applied to larger systems as the internet era pervaded; Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville published a book called Information Architecture for the World Wide Web which served as a framework and defining force in the relationship between IA and complex websites.

Very famously, Rosenfeld and Morville later explained that the difference they could identify between their work and Wurman’s was that for them, information architecture was the design of what was between the pages of a website, meaning the links, the structure, the connections, while for Wurman, it seemed to be the design of the pages themselves or information design.

Tying together the work of Wurman, Rosenfeld, and Moville — among other prominent ideas — are 3 pillars of IA: ontology, taxonomy, and choreography. Effective IA depends on the interplay between the meaning of the product’s elements (ontology), the arrangement of its parts (taxonomy), and the interaction or flow among its parts (choreography). On a practical level, this means making decisions around organization, labeling, search, and navigation.

The concept of information architecture is in many ways derivative of concepts within librarianship and therefore, can feel mammoth-like to distill. Ultimately, good IA helps people easily orient, navigate, and find what they’re looking for. In closing, I find this definition by Professor Dan Kyln helpful in summing up IA as a whole as it speaks to the art and science that undergirds it:

Information architecture is the thoughtful contriving between ontology, taxonomy, and choreography in the service of utility and delight, making the complex, clear.