Putting the White Back in Strunk and White

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“Style and appropriateness may seem like an odd duo, but they are not. Style is the natural result of the over-abundance of energy and unique perspective a designer—a creative person—is gifted and cursed with.”

In web design screeds, the most commonly cited book is not what you might expect. It is not by Jakob Nielson or Jeffrey Zeldman or Edward Tufte. It’s not even on design or typography or code. It is a thin volume of guidelines on writing by a professor “at the closing of the first world war” and treasured by one student enough to put it into print. William Strunk was the professor, and E.B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web, was that grateful student. White took the master’s set of laws, removed some “bewhiskered entries,” corrected some errors, and added his own chapter at the end for “those who feel English prose composition is not only a necessary skill but a sensible pursuit as well.”

The most common excerpt from the book is one from Strunk, quoted as much for its poetry as its proposition:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.

This concept seems to have permeated the design community’s collective mind. Minimalist websites eschewing borders, decorative graphics, and even color abound. The book’s principles are often held up to praise Google or damn eBay. But is anyone reading Strunk and White, or are they simply taking away quotes they like, and leaving the rest of the movie on the cutting room floor? There is a richness in the entirety of the text, which ranges from rule of grammar to approaches to structure, to even the heart of design: personal style.

Both Strunk’s original “little book” and White’s rework are available online, and comparing the two is surprising. The original was a rulebook, full of dos and don’ts. It could be used as a quick reference, perhaps, as one wrote a midterm. But the revised version is a way to approach the act of writing. It is manifesto as much as manual.

For example, section three, “Elementary Principles of Composition,” begins, in Strunk’s world (1) with:

Make the paragraph the unit of composition: one paragraph to each topic.

If the subject on which you are writing is of slight extent, or if you intend to treat it very briefly, there may be no need of subdividing it into topics. Thus a brief description, a brief summary of a literary work, a brief account of a single incident, a narrative merely outlining an action, the setting forth of a single idea, any one of these is best written in a single paragraph. After the paragraph has been written, it should be examined to see whether subdivision will not improve it. …

But in White’s world the section opens with:

Choose a suitable design and hold to it.

Writing, to be effective, must follow closely the thoughts of the writer, but not necessarily in the order in which those thoughts occur. This calls for a scheme of procedure. In some cases, the best design is no design, as with a love letter, which is simply an outpouring, or with a casual essay, which is a ramble.

A sonnet is built on a fourteen-line frame, each line containing five feet. Hence, sonneteers know exactly where they are headed, although they may not know how to get there. Most forms of composition are less clearly defined, more flexible, but all have skeletons to which the writer will bring the flesh and the blood.

What advice should the designer take: a set of didactic pronouncements or a framework for approaching the world?

A love letter is not a sonnet in the way that eBay is not Google. Instead, Google is like a sonnet; it is highly structured and full of rules. User research, not imitation, might be the reason all search sites look the same—they are being driven by users’ behavior.

But why do all blogs look the same? Isn’t a blog a love letter to its readership (except when it’s a love letter to the blogger himself)? And why should a newspaper site look like a search site? Each thing is its own creature, with its own design patterns that have been developed over the last several years.

Concise is not always nice
“Conciseness is not always the same as effectiveness,” writes White. He rewrites Thomas Paine’s line, “These are the times that try men’s souls,” from The American Crisis, into:

Times like these try men’s souls.

How trying it is to live in these times!

These are trying times for men’s souls.

Soulwise, these are trying times.

All are grammatically correct, but grotesque. This lesson is one᾿s salvation when caught up in the battle to avoid the dangling participle, or adhere to the rule of the underlined link.

While Strunk teaches us economy and clarity, White teaches us there is style and appropriateness. And while economy and clarity are important, even vital, they are excessively constraining if not tempered.

Style and appropriateness may seem like an odd duo, but they are not. Style is the natural result of the over-abundance of energy and unique perspective a designer—creative person—is gifted and cursed with. Appropriateness is what helps them guide it in its application.

White’s first two items on his “List of Reminders” are, “Place yourself in the background,” and “Write in a way that comes naturally.” He says:

Write in a way that draws the reader’s attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than to the mood and temper of the author.


Write in a way that comes easily and naturally to you, using words and phrases that come readily to hand. But do not assume that because you have acted naturally your product is without flaw.

This is an easy translation into the design space—although you may have an impressive design style, make sure that your design is tempered to the needs of the project. A commerce site should probably not evoke gasps of pleasure at its beauty, but rather a sense of security, trust, a wealth of choice and appropriate prices.

You have a style and a way of working that is natural to you; to take on an unnatural style will result in a flawed product. Conversely your style is not necessarily suited to every project. Too often, because we are praised for our natural talent, we think that is all there is to design. But there is craft, there is understanding the product’s brand, and there is understanding not only conventions of the web, but conventions of the domain. Somehow one must balance our design nature with the environment of work.

A simple substitution and White’s quotes make perfect sense for today’s designer: (2)

Design in a way that draws the reader’s attention to the sense and substance of the website, rather than to the mood and temper of the designer.


Design in a way that comes easily and naturally to you, using layouts and type that come readily to hand. But do not assume that because you have acted naturally your product is without flaw.

Once you understand the game, his advice is fantastically accurate.

The last lesson of White’s—in the too often skipped introduction to the revised Strunk manual—is perhaps the most precious,

I treasure The Elements of Style for its sharp advice, but I treasure it even more for the audacity and self-confidence of its author. Will knew where he stood. … He had a number of likes and dislikes that were almost as whimsical as the choice of a necktie, yet he made them seem utterly convincing. … He despised the expression student body, which he termed gruesome, and made a special trip downtown to the Alumni News office one day to protest the expression and suggest that studentry be substituted … a coinage of his own, which he felt was similar to citizenry. I am told that the News editor was so charmed by the visit, if not by the word, that he ordered the student body buried, never to rise again. Studentry has taken its place. It’s not much of an improvement, but it does sound less cadaverous, and it made Will Strunk quite happy.

