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Information Architecture

Copyright © 2000 by R. E. Wyllys


This lesson discusses ideas associated with the phrase "information architecture" and relates them to aspects of the library- and information-science (LIS) professions.

Origin of the Phrase, "Information Architecture"

The phrase "information architecture" appears to have been coined, or at least brought to wide attention, by Richard Saul Wurman, a man trained as an architect but who has become also a skilled graphic designer and the author, editor, and/or publisher of numerous books that employ fine graphics in the presentation of information in a variety of fields. In the 1960s, early in his career as an architect, he became interested in matters concerning the ways in which buildings, transport, utilities, and people worked and interacted with each other in urban environments. This led him to develop further interests in the ways in which information about urban environments could be gathered, organized, and presented in meaningful ways to architects, to urban planners, to utility and transport engineers, and especially to people living in or visiting cities. The similarity of these interests to the concerns of the LIS professions is patent.

Wurman views architecture as the science and art of creating an "instruction for organized space." (See Endnote 1.) He sees the problems of gathering, organizing, and presenting information as closely analogous to the problems an architect faces in designing a building that will serve the needs of its occupants. The architect must

  • ascertain those needs (i.e., must gather information about the needs),
  • organize the needs into a coherent pattern that clarifies their nature and interactions, and
  • design a building that will--by means of its rooms, fixtures, machines, and layout, i.e., flow of people and materials--meet the occupants' needs.

In short, Wurman sees the gathering, organizing, and presenting information to serve a purpose, or set of purposes, as an architectural task.

In 1976 Wurman served as the chair of the national conference of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and chose as "The Architecture of Information" as the conference theme. It is a curious historical coincidence that the AIA held a conference with this theme just 100 years after the first meeting of the American Library Association. He developed the following definition:

"information architect. 1) the individual who organizes the patterns inherent in 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." (See Endnote 2.)

Information Architecture Emphasizing Graphic Design

Although much of Wurman's definition is directly applicable to what we people in the LIS professions see ourselves as doing, it is clear that Wurman emphasizes the presenting of information as the essence of what an information architect does. It is also clear that his vision of information architecture is colored by his own powers as an artist and graphic designer. He sees an information architect especially as one who can abstract the essentials from a complex situation or body of information and present those essentials in a clear and esthetically pleasing manner to a user. An illustration of this view is Wurman's abstracted representation of the Toyko rail transportation system (Endnote 3):

In this abstract map, Wurman shows:

  1. the stations (the bold white type inside the circle) on the outer rail lines of the Tokyo transportation system, largely ignoring the actual geography of the system while emphasizing the most important matter to a person riding the subway: viz., what the sequence of stations is
  2. a selection of principal buildings or tourist sights (in regular type outside the circle) near each station
  3. the stations on the crosstown subway line
  4. the junctions between the crosstown subway and the outer rail lines
  5. as an aid to orientation, the Imperial Palace Grounds.

Note the elegant incorporation into the whole map of the yin-yang design, important in oriental philosophy.

As another example of similar abstraction, on the right is a map of the Orange Dillo Route (Endnote 4) in Austin, Texas, operated by the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Again you can see that the designer of the map has concentrated on presenting the essential information about the route. Geography is partially represented, but the scale varies in different parts of the map, and only the names of principal streets are shown. The actual stops along the Dillo Route are indicated by white numerals inside black circles. A few major possible destinations are shown as aids to orientation.

This Capital Metro map serves its purposes well, though no one would claim that it displays the artistic elegance of Wurman's map of the Tokyo rail transportation system. While few of us possess Wurman's artistic ability, we can all strive toward his goal of "making the complex clear."

Information Explosion or Information Tsunami?

Wurman is gifted not only graphically but also verbally. I cannot resist quoting some of his "Introduction" to Information Architects. He writes:

There is a tsunami of data that is crashing onto the beaches of the civilized world. This is a tidal wave of unrelated, growing data formed in bits and bytes, coming in an unorganized, uncontrolled, incoherent cacophony of foam. It's filled with flotsam and jetsam. It's filled with the sticks and bones and shells of inanimate and animate life. None of it is easily related, none of it comes with any organizational methodology.

