Information Architecture’s Two Schools of Thought

Finding Our Way

Navigating the practice of Information Architecture

A column by Nathaniel Davis
November 12, 2012

Anniversaries often cause me to pause for moments of reflection. This anniversary issue of UXmatters is no exception. After a year writing Finding Our Way, my column on information architecture (IA), I am mindful of the challenge that I face each time I discuss information architecture. The harsh reality is that we are still lacking clearly authoritative online resources on this subject. When anyone—myself included—is free to define information architecture by writing on the subject from his or her own perspective, it can be difficult for UX professionals to navigate the practice and principles of information architecture. Oh, the joys of the Internet!

However, regarding authoritative sources on information architecture, we must give credit to Peter Morville and Lou Rosenfeld, who in 1998 blazed more than a trail for the concept of information architecture in their book, Information Architecture for the World Wide Web—also known as the polar bear book. They moved mountains and paved a highway that traversed a wealth of topics that helped us to understand the basics of Web site strategy, design, and development.

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While the book was ground breaking in its time and is still relevant today, the polar bear book never claimed to have all the answers. So, it was natural that numerous books by other authors—both academics and practitioners—hit the market in an attempt to fill the gaps and answer the questions that remained. While practical methods and approaches abound, educators have fallen short in conveying the basic aims of information architecture with clarity.

Fortunately, clients hire IA practitioners to do what they do rather than explain what they do. But, as our clients become our employers and as digital design and development organizations become more sophisticated and more accountable, we cannot continue to dodge the need to explain the essential value of information architecture.

Now—and for the future—it would be useful to recognize influential ideas about the nature of information architecture practice. For those of you who are interested in exploring such ideas, this month’s column discusses what I consider to be the two leading schools of thought on information architecture and how they compare.

Classic Information Architecture

What I’m about to discuss is a sensitive topic. So, I’m guessing the response to this month’s column will be either controversial or galvanizing. I’m shooting for galvanizing.

The reason this column is likely to raise such strong reactions is merely the fact that, even though the polar bear book first defined the practice of information architecture, the IA community has never viewed that book as definitive. Subsequent to the polar bear book’s coming out, the Information Architecture Institute published the second longest-running definition of information architecture. From the history that these two sources share, it is possible to decipher the nature of two unique information architecture schools of thought. Let’s jump right into it.

First, let’s take a look at how Peter Morville and Lou Rosenfeld—the original framers of information architecture for the Web—expressed the intent of information architecture in their first edition of the polar bear book in 1998. Here are the core concepts of their definition of information architecture:

  • “Information architecture is about understanding and conveying the big picture of a Web site.”
  • “The elements of information architecture—navigation systems, labeling systems, organization systems, indexing, searching methods, metaphors—are the glue that holds together a Web site.”

Large-scale design and development teams in the late 1990s might have included the practices of graphic design, interaction design, copywriting, computer science, business analysis, and project management. Within the context of such a Web development team, information architecture filled two gaps: information organization and discovery—through reliable techniques of library science—and site strategy—by way of practical business planning. This two-pronged practice created great opportunity for the new professionals who would call themselves information architects.

However, four years later, in 2002, Morville and Rosenfeld narrowed the scope of their definition of information architecture, leaving behind any notion of “big picture” thinking in communicating these core concepts:

  • “the combination of organization, labeling, and navigation schemes within an information system”
  • “the structural design of an information space to facilitate task completion and intuitive access to content”
  • “the art and science of structuring and classifying Web sites and intranets to help people find and manage information”

The scope of information architecture that this definition implied was clear: it was about information and how it related in the new information space of the Web.

Capturing these concepts in a succinct sentence would be a challenge for anyone. Evidently, even Morville and Rosenfeld felt unable to write an elegant definition—perhaps because of the natural complexity of language and the need to represent meaning in a way that would avoid ambiguity irrespective of audience.

However, two years prior to the publication of Morville and Rosenfeld’s second edition of the polar bear book, Lou Rosenfeld had provided a clear, concise definition of information architecture when he was asked for an explanation of information architecture in a January 2000 O’Reilly interview. He stated, “Information architecture involves the design of organization, labeling, navigation, and searching systems to help people find and manage information more successfully.”

That sounds like a concise definition to me! And, within the context of the many professional practices that contribute to Web design and development, this statement identified a unique piece of the puzzle of creating complex Web sites. It was this quotation from Lou Rosenfeld that offered a clear articulation of a definition of information architecture and, thus, provided the baseline for a practice of classic information architecture. Although it didn’t become classic until the contemporary perspective on information architecture evolved.

Contemporary Information Architecture

By this point, you may be wondering what happened to the concepts of “understanding and conveying the big picture” from the first edition of the polar bear book? While Morville and Rosenfeld removed this language from their definition of information architecture, this was still a strong theme in the text of their book. But, by 2002, something was brewing.

Concurrent with their efforts to produce their second edition of the polar bear book, Morville and Rosenfeld—along with others who were leading IA practitioners at the time—were embarking on establishing the Asilomar Institute for Information Architecture—which is now called the Information Architecture Institute. This is where the principles of library science and building architecture converged to form deep metaphorical roots. It was this marriage of disciplines that ultimately picked up where site strategy dropped out of Morville and Rosenfeld’s 2002 definition and was the enabler of information architecture’s contemporary school of thought.