Passionate pundits are not just a sign of our times, but a phenomenon that has existed as long as there have been craftsmen. I’m certain many of White’s fellow students squirmed under the oppressive certainty of William Strunk’s pronouncements. But E.B. White embraced and extended, and even appreciated the “law” laid down by Strunk. As we read vigorous statements such as “Flash is bad” or “Don’t do testing; just ship and watch,” it’s easy to have a knee-jerk reaction. But stepping back from the initial emotional slap, we can see more than a petite dictator laying down the law. We can see an impassioned craftsman trying to share both his love of the trade and impart some of his hard earned learnings. Like White, can we begin to love and listen to all the Strunks out there, without becoming angry but instead synthesizing their knowledge with our own perspective?

The real secret of E.B. White is listening, incorporating, translating, and finally accepting pundits into our practice. We aren’t at war at all. We all want the same thing. We all want more great work in the world.


(1) This was the only online version of Strunk and White I could find, presumably because Strunk and White is still under copyright, while Strunk’s solo effort is not. It is misattributed to “Oliver Strunk” but comparing the text to my own paper copies, it seems to be a faithful version of the fourth edition.

(2) Is there anything worse than writing about E.B. White? James Thurber said “No one can write a sentence like White,” and as I write this essay, I cringe and rather wish I could just replace “writer” with “designer” in his book and leave it at that.

For more information
The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition

The Elements of Style, Illustrated

Article in Dutch White verdient zijn plek in Strunk en White

Studying the Creation of Kindergarten

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“… Fröbel’s historic innovation provides an informative case study for all who endeavor to compose experiential systems in the future.”Two hundred years ago, a youthful academic named Friedrich Fröbel began to experience the convergence of his primary interests—nature and education. About 30 years later, his pursuits culminated in the creation of kindergarten.

Fröbel viewed nature as a quintessential source of education and the perfect model for design. He also believed in placing students at the center of his pedagogy. Thus, the story of Fröbel’s invention corresponds with the contemporary field of “experience design.”

Now as then

The dawn of the information age has given rise to the notion of an emergent experience economy. In the new era, hallmarks of the industrial age, such as mass production and broadcast media, are giving way to mass customization and interactive media. [1] Examples abound in every corner of the modern marketplace. Internet blogs scoop corporate newsmakers. Fantasy football leagues augment live-action games. And everything from dolls to diamonds can be “made to order.”

The shift in emphasis from purveyance to participation resembles a time of revolutionary change within the field of education. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, a handful of European theorists rejected the purely dispensational tenets of mainstream pedagogy in favor of a trend known as “natural education.” [2]

The new doctrine called for nourishing a child’s innate curiosity through hands-on activity. In turn, proponents transformed the instructor’s role from lecturer to facilitator. They replaced rote learning with object lessons, extended the classroom beyond the walls of the schoolhouse, and encouraged sensory engagement in, and about, the environment.

Planting a children’s garden

Friedrich Fröbel was a charismatic champion of “natural education.” He named his instantiation of the new philosophy “kindergarten” —a combination of the German words for children and garden. His program foreshadowed modern-style multimedia design by integrating gardening, music, dance and storytelling. It also incorporated playful interaction with a series of educational toys. Known as “Fröbel’s gifts,” the toys included building blocks, parquetry tiles, origami papers, modeling clay and sewing kits.

Fröbel’s motto, “Kommt, lasst uns unsern Kindern leben,” anticipated the contemporary notion of user experience design. The phrase, which was translated to “Come let us live for the children,” [3] proclaimed Fröbel’s zeal for nurturing the personal experience of each pupil. Over the past ten years, the emerging experience economy has compelled a growing contingent of professionals to echo Fröbel’s devotion. The new breed of experience designers coordinate interactive systems tailored for people in all walks of life—pupils, patients, parishioners, patrons and so on.

Child learning the proportions of geometrical figures.

Child learning the proportions of geometrical figures. E. Steiger & Company catalogue, New York, 1900

Body, mind, and spirit

Modern design and business pundits increasingly applaud the benefits of creating optimal “customer experiences” with methodologies ranging from ethnographic studies to usability testing. [4] In the course of designing kindergarten, Fröbel fashioned a pioneering set of “user-centered” design processes. He assessed the cultural conditions of his day, analyzed the psychological motives of young children, and established a set of qualitative metrics.

Before Fröbel invented kindergarten, children under the age of seven where generally deemed to be incapable of learning intellectual or emotional skills. After careful study, Fröbel hypothesized that harnessing the natural impulses of children could ease learning and foster enduring knowledge. He proceeded to cite the significance of “play” in childhood and designed a corresponding curriculum. [5]

Fröbel’s observations about human development were thorough and formal, but not purely clinical. As the son of a Lutheran minister, he spent his own childhood in the garden of his family’s rural property contemplating the order of creation and the human condition from a biblical perspective. The eventual fusion of Fröbel’s scientific methods and his Christian worldview brought forth a unique reverence for human factors. He stood out among his predecessors and peers for his particular recognition of every individual’s physical, intellectual and spiritual make-up.


The forms of Fröbel’s “Second Gift.” E. Steiger & Company catalogue, New York, 1900

Patterns of nature

Fröbel’s holistic regard for people was part of his broader estimation of the entire natural world. As a young adult, Fröbel channeled his passion for nature into academic rigor. In the course of studying geometry, physics, botany, chemistry, and geology he concluded that the patterns of nature provided an ideal template for design.

From 1811 to 1815, Fröbel worked in a university museum categorizing mineral classes by the shapes of crystals. [6] Fröbel’s brief tenure as a crystallographer deepened his belief that there was a crucial correlation between the geometric handiwork of God and the growth of children, adults, and complete societies. In response, Fröbel developed a sequence of educational toys based on the premise that handling forms modeled after the basic units of nature would reveal and illuminate the logic of creation. He subsequently generalized the building block metaphor and used it as the basis for composing each and every facet of his system.

