The History of Information Architecture

Last Edited January 24, 2018 by Garenne Bigby in UX

History of Information Architecture

Information architecture, otherwise known as IA, is a field of study and professional practice that focuses on finding a solution for basic problems of accessing and using the large amount of information available on the Internet today. It is commonly spoken about in connection with web design, wireframes, labels, and taxonomies. Some people may argue that information architecture is not simply a science, but an applied art or industrial design. This is because it is, for the most part, a production activity, or craft, and it is dependent upon an inductive process and set of guidelines, best practices, and professional expertise.

The modern use of the term information architecture is strictly related to the design of information now, but in the mid-1970s Richard Saul Wurman addressed the American Institute of architecture using the term "information" together with the term "architecture". In 1964, 12 years before this address, an IBM research paper defines architecture as "The conceptual structure and functional behavior, distinguishing the organization of data flows and controls, logical design, and physical implementation".

It is obvious that it is computer architecture that is being talked about with the inclusion of disks, boxes, hubs, and wires, but the way that these individuals have abstracted and conceptualize the term architecture as a relating to structure and behavior, not just physical layout, has paved the way for the subsequent used in other areas of computing. In short—architecture is starting to span beyond a physical base.

A couple years later in 1970 at the Xerox Palo Alto research Center, a congregation of people who specialize and information science was assembled and then they were given the permission to develop technology that could support information architecture. This group of people is responsible for numerous contributions in the field known today as human computer interaction. Their contributions include the very first personal computer with laser printing, a user friendly interface, and the first WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) text editor.

Xerox was one of the first corporation that addressed to the notion of information structure and it used "elegant and inspiring phraseology, the architecture of information" to define the new corporate mission.

In order to complete a broader vision, high-level framing became necessary. High level framing stayed one of the main concept for those who shared information about information architecture up until the mid-1980s. The 1990s came with the first wave of modern information architects who were specialist in not only information science, but also user focused development.

In the mid-1980s, information architecture seemed to go through a stagnant time, and during this the notion of information architecture as the structure of complex or dynamically changing information was lost to a view that was much more similar to that of information systems. It can be seen in articles from that time, writers referred to information architecture as a tool to help with the formation and design of computer infrastructures and layers of data, with a broader emphasis on business and organizational aspects of information networks.

Interestingly enough, most of the design deliverables that are associated with information architecture today are actually an artefact of this wavering period. The blueprints, information categories, requirements, guidelines on the primary business processes, and global corporate needs all make their way into territory of information architecture in the 1980s. These tools will be permanently incorporated it into the information architecture toolkit by the late 1990s and a wave that was led by Rosenfeld and Morville.

Ronda León described this in his geographical chronology of information architecture which identified key books, conferences, and papers. He introduces a three-part development hypothesis that spanned about 30 years. The two early phases included information design for the 1960s and 1970s and system design in the 1980s. The first two were integrated into what the modern mainstream knew as information architecture from the 1990s until now.

It would seem fair to say that the early view on information architecture that was developed from PARC, the IBM papers, and Wurman's initial vision that was still forming when The World Wide Web emerged and provided a chance for pioneer professionals to operate with the large amounts of data through new media that did not have pre-existing corporate hierarchies. In 1998, a book published by Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville about information architecture and the World Wide Web hit store shelves, and the world was now exposed to information architecture.

history of ia

Approaches to Information Architecture

R.S. Wurman declared why he calls himself an information architect: he does not use the term architect to mean a brick-and-mortar architect, he meant it in the same way in which you can be an architect of foreign-policy or the like. The word architect holds the meaning of creating structural, systematic, and orderly principles to make something work. This can be the proper making of an idea, policy, or artifact that informs. The word information is then used in its truest sense.

In a slightly revised scheme first outlined by Ronda León, there are three incessant periods in the timeline that effectively translate to three very different, very broad, and partially overlying approaches that characterize the research and practice of IA so far. The fact that differentiates them is the way that they work with information—dynamically, statically, and as a resource. Both the information science and the information design approach to information architecture see the information given as a raw material to use for making artifacts, and the information system approach to information architecture does not. Roger and Elaine Evernden wrote a passage in their book titled Information First, that information architecture is "a foundation discipline describing the theory, principles, guidelines, standard conventions and factors for managing information as a resource".

Managing information for the better enterprise-wide consumption is used as the focus, while the idea of design, and creation is almost completely absent.

