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What's in a name?
Responses by:
Saul Carliner
Andrew Dillon
Jesse James Garrett
Thom Haller
Bob Jacobson
Whitney Quesenbery
Nathan Shedroff
David Sless
Christina Wodtke

Commentary by:
Lou Rosenfeld
Karen Schriver
Richard Saul Wurman



Join the discussion!

What's in a name?

Design Matters In an December 1998 interview with Design Matters, Richard Saul Wurman said that information architecture was the merging of three fields: technology, graphic design, and writing/journalism. This reflects his vision, published in 1996 in Information Architecture, that the information architect is "the individual who organizes the patterns in data, making the complex clear."

In a later issue, Lou Rosenfeld spoke of the influence of the Internet and the WWW on the field: "... Wurman's definition of information architecture doesn't really scale well in the age of more complex information systems like web sites. Like any designer, Wurman's definition is shaped by his contemporary medium--print."

Are there two information architectures? One influenced by presentation and one influenced by structure? Is the presentation-based IA better served by the name "information design?" Does the medium really matter? Is print IA/ID different from web-based IA/ID in meaningful ways?

For its April 2001 issue, Design Matters contacted several people and asked them to respond to these questions informally; responses received follow in alphabetical order.

In addition, responses were forwarded to Karen Schriver, ID SIG member and author of Topics in Document Design, Lou Rosenfeld, author of Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, and Richard Saul Wurman, author of Information Architects, for commentary.

Read these responses and then join the discussion!


Saul Carliner

Assistant Professor, Information Design
Bentley College, Waltham, Massachusetts

Wurman and Rosenfeld each see part of the picture of information design; no doubt, each is influenced by the world surrounding him.

Rather than looking to information-related work for the complete view of information design, we need to look beyond. What makes a complete building architect? Certainly, there are some who are more competent at structuring buildings and others who are more competent at preparing an effective presentation of the space, but the best architects are the ones who can do both - and design the interior as well. For example, consider Frank Lloyd Wright, who not only designed beautiful buildings, but redefined the way people approached the functional space or structure of a building (he invented the carport if memory serves me correctly). Wright also designed furniture and other decorative accessories for his buildings.

Rosenfeld is correct that traditional views of information architecture don't scale well in the age of complex systems. But systems-only thinking doesn't scale well either: so many of the modern views ignore print, stand-alone video, and live events. These media each have a role to play in making performance happen, and need not be overlooked because they're been around longer than 10 years.

Similarly, so much of information architecture and information design is focused on e-commerce, but when we reach the really thorny issues of workplace information that's read post-sale or for internal use, the term that comes into play is performance support. To be honest, we all have the same goal: effective information.

And in the end, it doesn't really matter whether a designer's incoming strength is in structure or in presentation, just as it doesn't matter whether an incoming technical communicator's strength is in technology or communication. At some point, people must master the other to effectively communicate information.

Note: Readers may want to see my article (sorry, STC membership required) in the 2nd quarter 2001 issue of Technical Communication, in which I argue that a truly effective information designer has a mastery of several areas, including business strategy and industry intelligence. #


Andrew Dillon

Associate Professor of Information Science & Informatics
Indiana University, Bloomington, IN

Presentation or structure? It's both and then some....

The emerging field of IA has been overly concerned with definition and self-scoping since birth. However, much as I love reading Wurman and Rosenfeld, I cannot help but think that both positions are inadequate when it comes to explaining IA. I think both are right in one sense: Richard when he says that there is a need to bridge several fields; Lou when he talks of the importance of scaling up. But I would not be happy with the fields listed (technology, graphic design and writing) even if we could scale them up appropriately. Where is the user here? Where is the emotion? the passion? the discomfort or the empowerment that real human beings experience in their interactions?

Architects must concern themselves with the experiences people have in the spaces architects design for them. Information architecture is no different. Certainly structure is important, as is presentation, but there is more at work here.

Information architecture actually seems to face an extended set of concerns. I cannot see current models of technology, graphic design, or writing offering sufficient guidance for interaction design, we need psychology, sociology, and learning theory at a minimum. This is why I am much more comfortable with the idea of IA as a process, not a person.

In the end, presentation and structure are somewhat inseparable in the minds of users, both combine to provide a shape to their experience. IA is about shaping the experiences of multiple stakeholders, no more, no less. It is a problem set as much as a discipline, and existing fields can help but not provide all the answers. Interesting times..... #


Jesse James Garrett

Partner
Adaptive Path, San Francisco, CA

The trouble is that everybody has their own definitions for information architecture and information design. When Richard Saul Wurman refers to "information architecture," he's usually talking about what most of us know as information design; whereas when Nathan Shedroff talks about "information design," he's probably referring to what is commonly called information architecture.

One thing I tried to accomplish with "The Elements of User Experience" was to nail down my own definitions for these terms to better understand my own thinking about the field. The conclusion I came to as a result of that exercise was that information architecture and information design are indeed quite different.

Different concerns: Information architecture is primarily about cognition - how people process information and construe relationships between different pieces of information. Information design is primarily about perception - how people translate what they see and hear into knowledge.

Different skills: Information architects come from a variety of backgrounds, but I sense that a majority of them display an orientation toward language (the original toolkit for "architecting information"). Information designers, on the other hand, tend to be oriented toward the visual arts. As a result, the majority of information designers come from exactly one discipline: graphic design.

Different milieus: Information architecture belongs to the realm of the abstract, concerning itself more with the structures in the mind than the structures on the page or screen. Information design, however, couldn't be more concrete, with considerations such as color and shape fundamental to the information designer's process. While we are all thankful to Richard Saul Wurman for bringing the notion and the term information architecture to the world's attention, I think it's time we acknowledged that the field has matured and been refined beyond Wurman's initial conception and definition of it. #

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---- Society for Technical Communication, last updated 12 July 2001 by idsig@pobox.com.