Fröbel established an atomic set of artifacts and activities, then carefully combined them into compound offerings. The resulting system was rich in complexity, yet simple enough for a child to grasp.

Inspired by nature’s inner connectedness, Fröbel coordinated a unified system filled with variety. He symbolized that principled achievement with three geometric forms—a sphere, a cube, and a cylinder. The seamless sphere represented continuity. The faceted cube represented diversity. And the cylinder, simultaneously static and dynamic, represented coherence. [7]


Installation of a magnesium-framed geodesic dome (Design: Buckminster Fuller) Copyright Buckminster Fuller Institute

Organic growth

Fröbel’s ecological design proved to be a potent archetype. Like cell division patterns in an early embryo, the concept of kindergarten flourished in Europe. Shortly thereafter, it rapidly spread to other continents. By the end of the nineteenth century, kindergarten was a familiar institution around the world.

The vast expansion was not controlled by a single entity. When Fröbel died in 1852, he left his followers with volumes of philosophical discourse, but little in the way of practical directives. As a result, knowledge of his system initially spread in a grassroots manner—through apprenticeship and interpretation. By 1890, a sizable publishing industry had grown up around the ideas of Fröbel and his emulators. There were approximately 2,500 literary titles and mass amounts of merchandise from toy manufactures like Milton Bradley. [8]

Over time, kindergarten’s generational impact extended well beyond the education of young children. Fröbel’s innovation was also a major force of growth in the fields of art and design. The students that came of age during the widespread adoption of kindergarten included all of the individuals behind the momentous rise of “Modernism.”

Implicit and explicit traces of Fröbel’s philosophy pervaded the work and teachings of Bauhaus leaders Walter Gropius, Johannes Itten, Josef Albers, Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee. Likewise, seminal architects Frank Lloyd Wright and R. Buckminster Fuller specifically cited the importance of their kindergarten experiences. [9] The collective effect of Fröbel’s system on such influential figures revealed a remarkable vitality.

Timeless wisdom

The wisdom of Friedrich Fröbel’s creation rested in a set of timeless design principles. First and foremost, he accounted for the essence of human nature. He then formed intricate, scalable systems from basic elements. Finally, he fertilized growth beyond his original incarnation. Therefore, Fröbel’s historic innovation provides an informative case study for all who endeavor to compose experiential systems in the future.


[1] Pine II, B.J. and Gilmore, J.H. (1999) The Experience Economy. Harvard Business School Press. Boston, Massachusetts.

[2] Brosterman, Norman (1997) Inventing Kindergarten. Harry N. Abrams, Incorporated. p.19.

[3] Ibid., p.20.

[4] Nussbaum, Bruce (2004) “Power of Design.” Business Week Magazine (May 17, 2004).

[5] Brosterman, Norman (1997) Inventing Kindergarten. Harry N. Abrams, Incorporated. pp.30-33.

[6] Ibid., p.25.

[7] Ibid., p.46.

[8] Ibid., p.98.

[9] Ibid., R. Buckminster Fuller is quoted on p84. Frank Llyod Wright is quoted on p. 138. The teachings of Walter Gropius, Johannes Itten, Josef Albers, Wassily Kandinsky, and Paul Klee are described on pp. 120-133.

Additional Resources

Fröbel Gifts

The Fröbel Kindergarten PhilosophyBill Lucas works at MAYA Design, a consulting firm and technology lab based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Bill is the inaugural member of MAYA’s Professional Practice Fellowship Program. His current area of focus is user experience design for MAYA’s internal R&D initiatives.

Bill has been designing experiential systems for more than 15 years. During his tenure at MAYA, Bill designed and directed solutions for a wide range of clients including Merrill Lynch, Eaton, General Electric, United States Postal Service, and DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency).Prior to joining MAYA, Bill designed identity standards, marketing materials, trade show exhibits and signage systems at Corning Incorporated.

Bill holds a B.S. in graphic design from the University of Cincinnati, where he graduated Summa Cum Laude from the College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning.

Forgotten Forefather: Paul Otlet

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One rainy afternoon in 1968, a young Australian graduate student named Boyd Rayward stepped into an abandoned office in the Parc Leopold in Brussels, Belgium. Inside, he discovered “a cluttered, musty, cobwebbed office into which the rain leaked—and one day flooded—causing the attendant then on hand to have a kind of epileptic seizure.”1 Piled high to the ceiling were dusty stacks of books, files and manuscripts: the intellectual flotsam of a seemingly disorganized old scholar.

The previous occupant, Paul Otlet, had been dead for nearly twenty-five years. A bibliographer, pacifist and entrepreneur, Otlet had in his heyday been feted as a great man, enjoying the company of Nobel laureates and even playing a role in the formation of the League of Nations. But by the time of his death in 1944, he had lived long enough to see his reputation fade to near-obscurity, seen his greatest ambition fail, and suffered the final humiliation of watching the Nazis cart away and destroy much of his life’s work. When he finally died a few months before the end of the war, hardly anyone noticed.

Who was Paul Otlet? Meet the forgotten forefather of information architecture.

The web that wasn’t

In 1934, years before Vannevar Bush dreamed of the memex, decades before Ted Nelson coined the term “hypertext,” Paul Otlet envisioned a new kind of scholar’s workstation: a moving desk shaped like a wheel, powered by a network of hinged spokes beneath a series of moving surfaces. The machine would let users search, read and write their way through a vast mechanical database stored on millions of 3×5 index cards.2

This new research environment would do more than just let users retrieve documents; it would also let them annotate the relationships between one another, “the connections each [document] has with all other [documents], forming from them what might be called the Universal Book.”3

Otlet imagined a day when users would access the database from great distances by means of an “electric telescope” connected through a telephone line, retrieving a facsimile image to be projected remotely on a flat screen.

In Otlet’s time, this notion of networked documents was still so novel that no one had a word to describe these relationships, until he invented one: “links.”

Otlet envisioned the whole endeavor as a great “réseau”—web—of human knowledge.