As it washes up on our beaches, we see people in suits and ties skipping along the shoreline, men and women in fine shirts and blouses dressed for business. We see graphic designers and government officials, all getting their shoes wet and slowly submerging in the dense trough of stuff. Their trousers and slacks soaked, they walk stupidly into the water, smiling-a false smile of confidence and control. The tsunami is a wall of data--data produced at greater and greater speed, greater and greater amounts to store in memory, amounts that double, it seems, with each sunset. On tape, on disks, on paper, sent by streams of light. Faster, more and more and more.

Some of these people go back to their desks where, folded back and forth like accordions, are gobs of paper printouts of this stuff. They nod their heads and say "Yes, this is important, this is good stuff. The person sitting next to me, sitting in the next office down the aisle, they understand it, so I will smile, making believe I understand it too.". . . .

Unfortunately, design, which used to be a perfectly good word, means to make something look better for most people. A company invents or develops some new piece of electronic hardware. When it is finished it calls in a designer to wrap it up in a nice package. Then the company gets an engineer who understands how it works to write the instruction booklet. He suffers from the disease of familiarity, and so few customers really learn how to use the product. The designer picks the typefaces in that booklet and (maybe) puts a cover on it. The designer is not involved in the use, organization, or understanding of the instructions, except tangentially to make it easy to read. The designer is called in to make a magazine article look better, or an illustrator is asked to make a picture look arresting, or a photographer is asked to take an interesting view of an author or a subject. Nowhere are any of these designers used in the fundamental sense of creating meaning or understanding.

That's why I've chosen to call myself an Information Architect. I don't mean a bricks and mortar architect. I mean architect as used in the words architect of foreign policy. I mean architect as in the creating of systemic, structural, and orderly principles to make something work--the thoughtful making of either artifact, or idea, or policy that informs because it is clear. I use the word information in its truest sense. Most of the word information contains the word inform, so I call things information only if they inform me, not if they are just collections of data, of stuff.

If I throw 140,000 words on the floor and connect those words with a sentence or two, we wouldn't call that a dictionary. A dictionary, or an encyclopedia, or many of the collections of data in our world, are based on being able to find something. The ability to find something goes hand-in-hand with how well it's organized. We choose to organize the dictionary alphabetically, and for most of us, most of the time, that's a useful organizing principle. . . .

As I looked into the organization of information, I realized that there were only five ways to do it. They can be remembered by the acronym LATCH: L) by location, A) by alphabet, T) organized by time (many museum shows are organized by timeline; the famous Charlie Eames Franklin and Jefferson timeline of those two great men was probably one of the best ever devised), C) by category (. . . it's the way department stores are organized), and H) by hierarchy, from the largest to the smallest of something, from the reddest to the lightest red, from the densest to the least dense, and so on. The primary choice of which way you organize something is made by deciding how you want it to be found.

These are all examples of information architecture: the building of information structures that allow others to understand. But, the structures of information go well beyond basic organization. Many principles of clarity can be employed. For example, you only understand something new relative to something you already understand, whether visually, verbally, or numerically. Something will have an understandable size if it is related to the size of something you know. This is easy to see when viewing a photograph of a building that seems to have no human scale. Or visiting a painting and being surprised by its size, because all the reproductions of it are not relative to a human being. Scale always relates to us.

Wurman has much more to say about what he believes should be the guiding principles for information architects in his book, Information Architects (Endnote 1), as do his numerous fellow contributors to the book. Together, they make it a masterpiece of examples of information design, primarily in the sense of excellent graphics.

Another of Wurman's many books is Information Anxiety (Endnote 5), a work in which he discusses other aspects of the information explosion in a useful way. Delightfully idiosyncratic in its organization, the book is, inter alia, a vehicle for Wurman to display some of his nontraditional ideas about exposition. He begins the book by saying: "Books are a major source of information anxiety, and I'd like to ensure that you won't feel anxious about reading this one. So, I've departed from the conventional book format in ways that I think will reduce your book-induced anxieties." (A new edition of this book, Information Anxiety 2, was published at the end of 2000.)

