Information Architecture

The majority of the terms in Information Plus are very difficult to define in a concise manner, a problem related to the fact that information itself is very challenging to define. A minimalist definition could be that information architecture is concerned with the structural relationships of information objects. These relationships could be spacial or conceptual. The term emerged in 1997 when Richard Saul Wurman‘s book Information Architects was published though Wurman had first referred to the concept twenty years earlier. The subject, according to the publishers, was the design of information to improve, clarify, and facilitate processes of communication and learning. The author of 90 books, Wurman went on to found the TED talks. IA gained much higher visibility in the web, design and information communities with the publication in 1998 of Information Architecture for the World Wide Web by Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville. This is universally known as the Polar Bear book from the O’Reilly cover colophon for the book. (Incidentally O’Reilly authors have no say in the cover design). The book is now in a 4th edition with Jorge Arango as a co-author. According to the authors information architecture is a design discipline that is focused on making information findable and understandable, but they then devote Chapter 2 to defining the term. It has now become a shorthand word that is often used for the information structure of an information application, especially websites and intranets. There is an interesting case study of the use of the information architecture concept to arrive at an information management strategy.

There is also the concept of enterprise information architecture which Gartner defines as the part of the enterprise architecture process that describes — through a set of requirements, principles and models — the current state, future state and guidance necessary to flexibly share and exchange information assets to achieve effective enterprise change. This begs the question about what enterprise architecture represents and this gets into some very vague concepts. To quote Gartner again enterprise architecture is a discipline for proactively and holistically leading enterprise responses to disruptive forces by identifying and analyzing the execution of change toward desired business vision and outcomes. The concept of enterprise architecture was proposed by John Zachman in 1987.

One of the most important outcomes of the Polar Bear book was the establishment of the Information Architecture Institute. in 2002 as the eventual outcome of Louis Rosenfeld and Christina Wodtke inviting a group of colleagues to the Asilomar Conference Grounds in Monterey, California. The list of Board members of the IAI over the years is impressive. Among the resources supported by the IAI is the excellent Journal of Information Architecture which is a peer-reviewed journal.  A very good sense of the scope of information architecture can be found in ‘Building an Information Architecture Checklist‘ by Laura Downey and Sumit Banerjee in the Fall 2010 issue.  The Institute has also developed a very good collection of resources, though this is currently under redevelopment in a migration to a new CMS. The references are still listed in an Excel spreadsheet. There has been an Annual IA Summit since 2000. The IA Summit is organized by an all-volunteer committee drawn from the greater Information Architecture community, and is produced with the support of the Association for Information Science & Technology. Videos of the presentations at the 2016 IA Summit are available.

Although all this IA activity looks to very much US-located and supported there is a strong European IA community which is focused around the annual EuroIA conference.  The 2018 conference takes place in Dublin. On a global scale there is a WorldIA day each year.

The IAI Resources Library is very comprehensive but there are a few references that I have found useful over the years in introducing clients and colleagues to the practice of information architecture. These include

Although there have been many books published on various aspects of information architecture since 1999 the Polar Bear book still sets the standard for presenting information architecture good practice, and it is interesting to compare the current editions with earlier editions. In this respect the informal history of the book by Peter Morville is especially interesting. Two recent books on information architecture are ‘Pervasive Information Architecture‘ by Andrea Resmini and Luca Rosati (for which there is a related blog) and ‘Reframing Information Architecture‘ edited by Andrea Resmini.

See also Information Behaviour, Information Needs, Information Organisation,

Martin White

April 2018

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