The Universal Decimal Classification

Although generations of philosophers had tried to solve the problem of classifying human knowledge—including Bacon, Wilkens, and Linnaeus—it was not until the middle of the 19th century that the problem came to a practical head. The industrialization of the printing business, coupled with the advent of cheap binding materials, spurred an explosion in publishing no less disruptive than the advent of Gutenberg’s press 400 years earlier.

Faced with an onslaught of new texts, nineteenth century scholars and bibliographers began to wrestle again with the problem of classification. Catalogers like Panizzi, Dewey and Ranganathan all devised elaborate subject schemes, laying the foundations of modern library and information science.

In 1895, Otlet and Henri La Fontaine established the Repertoire Bibliographique Universel (RBU), an ambitious attempt at developing a master bibliography of the world’s accumulated knowledge. Otlet recognized from the beginning that the success of the whole undertaking would depend largely on the usefulness of its conceptual software, the classification system.

After evaluating the classification systems then in use, such as Dewey Decimal and the British Museum system, Otlet concluded that they all shared a fatal flaw: they were designed to guide readers as far as the individual book—but no further. Ranganathan had voiced the ethos of modern cataloging when he said: “every reader his or her book, and every book its reader.” But once book and reader were matched, they were left pretty well to their own devices.

Otlet wanted to go a step further. He wanted to penetrate the boundaries of the books themselves, to unearth the “substance, sources and conclusions” inside.

Taking the Dewey Decimal system as his starting point, Otlet began developing what came to be known as the Universal Decimal Classification, now widely recognized as the first—and one of the only—full implementations of a faceted classification system.

While Ranganathan rightly receives credit as the philosophical forbear of facets, Otlet was the first to put them to practical use.

Facets of the Universal Decimal Classification

Facts: Empirical observations or assertions.
Interpretation: Analysis or conclusions, derived from “facts.”
Statistics: Measured, quantifiable data.
Sources: Citations or references.

Today, the UDC comprises over 62,000 individual classifications, translated into over 30 languages (one reason for its popularity outside the U.S.). The UDC’s current top-level classes include:

0 Generalities. Science, knowledge, organization, computer science
1 Philosophy. Psychology
2 Religion. Theology
3 Social sciences. Law
4 [Under development]
5 Mathematics and natural sciences
6 Applied sciences. Medicine. Technology
7 The arts. Recreation. Entertainment. Sport
8 Language. Linguistics. Literature
9 Geography. Biography. History

So, for example,

004 Computer science
004.8 Artificial intelligence
004.89 Artificial intelligence application systems
004.891 Expert systems
004.891.2 Consultation expert systems4

In addition to the so-called Main Tables of subject headings, UDC also supports a series of Auxiliary Tables allowing for the addition of facets. These tables provide notations for place, language, physical characteristics, and for marking relationships between topics using a set of “connector” signs such as “+,” “/” and “:”.

The UDC’s capacity for mapping relationships between ideas—for constructing the “social space” of a document—provides a dimension of use not supported in other purely topical classification schemes. As the Universal Decimal Classification Consortium puts it:

UDC’s most innovative and influential feature is its ability to express not just simple subjects but relations between subjects … In UDC, the universe of information (all recorded knowledge) is treated as a coherent system, built of related parts, in contrast to a specialised classification, in which related subjects are treated as subsidiary even though in their own right they may be of major importance.5

The Mundaneum

In 1910, in the wake of the Brussels world’s fair, Otlet and LaFontaine created an installation at the Palais du Cinquantenaire of the Palais Mondial.

Originally envisioned as the centerpiece of a new “city of the intellect,” the Mundaneum was to be the hub of a utopian city that housed a society of the world’s nations.

In 1919, shortly after the end of World War I, Otlet successfully lobbied King Albert and the Belgian government to furnish a new home for the Mundaneum, taking over 150 rooms in Brussels’ Cinquantenaire. At the time, not coincidentally, Belgium was lobbying to host the nascent League of Nations’s new headquarters. Hoping to help his country take center stage in wooing the new organization, Otlet pitched his project as the centerpiece of a new “world city.” Inside the new Mundaneum, he began to assemble his vast “documentary edifice,” eventually comprising over 12 million individual index cards and documents.

At the time, the 3×5 index card represented the latest advance in information storage technology: a standardized, easily manipulated vessel for housing individual nuggets of data. So, Otlet’s réseau began taking shape in the form of an enormous collection of index cards, filed away in a sprawling array of cabinets.

The effort met with early success, even attracting a healthy business in mail-order research services, in which users would submit search queries for a fee (27 francs per 1000 cards retrieved). The service attracted over 1500 requests a year on subjects from boomerangs to Bulgarian finance.6

But by 1924, the Belgian government had lost patience with the project, especially after the newly formed League of Nations chose Geneva over Brussels as its headquarters—and thus robbing the Mundaneum of one of its primary raisons d’etre. Otlet had to relinquish his original location, moving the Mundaneum to succession of smaller quarters, even landing briefly, ignominiously, in a parking garage. After a series of fiscal struggles and management missteps, Otlet finally faced the difficult but unavoidable choice of shutting down operations in 1934. A few years later, Nazi troops came and carted away the remnants—to make way for an exhibition of Third Reich art.

After Otlet’s death in 1944, what survived of the original Mundaneum was left to languish in an old anatomy building of the Free University in the Parc Leopold, all but forgotten. Over the ensuing half-century, more than 70 tons’ worth of its original contents were destroyed. Finally, in the mid-1990s, a group of volunteers began resurrecting Otlet’s original vision, hoping to preserve and refurbish the original Mundaneum.

In 1996, the new Mundaneum opened in Mons, Belgium, serving primarily as a museum to preserve Otlet’s legacy and his vision of the “Universal Book.” While today’s Mundaneum serves primarily as a museum and learning center, rather than as a working incarnation of Otlet’s original plan, the new institution does an admirable job of perpetuating his legacy, and reminding us of Otlet’s premonitory vision of a worldwide networked information environment.