Information Design Information Design

Richard Saul Wurman's initial vision and contribution corresponds roughly with the information design approach. For Wurman, architecture and design are the basis for an art and science of creating instruction for organized space, and for making it understandable. He maintained that even though architects were expected to create structure and order for the world via planning and development, information architects are expected to draw lines and create some sort of order and data space, with the main task being to make this information more simple, direct, and more comprehensible.

During this time Wurman gave a precise definition of information architecture, and this definition still holds up today: "1. the individual who organizes the patterns and parents and data, making the complex clear 2. a person who creates the structure or map of information which allows others to find their personal paths to knowledge. 3. the emerging 21st-century professional occupation addressing the needs of the age focused upon clarity, human understanding, and the science of the organization of information."

Wurman was likely only concerned with the static and visual design of large quantities of information, and his vision was a major source of inspiration in the initial modern reframing of the field, when information architecture took to designing information on the web. Wurman confessed that he did not have any interest in creating a new field or profession or publicizing his ideas to a new audience. He was very surprised and slightly upset when he found out what exactly his pattern finding activities produced.

nformation Systems Information Systems

The information systems approach is connected to the research advanced in the 1980s and the logic of what is identified today as business informatics and information systems, this would be how to resolve problems of information management surrounding a larger business vision, or logistic need that will drive organization being the primary concern.

The semantic shift toward the user experience followed the publication of Rosenfeld and Morville', first book, and it made information systems information architecture stance vitally important. It is still prominent in large corporate settings that use conceptual friction and is mostly considered less relevant and synonymous with website development.

Gena Leganza has reported on information architecture and published a 2010 research paper that represents these views. The document explains how an IA role is mostly an IT function, whose main task is to allow consistent access to correct data, but does go on to consider that within an enterprise hierarchy, it could be better served by two diverse roles, one that will be the enterprise IA and the other one being web IA. Leganza does state that there is value in how IA helps to structure the enterprise information, but this is not evident too many enterprise architects.

Information Systems Information Science

This approach is best represented by Morville and Rosenfeld's initial take on the arena, and they were not familiar with Wurman's work at the time. In 2004, Rosenfeld and Morville admitted that they arrived at the point where they used the metaphor of architecture to their clients when explaining the value of structure and organization when designing a website. They were both writing about Information Architecture in a magazine, and soon found the book titled Information Architects (written by Wurman) in their office. Upon reading the book, Morville declared that what Wurman was describing was not information architecture, but information design. Not only accurate, but also insightful. While their view was focused only on the new dynamic that now included the internet, the view that Wurman outlined was not internet based, but the main points were organization, navigation, labeling, and search. Rosenfeld admits to finding these points important for helping people find and manage information with more success.

A few years later, they remarked that the actual difference between their views of information architecture was that for them, it was more about the design in regards to the pages of the site including the links, connections, structure, etc. and Wurman seemed to be concerned more with the layout of the pages themselves, rather than the workings of the pages.

Rosenfeld and Morville should be credited for bringing to light many methods for design of navigation, site structure, and labeling. They brought to the community a very practical and empirical approach, and offered user and usability research engineering to the center of now mainstream information architecture tools. Over the course of the years, their views on the subject have developed but the originative idea of IA is still menus, taxonomies, and structures.

Pervasive Information Architecture Pervasive Information Architecture

Rosenfeld and Morville saw much success in the 90s and 2000s, when information architecture was used interchangeably with web site design. Around 2005, users were coming into the scene as producers and tagging content, while mobile devices were coming into their own into the computer world.

A persistent tie has kept IA threaded in creating web-only content, and this is true if moving to research in LIS. The reasoning behind it is that new problems will always arise, and IA was moving to new territory—beyond the web. What was once sufficient for unsophisticated hypertext systems in the 90s was no longer enough. Mobile devices needed to be connected while on the move. This marked a new stage in information architecture. IA became permeating—starting to address the design of these information spaces as a course, and opened the conversation of this omnipresent computing design. The information architect needs to recognize, gather, organize, and present information in the form of tasks similar to those that an architect would face when designing a building.

Society is progressively experiencing the world through one or more disembodied self, and we live in a world where the relationships we keep with people, objects, places, and companies are molded by linguistics and more than physical proximity. Digital identities become lasting even when we are not directly in front of the computer or mobile device, reshaping reality. On the other hand, it is necessary to reform information architecture to be able to better serve growing needs. It is hard to say what IA will look like in 5 years, but there is no doubt that it will be much different.




Additional Resources:

Information architecture - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Complete Beginner’s Guide to Information Architecture

Information Architecture Basics

What is Information Architecture?

Garenne Bigby
Author: Garenne BigbyWebsite:
Founder of DYNO Mapper and Advisory Committee Representative at the W3C.

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