Peter Morville's bi-weekly column on the evolving definition of information architecture

Defining Information Architecture

What is information architecture? Is it a nascent field or a flash in the pan? What does an information architect do? Are you an information architect? Am I? Is that the right label for our discipline? Do labels and definitions matter?

On the weekend of April 8, 2000, a remarkable group of roughly 350 people came together as participants in ASIS Summit 2000 to debate the answers to these questions (and of course, to question the questions themselves).

This was a watershed event in the field of information architecture, not because we answered important questions, but because it was the first large-scale gathering of the community of information architects.

An Eclectic Gathering

Don't get me wrong. This was not a gathering of consistently formatted, shrink-wrapped information architects speaking with a unifying controlled vocabulary. On the contrary, this was an extremely diverse collection of speakers and attendees.

They came from universities, Fortune 500 corporations, dot.coms, libraries, professional service organizations and e-commerce consulting firms. They called themselves customer experience analysts, interaction designers, digital librarians, and information scientists.

There was an attendee with the title "Goddess of Information Architecture" and a speaker, Richard Greenfield from the Library of Congress, who revealed his entrepreneurial plans to become an "information pimp" focused on satisfying people's information desires.

Diverse Perspectives

Some argued that "information architecture" is the wrong label, suggesting that we're simply putting two old terms together (e.g., "horseless carriage") in a vain attempt to describe something completely new. Others argued that labels don't matter and that we should just get on with our work.

Seth Gordon stirred things up by suggesting that a serendipity-enabling bookstore with massive jumbled piles of books all over the floor may be a better model for the information architecture of web sites than the structure and organization of the traditional library.

Peter Merholtz took it a step further, encouraging people to avoid the tyranny of the megalithic top-down hierarchy that's been thrust on us by the evil, power-mongering library community.

And an indignant librarian, Roy Tennant countered, noting that librarians have been among the biggest proponents of multiple access paths to information. Roy went on to posit the iterative, interactive question-and-answer approach of the traditional library reference interview as a powerful model for information architecture.

The wonderful thing about this conference was that people with such divergent perspectives were able to engage in a fascinating, humorous, and constructive dialog about the definition and nature of information architecture...and no chairs were thrown. I'm already looking forward to the next ASIS Summit on Information Architecture.

Personal Reflections

The ASIS Summit convinced me that the field of information architecture is becoming both narrower and deeper at the same time.

As designers and architects such as Andrea Gallagher (Scient), Clement Mok (Sapient), Karen McGrane (Razorfish), and Steven Ritchey (marchFirst) discussed the role of the information architect within their multi-disciplinary project teams, it became clear that the practice of information architecture is becoming increasingly specialized.

In teams that can include visual designers, interface designers, navigation designers, information designers, and interaction designers, the information architect is free to focus on the structure and organization. As corporations increase their willingness to invest in these larger, more sophisticated web and intranet design teams, this trend toward specialization will continue.

At the same time, the community and the practice of information architecture are growing deeper and richer. The success of this conference, the numbers of position announcements, and the demand for high-end consulting services all suggest that the information architecture community is finally beginning to flourish.

And the composition of web and intranet design projects is moving beyond a singular focus on top-down hierarchy design into the deep information architecture of thesauri, controlled vocabularies, and metadata schemes. These are exciting times for information architects.

Strange Connections

This brings me to the title of this column, "Strange Connections," a term that I first used for my presentation at the ASIS Summit.

I saw this conference as a forum that brought together strangers from many disciplinary perspectives and encouraged them to connect with one another, creating opportunities for learning and relationship building.

And I see information architecture design as another means to create learning and relationship building opportunities. When we create unusual relationships between people or products or ideas, we create a tension that invites learning.

For example, George Lakoff purposefully entitled his book, Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things to provoke curiosity. It begs the question, what is the relationship between women and fire and dangerous things? Well, if you spend the time to find the answer, you'll learn a great deal about cognitive science, linguistics, categorization, and Australian aboriginal culture.

Through this column, I hope to make my own strange connections between people and products and ideas, in an ongoing attempt to explore the breadth and depth of the evolving definition of information architecture.

End Notes

Please send your rants and raves to Peter Morville.

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