The Traité

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Quicktime (3.2MB)

In a bitter irony, the Mundaneum’s 1934 closure coincided almost exactly with the publication of Otlet’s masterwork, the Traité de documentation, a manifesto crystallizing 40 years’ worth of writing and research into the possibilities of networked information structures.

Otlet biographer Boyd Rayward describes the Traité as ”perhaps the first systematic, modern discussion of general problems of organising information.”7

With the faceted philosophy of the UDC as backdrop, the Traité posited a universal “law of organization” declaring that no document could be properly understood by itself, but that its meaning becomes clarified through its influence on other documents, and vice versa. “[A]ll bibliological creation,” he said, “no matter how original and how powerful, implies redistribution, combination and new amalgamations.”8

While that sentiment may sound postmodernist in spirit, Otlet was no semiotician; rather, he simply believed that documents could best be understood as three-dimensional,9 with the third dimension being their social context: their relationship to place, time, language, other readers, writers and topics. Otlet believed in the possibility of empirical truth, or what he called “facticity”—a property that emerged over time, through the ongoing collaboration between readers and writers. In Otlet’s world, each user would leave an imprint, a trail, which would then become part of the explicit history of each document.

Vannevar Bush and Ted Nelson would later voice strikingly similar ideas about the notion of associative “trails” between documents. Distinguishing Otlet’s vision from the Bush-Nelson (and Berners-Lee) model is the conviction—long since fallen out of favor—in the possibility of a universal subject classification working in concert with the mutable social forces of scholarship.

Otlet’s vision suggests an intellectual cosmos illuminated both by objective classification and by the direct influence of readers and writers: a system simultaneously ordered and self-organizing, and endlessly re-configurable by the individual reader or writer.

Does Otlet still matter?

Jorge Luis Borges’ fictional Library of Babel was a place containing “all the possible combinations of the twenty-odd orthographical symbols … the translation of every book in all languages, the interpolations of every book in all books.”10

For Borges, the universal library was a literary conceit, but for Otlet it was an achievable dream: an “edifice containing all the books and the information together with all the resources of space needed to record and manage them.”11

Otlet also recognized the practical importance of “search and retrieval performed by an appropriately qualified permanent staff.” Substitute the word “Google” for “permanent staff,” and Otlet’s vision starts sounding a lot like the World Wide Web.

While it would be an exaggeration to claim that Otlet exerted a direct influence on the later development of the Web, it would be no exaggeration to say that he anticipated many of the problems we find ourselves grappling with: the explosion of published information, the limitations of current delivery and storage mechanisms, the desperate need for a classificatory framework to help us store, manage and interpret humanity’s collective intellectual capital—and, perhaps, the limits of self-organizing systems.

In the Web’s current incarnation, individual “authors” (meaning both people and institutions) maintain fixed documents, over which they exert direct control. Each document is essentially a fait accompli, with its own self-determined set of relationships to other documents. It takes a meta-application like Google or Yahoo! to discover the broader relationships between documents (usually through some combination of syntax, semantics and reputation). But those relationships, however sophisticated the algorithm used to determine them, remain largely unexposed to the end user, never becoming an explicit part of the document’s history.

Would Otlet’s Web have turned out any differently? We may yet find out. With the advent of the Semantic Web and related technologies like RDF/RSS, FOAF, and ontologies, we are moving towards an environment where social context is becoming just as important as topical content. Otlet’s vision holds out a tantalizing possibility: marrying the determinism of facets with the relativism of social networks.

In Otlet’s last book, Monde, he articulated a final vision of the great “réseau” that might as well serve as his last word:

Everything in the universe, and everything of man, would be registered at a distance as it was produced. In this way a moving image of the world will be established, a true mirror of his memory. From a distance, everyone will be able to read text, enlarged and limited to the desired subject, projected on an individual screen. In this way, everyone from his armchair will be able to contemplate creation, as a whole or in certain of its parts.12


  1. Rayward, “The Case of Paul Otlet, Pioneer of Information Science, Internationalist, Visionary: Reflections on Biography,” Journal of Librarianship and Information Science 23 (September 1991):135-145
  2. Rayward, “Visions of Xanadu: Paul Otlet (1868-1944) and Hypertext,” JASIS 45 (1994):235-250
  3. Otlet 1934 quoted in Rayward 1994
  4. Universal Decimal Classification Consortium, UDC flyer
  5. Universal Decimal Classification Consortium, “About the UDC.”
  6. Rayward, “Visions of Xanadu”
  7. Otlet quoted in Day, “Paul Otlet’s Book and the Writing of Social Space “
  8. Buckland, “Information Retrieval of More than Text” JASIS 42, 586-588
  9. Rayward, “Anticipating the Digital World: Paul Otlet and his Paper Internet”
  10. Borges, “The Library of Babel” in Labyrinths, p. 54
  11. Otlet, Traité de Documentation
  12. Otlet, Monde, pp. 390-391


Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Library of Babel,” in Labyrinths. New Directions, 1962. pp. 51-58.

Buckland. Michael. Information retrieval of more than text. Journal of the American Society for Information Science 42 (1991): 586-588

Day, Ron. “Paul Otlet’s Book and the Writing of Social Space.“ Journal of the American Society for Information Science, April 1997. http://www.lisp.wayne.edu/~ai2398/newpage4.htm

Otlet, Paul. Traite de documentation. Brussels: Editiones Mundaneum, 1934.
Otlet, Paul. Monde: essai d’universalisme: connaissance du monde, sentiment du monde, action organisée et plan du monde. Brussels: Editiones Mundaneum, 1935.
Rayward, W. Boyd. “The Case of Paul Otlet, Pioneer of Information Science, Internationalist, Visionary: Reflections on Biography,” in Journal of Librarianship and Information Science 23 (September 1991):135-145.

Rayward, W. Boyd. “Anticipating the Digital World: Paul Otlet and his Paper Internet,” Bartels Lecture at the University of Leeds, 2002.

Rayward, W. Boyd. 1994. Visions of Xanadu: Paul Otlet (1868-1944) and hypertext. Journal of the American Society for Information Science 45 (1994): 235-250.