In the same year that the second edition of the polar bear book came out, the IA Institute published its own definition of information architecture practice:

  • “the structural design of shared information environments”
  • “the art and science of organizing and labeling Web sites, intranets, online communities, and software to support usability and findability”
  • “an emerging community of practice focused on bringing principles of design and architecture to the digital landscape”

The Institute’s three-point definition borrowed from Morville and Rosenfeld, but it also refined their 2002 definition by bringing attention to two new core concepts: design and architecture. The final bullet point in the preceding definition is where the Institute’s definition presented the greatest contrast to Morville and Rosenfeld’s definition.

So, what exactly does “design and architecture” mean? It is probably safe to say that concepts in building architecture influenced this language. The term design relates to the first two bullet points, which collectively represent the structural design of a site—its information architecture. The idea of architecture in that final bullet point refers to requirements gathering, synthesis, and other strategic activities that help produce what Abby Covert and Dan Klyn, cofounder of The Understanding Group, call the why and the what that frame the problems that guide the how—that is, design and development activities that produce a site’s visual design, interaction design, site structure, copy, and code.

The IA institute’s definition summarizes a contemporary view of information architecture, as a practice of Web site architecture.

Four years later, in 2006, Morville and Rosenfeld returned with their third edition of the polar bear book, offering yet another refinement of their definition. Their updated definition of information architecture embraced the IA Institute’s philosophy on design and architecture and included new language around the shaping of user experience:

  • “the combination of organization, labeling, search, and navigation systems within Web sites and intranets”
  • “the structural design of shared information environments”
  • “the art and science of shaping information products and experiences to support usability and findability”
  • “an emerging discipline and community of practice focused on bringing principles of design and architecture to the digital landscape

Thus, in the end, Morville and Rosenfeld returned to a broad definition of IA practice that ultimately conflates two distinct ideas—but not before calling attention to a line drawn in the sand that would delineate the two schools of information architecture shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1—Information architecture schools of thought
Information architecture schools of thought

The Difference Between Classic and Contemporary

Both the polar bear book’s and the IA Institute’s definitions promote a contemporary information architecture school of thought. Past efforts to define IA practice have produced IA practitioners whose practice reflects a classic view of information architecture—focusing only on information behavior—as well as other practitioners who embrace a contemporary perspective and whose practice, in addition to exhibiting an expertise in information behavior, tackles strategy and lifecycle oversight.

Even though these IA practitioners may represent two schools of thought, classic and contemporary information architecture are inherently related. The influence of classic IA interests is evident in the first two bullets found in the definitions of both Morville and Rosenfeld and the IA Institute. So, the only variation that produces a delineation between classic and contemporary information architecture is the contemporary objective of filling the gaps of site strategy and oversight of the design and development process.

Over the years, in light of the UX design movement, some have heavily criticized the contemporary information architecture view, because with the type of site planning and process orchestration that contemporary IA practitioners claim as their purview, contemporary information architecture often competes with the maturing practice of UX architecture.

UX architecture is what I would classify as a native role of UX design. It centers on the synthesis of business and user context, setting UX strategy, and guiding the appropriate UX design lifecycle. Ultimately, core areas of interest for UX architecture reside in the UX planning practice vertical, while the core interests of contemporary information architecture reside in the information architecture practice vertical.

Despite the presence of healthy competition, the future remains promising for contemporary IA practice. In fact, in cases where the success of a Web site depends more on a rich information strategy than rich interactions, a contemporary IA practitioner may be a more appropriate choice for a project.

Meeting Everyone’s Expectations

Most of or clients and colleagues perceive information architecture in a way that resembles either a classic or a contemporary view.

If you’re a UX design professional who must deliver an information architecture, being familiar with the two prevailing schools of thought that I’ve reviewed in this column may clarify what your client or team expects of you. Plus, it may be beneficial for you to understand the two IA schools of thought so you can collaborate effectively with information architects on your team.

If you’re an IA practitioner, be clear about what school of IA thought you represent. However, as you consider this, you should never make this a matter of one school versus another, because both share common core interests. Regardless of the school of information architecture to which you belong, the minimal expectation that a client or team would have of you as an IA practitioner would be for you to understand how to set strategies for navigating, organizing, and relating information better than anyone else in the room. 

For More Information

I’ve limited this column to a discussion of influential definitions of information architecture that predate 2006. However, since 2006, new definitions and perspectives that go beyond applied library science and traditional architecture have helped to advance both IA schools of thought. For an illustrative timeline showing how both schools of thought are evolving, visit the DSIA Portal of Information Architecture.

Founder at Methodbrain

Franklin Park, New Jersey, USA

Nathaniel DavisNathaniel has over 25 years of experience in human-computer interaction and is a leading advocate for the advancement of information architecture as an area of research and practice. He began practicing information architecture in the late ’90s, then focused on information architecture as his primary area of interest in 2006. He has made a study of information-architecture theory and how that theory translates into science, workable software, and methods that improve human interaction in complex information environments. Nathaniel was formerly director of information architecture at Prudential. His information-architecture consultancy Methodbrain specializes in UI structural engineering.  Read More

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