Information Architecture in LIS

From the viewpoint of the LIS professions, the ideas of information architecture add a fillip of graphic design and fresh thinking to a base of practice with which the professions have long been concerned. Since the beginning of writing, librarians have understood the importance of selectively acquiring information and organizing it in ways that will facilitate later access to the information by users. Librarians have understood far better than most people that by no means can anyone anticipate today all the possible future needs for the information being acquired and organized today and, hence, that tools must be provided to facilitate a variety of future uses.

In short, librarians have long understood and practiced the principles that Wurman has labeled as "information architecture." Nevertheless, his fresh, innovative, and artistic exposition of the ideas of information architecture is welcome and should be studied by LIS professionals.

Recently, information architecture has taken on something of a connotation of applying especially to the organization of information on the World-Wide Web. This may be due in part to the opportunities that have arisen during the 1990s to rethink the presentation of library-catalog information as this information has been moved into online public-access catalogs (OPACs), and in part to the proliferation of information on the Web itself.

An excellent presentation of this aspect of information architecture is a book, Information Architecture for the World Wide Web (see Endnote 6), written by two librarians, Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville, who have built a business, Argus Associates, that specializes in the design of Websites. In their book, they emphasize that they "talk about web sites. Not web pages, not home pages. Web sites." They do so because they are concerned with the presentation of information in the whole of a Website, with how the pages within the site relate to each other, and with how the viewer is permitted and/or directed to navigate his or her way around the site.

Despite their concentration on the Web, much of Rosenfeld's and Morville's advice applies not just to Websites but to all collections of information. For example, they say that the first consideration in designing a Website should be to prepare a definition of "what the site will actually be, and how it will work" (their italics). Continuing, they declare that formulating such a definition is

the main job of the information architect, who:

  • Clarifies the mission and vision for the site, balancing the needs of its sponsoring organization and the needs of its audiences.
  • Determines what content and functionality the site will contain.
  • Specifies how users will find information in the site by defining its organization, navigation, labeling, and searching systems.
  • Maps out how the site will accommodate change and growth over time.

Although these sound obvious, information architecture is really about what's not obvious. Users don't notice the information architecture of a site unless it isn't working. When they do notice good architectural features within a site, they instead attribute these successes to something else, like high-quality graphic design or a well-configured search engine. Why? When you read or hear about web site design, the language commonly used pertains to pages, graphic elements, technical features, and writing style. However, no terms adequately describe the relationships among the intangible elements that constitute a web site's architecture. The elements of information architecture-navigation systems, labeling systems, organization systems, indexing, searching methods, metaphors are the glue that holds together a web site and allows it to evolve smoothly.

You should try rewriting the preceding paragraph substituting the words "library" or "information center" for their word "site," and substituting words like "catalog," "directory," and "call number" for their words "pages, graphic elements, technical features, and writing style." When you make such substitutions, you will see that Rosenfeld and Morville could equally well have been talking about how to organize the information-access tools and the information-bearing entities (InBEs) in a library or information center.

Rosenfeld and Morville continue by saying:

Well-planned information architectures greatly benefit both consumers and producers. Accessing a site for the first time, consumers can quickly understand it effortlessly. They can quickly find the information they need, thereby reducing the time (and costs) wasted on both finding information and not finding information. Producers of web sites and intranets benefit because they know where and how to place new content without disrupting the existing content and site structure. Perhaps most importantly, producers can use an information architecture to greatly minimize the politics that come to the fore during the development of a web site.

Consumers, or users as we more commonly refer to them, want to find information quickly and easily. Contrary to what you might conclude from observing the architectures of many large, corporate web sites, users do not like to get lost in chaotic hypertextual webs. Poor information architectures make busy users confused, frustrated, and angry.

Because different users have varying needs, it's important to support multiple modes of finding information. Some users know exactly what they're looking for. They know what it's called (or labeled), and they know it exists. They just want to find it and leave, as quickly and painlessly as possible. This is called known-item searching.

Other users do not know what they're looking for. They come to the site with a vague idea of the information they need. They may not know the right labels to describe what they want or even whether it exists. As they casually explore your site, they may learn about products or services that they'd never even considered. Iteratively, through serendipity and associative learning, they may leave your site with knowledge (or products) that they hadn't known they needed.