Rayward, W. Boyd. 2002. “Anticipating the Digital World: Paul Otlet and his Paper Internet,” Bartels Lecture at the University of Leeds.

Universal Decimal Classification Consortium flyer. http://www.udcc.org/UDCC_Flyer_2001.doc

Universal Decimal Classification Consortium, “About the UDC.” http://www.udcc.org/about.htmWeb Resources

The Mundaneum, Mons, Belgium

Michael Buckland’s Paul Otlet page

Universal Decimal Classification Consortium
http://www.udcc.org/Special Thanks

Thanks to Boyd Rayward, Francoise Levie and Stephanie Manfroid for their input and encouragement.

Images courtesy of the Mundaneum, centre d’archives, Mons, BelgiumAlex Wright is a writer, information architect, and former librarian who lives and works in San Francisco. He maintains a personal web site at www.agwright.com.

Information Architecture: From Craft to Profession

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“The generation, distribution, and management of information are significant factors in today’s “knowledge” economy, and consumers are being presented with, and have instantaneous access to, more information than at any other time in history.”The importance of setting IA in a deep historical context
In my Information Architecture design classes at Florida State University’s School of Information Studies, I quickly learned that most of my students are truly children of the Information Age. They take for granted the broad array of information and communication technologies at their disposal and typically have not yet considered how recently in human history these innovations have occurred and, much less so, how each has influenced the character and place of human activity. This realization influenced my decision to set IA in a deep historical context, beginning with the “invention” of speech and concluding with the World Wide Web. My intent was to deconstruct for them the incredibly dense and complex information environments we live in today with the hope of building their awareness of their complexity. My intent was also to point out how the introduction of each major innovation in information and communication technology, in its own time, influenced human culture in dramatic ways, eventually leading to the Information Age. Another challenge I faced was how to present IA to them as a profession in the process of being born. To do this I decided to place the profession of IA in an historical context and turned to the history of architecture for an analogy. The following analogy is excerpted from the first chapter of my new book.

Information Architecture: From Craft to Profession

For thousands of years, humans have struggled to create, communicate, manage, and preserve information. This struggle is as old as civilization itself, and throughout it extend the roots of information architecture. Being aware of this history benefits our understanding of information architecture and broadens our perspective on humanity’s cultural evolution. From these events of the past, we can also come to understand better today’s information environments and, ultimately, to improve them.

The Architecture Metaphor
The metaphors we use constantly in our everyday language profoundly influence what we do because they shape our understanding. They help us describe and explore new ideas in terms and concepts found in more familiar domains. Because architecture, architects, and the profession of architecture are already well-defined concepts in the minds of many people, the architecture metaphor enables the quick construction of a conceptual model of information architecture. The metaphor capitalizes on common knowledge that architects are highly respected professionals in a very complex field of work; require rigorous specialized education and training; and are designers concerned with the occupants, aesthetics, structure, and proper mechanical functioning of buildings as well as the efficient and effective use of space. Perhaps this is why the architecture metaphor as used to help define information architecture has been adopted by so many so easily: it provides an established framework upon which a new concept—information architecture—can be quickly constructed and understood. In fact, when used as metaphors, other real-world or place-based concepts, such as environment and space, are helpful to both information architects and users in visually summarizing complex information systems.

When using electronic information systems we often hear of information-seeking behavior referred to as “wayfinding” or “navigating.” Both references are based on the commonly used spatial metaphor “information space.” By further extending this metaphor, it is easy to imagine occupants of an information space needing to have a sense of place in order to remain oriented; a sense of space so as to know where it is possible to go; and navigation devices commonly seen in physical environments such as maps, signs, paths, and landmarks for navigation. Information systems have even been referred to metaphorically as information cities, and, of course, we’ve all heard the infrastructure of the Internet referred to as the Information Superhighway. These are all spatial metaphors used to assist in the visualization of technologies and professions that are too new or complex for us to understand easily.

Some information architects believe that the practice of information architecture is very much like what architects do in that “[they] design spaces for human beings to live, work, and play in” with the primary differences being in the materials they work with (Wodtke, C., 2001). Or, that information architects in reality, not just metaphorically, are very much like architects in that they too are concerned with spatial relationships and “setting structure to an element to be built that combines components that are grouped together based on users’ understandings and expectations” (Vander Wal, T., 2001). Architecture and information architecture are, in fact, similar in many ways. Consequently, numerous analogies can be drawn between them, including their histories.

Architects are responsible for a major portion of our built environment. They design and create not only buildings but entire blocks and even cities. They plan the places where we live our lives—where we raise our families, work, socialize, worship, play, learn, and dream. Architecture is a holistic field, and aspiring architects are trained in a wide range of skills, knowledge, and sensitivities that are essential to planning, organizing, and managing the design-build process. They have long been highly respected in most cultures of the world. Indeed, rarely is a work of architecture with any historical, cultural, technical, or aesthetic significance mentioned without giving credit to the architect.

Given this present-day context, it is difficult to imagine that a great Gothic cathedral like, for example, Notre Dame de Paris with its dramatic archways, ribbed vaults, flying buttresses, large stained-glass windows, and ornate spires would not be the work of a brilliant, highly-trained architect. In fact, no one in 1163 A.D. had yet been trained as an architect; there were no architecture schools and no architecture profession. The individual responsible for the design and construction of Notre Dame was known as a cementer, a stone worker, or simply a master mason.

These are all labels descriptive of a craft. Through a crafts tradition, a master mason would generally have learned his trade by advancing through three levels of expertise:

  1. Mastering various stone crafting techniques,
  2. Mastering the processes of stone construction, and
  3. Mastering the art of design.

Stonecutters, woodcarvers, and metal smiths might all work under a master mason to build, as well as furnish, a cathedral. Consequently, the work of master masons was highly valued, and many enjoyed an elevated status typically not given to craftsmen. In fact, their names were often inscribed along with community dignitaries in prominent places in cathedrals and public works.

Gothic architecture evolved during a time of dramatic social and economic change in Western Europe. In the late 11th and 12th centuries, trade and industry were booming, resulting in improved communications between neighboring towns and cities as well as more distant communities. Taller and larger than most all community structures, Gothic cathedrals were visible from the surrounding countryside and were dramatic symbols of The Church’s powerful influence. At the same time, a new intellectual movement was rising. The outcome of these influences was the end of the isolationism of the feudal era and the emergence of a more cosmopolitan world. This era in history is known as the Medieval Ages. From this rich mix also emerged a profession concerned with designing buildings and spaces that are both beautiful and functional—architecture.

Information Architecture
For perhaps as long as two million years, our ancestors have struggled to communicate information across time and space and to preserve valuable legacies of experience for the benefit of future generations. Throughout this history, great innovations have occurred that dramatically improved humankind’s abilities to create, communicate, manage, and preserve information. Each innovation coincided with major social and economic change. They are often referred to as communication epochs: oral, writing, printing, and electronic. With the exception of the oral epoch, each has built upon its predecessor, leading to the technologically sophisticated, complex, and dense information “environments” we experience today.

Now, we are all living in a time of dramatic social and economic change. A global economy and sophisticated new communication and network technologies have resulted in practically instantaneous communication among governments, businesses, and individuals anywhere on the planet. The great towers and spires that dominate the skylines of today’s cities are symbolic of the powerful influence of The Corporation in contemporary culture. The generation, distribution, and management of information are significant factors in today’s “knowledge” economy, and consumers are being presented with, and have instantaneous access to, more information than at any other time in history. This era in human history is often referred to as the Information Age, and another new profession is emerging to meet the needs of the times—information architecture.

Information architecture is primarily about the design of information environments and the management of an information environment design process. Information architecture’s roots are in multiple fields including visual design, information design, library science, and engineering psychology (more commonly known as human factors). All are occupations focused on the creation, communication (presentation and organization), management (storage, retrieval, and distribution), or preservation of information. Each has its own history, traditions, best practices, technical languages, and technologies. Until the advent of computers and the digitization of all media and the maturation of the Internet, many of these disciplines were worlds unto themselves.

Now, many information and communication professionals, no matter what their field, are being forced by the demands of the marketplace to solve information environment design problems requiring knowledge that spans all these disciplines. Mastery of any one requires a great deal of time, practice, and knowledge. To expect mastery of all is more than can be required of an individual.

Such is the plight of many designers today. Most are too specialized in one discipline to understand fully how to organize and present information in an effective and compelling way when using a variety of media in one integrated, networked, and often interactive, environment. Yet, a rapidly growing and evolving information marketplace is putting these demands on individuals who have not been trained to handle such complex design issues nor have the knowledge to manage effectively teams of individual experts. Master masons must have faced a similar set of circumstances that pressured them to move beyond their craft (requiring highly specific knowledge) and invent a profession that required a more comprehensive knowledge of an entire design-build process using a variety of materials other than stone – architecture. Now, professionals from multiple disciplines, like master masons in the early stages of architecture’s evolution, are moving toward inventing a profession that requires a more comprehensive knowledge of an entire design-build process, using a variety of media and technologies, for the purpose of creating information environments that are beautiful, valuable to users and sponsors, and easy to use—information architecture.

  • Information Architecture: An Emerging 21st Century Profession
  • Earl Morrogh, Florida State University
  • Publisher: Prentice Hall
  • ISBN: 0130967467; 1st edition (November 15, 2002) § 216 pages
  • List price: $34.00
  • Contents:
    • Foreword, Richard Saul Wurman
    • Part I. Information Architecture: An Introduction
      1. Information Architecture: From Craft to Profession
    • Part II. Human Interactions: The Evolution of Communication Systems
      2. Let’s Talk About It: The Spoken Word
      3. Put It in Writing: The Written Word
      4. Hot Off the Press: The Printed Word
      5. Wired: The Telegraph
      6. Just Call Me: The Telephone
      7. Wireless: The Radio
      8. The Tube: Television
    • Part III. Human and Computer Interactions: The Evolution of Computing Systems
      9. ENIAC: Computation Solutions for Scientific Problems
      10. ERMA: Computation Solutions for Business Problems
      11. The Alto: Computing Gets Personal
      12. The PC Evolution: From Mainframes to Minis to Micros
    • Part IV. Computer Networks: Communication and Computing Systems Converge
      13. Internauts: Architects of the Intergalactic Network
      14. ARPAnet: The Birth of the Internet
      15. Email: The First Killer “App.”
      16. WWW: The World Wide Web
    • Part V. Info Ailments: Unintended Consequences of the Information Age
      17. Info Glut, Info Trash, Info Hype, and Info Stress
    • Part VI. Toward A New Discipline: Information Architecture
      18. IA: The Process
      19. IA: The Practitioner
      20. IA: The Profession
      21. IA: Educating Information Architects
      22. IA: Education Theory, A Design Foundation for Information Architecture, by Keith Belton.
      23. Information Architects: Envisioning the Future of IA

The author, Earl Morrogh, is a visiting scholar in Florida State University’s School of Information Studies. He is a writer, designer, and educator who has studied and worked for 30 years in several fields, including architectural and visual design, multimedia design, communications, and education. He considers these areas of professional interest to be interrelated and his knowledge of them essential for informing his research of the emerging profession of information architecture.

Ranganathan for IAs

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An Introduction to the Thought of S.R. Ranganathan for Information Architects

“Ranganathan aimed big—he was looking for the fundamental laws that underlie experience and it quickly became an obsession.”

S.R. Ranganathan was the greatest librarian of the 20th Century. No one else even comes close. His ideas influenced every aspect of library science (a term he is credited with coining), and because he was such a complete and systematic thinker, he was gifted in the development of all areas of the field, including theory, practice, and management. Yet, as impressive as his accomplishments were, Ranganathan didn’t start out with the intention of becoming a librarian at all.