These modes of finding information are not mutually exclusive. In a well designed system, many users will switch between known-item searching and casual browsing as they explore the site. If you care about the consumer, make sure your architecture supports both modes. While attractive graphics and reliable wish list technologies are essential to user satisfaction, they are not enough.

Organizational Schemes and Organizational Structures

Like Wurman, Rosenfeld and Morville discuss principles by which information can be organized. They begin by distinguishing between the schemes and the structures of systems for organizing information:

Organization systems are composed of organization schemes and organization structures. An organization scheme defines the shared characteristics of content items and influences the logical grouping of those items. An organization structure defines the types of relationships between content items and groups.


They classify organizational schemes as either exact or ambiguous. "Exact organization schemes divide information into well defined and mutually exclusive sections." Among exact schemes are alphabetical, chronological, and geographical groupings of InBEs.

Ambiguous schemes include topical (subject), task-oriented, audience-specific, and metaphor-driven groupings of InBEs. "Task-oriented schemes organize content and applications into a collection of processes." Audience-specific schemes are suited to situations where there are "two or more clearly definable audiences" for the information: e.g., customers vs. employees, first-time visitors vs. repeat visitors, or registered software owners vs. potential buyers of the software. Metaphor-driven groupings of information "are commonly used to help users understand the new by relating it to the familiar. You need not look further than your desktop computer with its folders, files, and trash can or recycle bin for an example."

Rosenfeld and Morville note that it is also possible to have hybrid schemes that blend "elements of multiple schemes." However, they counsel that "confusion is almost guaranteed" with hybrid schemes because users cannot apply a single mental model to understand the scheme and, instead, must "skim through each menu item to find" the desired information. They note that unfortunately "hybrid schemes are common on the Web."


Organization structures include hierarchies, networks, and database-oriented models. Hierarchies are exemplified by such classification structures as the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) and Library of Congress Classification (LC) systems. Of these, the DDC may be considered the "purer" hierarchy, in that it has an explicit goal of classifying the entire universe of knowledge by means of categories, sub-categories, sub-sub-categories, and so on, whereas the LC classification has been developed empirically in response to the need to handle actual library collections, first at the LC itself and, nowadays, at research libraries in general.

Networks are characterized by having nodes and links between nodes, links that are not restricted to paths within a hierarchy. Networks are exemplified by the Web itself, with Websites and Webpages as nodes, and with hyperlinks as the paths between Websites and Webpages.

Database-oriented structures consist of pieces of information. These pieces are stored in fields, which are grouped into records, which in turn are grouped into files within a relational database structure (see Endnote 7). It is usually convenient to think of the essential InBEs in a relational database as the records themselves. All relational databases also include metadata elements (see Endnote 8) that identify and associate the fields and records.


This lesson has provided information about various ideas associated with the term "information architecture" and has endeavored to show you how information architecture is closely related to, and embodies most of, the long-standing principles of library and information science.


1. Wurman, Richard Saul; Bradford, Peter; eds. Information Architects. Zurich, Switzerland: Graphis Press; 1996. ISBN:3-85709-458-3. [The quoted phrase is from the jacket's definition of "architect".]

2. Wurman, op. cit. [The quoted phrase is from the jacket.]

3. The Tokyo map is from: Wurman, Richard Saul. Tokyo Access. Los Angeles, CA: Access Press; 1984. ISBN:0-91546-105-6.

4. The Capital Metro map was found at URL: Download date: 2000 October 2.

5. Wurman, Richard Saul. Information Anxiety: What to Do when Information Doesn't Tell You What You Need to Know. New York, NY: Bantam; 1990. ISBN:0-553-34856-6.
Wurman, Richard Saul; Leifer, Loring; Sume, David. Information Anxiety 2. Indianapolis, IN: Que; 2000. ISBN: 0-7897-2410-3.

6. Rosenfeld, Louis; Morville, Peter. Information Architecture for the World Wide Web. Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly; 1998. ISBN:1-56592-282-4.

7. For a brief overview of relational databases, see the LIS 386K.11 presentation entitled "Database-Management Principles and Applications: Introduction."

8. The LIS 386.1 reading entitled "Overview of Metadata" provides information about the concept of metadata.

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Last updated 2001 February 20 by R. E. Wyllys