He was born in Madras, India, in 1892, trained as a mathematician, and eventually became a lecturer of mathematics at the University of Madras. In 1924 the university offered him the position of librarian. One of the conditions of the appointment was that he attend training in London to learn contemporary methods of librarianship. It was during this trip that he met W.C. Berwick Sayers, who taught him about classification theory, and it was on this trip that he began observing libraries throughout the city.

In 1925 he returned to India a different person. His desire to build libraries and improve librarianship became a passion. The basic methods Ranganathan used to develop his ideas emerged from his background in mathematics and his beliefs in Hindu mysticism. He would examine complex phenomena, break his observations into small pieces, and then attempt to connect the pieces together in a systematic way. This method has often been called the Analytico-Synthetic method. Ranganathan used this methodology for classification, management, reference, administration, and many other subjects. Francis Miksa stated it well: “Ranganathan treated library classification as a single unified structure of ideas which flowed from a cohesive set of basic principles” (Miksa, 1998) Ranganathan aimed big—he was looking for the fundamental laws that underlie experience and it quickly became an obsession. Girja Kumar reports, “There had not been a day of the life of Ranganathan since 1924 when he did not breathe, think, talk, and even dream of librarianship and library science” (Kumar, 1992) Kumar further reports, “[Ranganathan] spent two decades as librarian of Madras University. Never did he take any vacations during this period. He spent 13 hours every day for seven days a week on the premises of the library.” (Kumar, 1992) He wrote his 62 books in the evenings, during his off hours.

In addition to the almost uncountable number of books and articles Ranganathan authored, he also created several professional and educational organizations, primarily in India, and he participated in library movements around the world.

For most librarians today, he is primarily remembered for two contributions: the Five Laws of Library Science and the Colon Classification.

The Five Laws of Library Science
The Five Laws are the kernel of all of Ranganathan’s practice. They are:

  1. Books are for use.
  2. Every reader his or her book.
  3. Every book its reader.
  4. Save the time of the reader.
  5. The Library is a growing organism.

While the laws seem simple on first reading, think about some of the conversations on SIGIA and how neatly these laws summarize much of what the IA community believes. Ranganathan saw these laws as the lens through which practitioners can inform their decision making and set their business priorities, while staying focused on the user. Although they are simply stated, the laws are nevertheless deep and flexible. They can also be updated to include the field of IA in a variety of ways.

1. Books are for use.
Websites are designed to be used, they are not temples or statues we admire from a distance. We want people to interact with our websites, click around, do things, and have fun.

2. Every book its reader.

3. Every reader its book.
Maybe we can modify these two to say “each piece of content its user” and “each user his/her content.” The point here is that we should add content with specific user needs in mind, and we should make sure that readers can find the content they need. Laws 2 and 3 remind me of the methodology taught by Adaptive Path. Make certain our content is something our users have identified as a need, and at the same time make sure we don’t clutter up our site with content no one seems to care about.

4. Save the time of the user.
This law, when we are talking of websites, has both a front-end component (make sure people quickly find what they are looking for) and a back-end component (make sure our data is structured in a way that retrieval can be done quickly). It is also imperative that we understand what goals our users are trying to achieve on our site.

5. The library is a living organism.
We need to plan and build with the expectation that our sites and our users will grow and change over time. Similarly we need to always keep our own skill levels moving forward.

Colon Classification
Besides these laws, Ranganathan is also famous for the Colon Classification system, a widely influential but rarely used classification system. This is his greatest achievement and where he developed most of his most famous ideas, including facets and facet analysis. The system is again based on Ranganathan looking for “universal principles” inherent in all knowledge. His belief was that if he could identify these, organizing around them would be more intuitive for the user.

For Ranganathan, the problem with the Dewey Decimal and Library of Congress classification systems is that they used indexing terms that had to be thought out before the object being described could fit into the system. With the explosion of new information early in the 20th Century, the enumerative, or pre-planned, systems could not keep up. Ranganathan’s solution was the development of facets. This idea came to him while watching someone use an erector set (Garfield, 1984).

Rather than creating a slot to insert the object into, one starts with the object and then collects and arranges all the relevant pieces on the fly. This allows for greater flexibility and a high degree of specificity.

The fundamental facets that Ranganathan developed were: Personality, Matter, Energy, Space, and Time. (Amaze your librarian friends by referring to these by the acronym PMEST!)

  • Personality—what the object is primarily “about.” This is considered the “main facet.”
  • Matter—the material of the object
  • Energy—the processes or activities that take place in relation to the object
  • Space—where the object happens or exists
  • Time—when the object occurs

Ranganathan believed that any object (for him this meant any concept that a book could be written about) could be represented by pulling relevant pieces from these five facets and fitting them together. All of the facets do not need to be represented, and each can be pulled any number of times. The notation for each facet was separated by using a colon, hence the name of the system. Arlene Taylor provides a good example that uses all five facets. Imagine a book about “the design of wooden furniture in 18th century America.” (Taylor, 1999)

The facets would be as follows:

  • Personality—furniture
  • Matter—wood
  • Energy—design
  • Space—America
  • Time—18th century

The book is described by combining the relevant pieces from each facet. “Wood” is a piece of that description which covers an area that none of the other pieces cover. The power comes through combining the pieces together to form the whole. In this case, it is a one-to-one ratio, which would be rare in real life. Also, keep in mind that the specifics of how the Colon Classification works are complex (be skeptical of anyone who claims to understand them), and are generally beyond the realm of the practicing IA.

(Stay Tuned: Boxes and Arrows has plans to write in more detail about facets in the future.)

There is, however, much that the practicing IA can take from Ranganathan. Besides exploring concepts such as the Five Laws or practices such as facet analysis, Ranganathan was also a diligent evangelist of getting information to people who needed it, and he thought deeply about the problems he faced from all sides. There is still a lot that needs to be done to build up the field of information architecture; Ranganathan may help us the most by serving as inspiration.

  1. Miksa, Francis L., The DDC, the Universe of Knowledge, and the Post-Modern Library. Albany: Forest Press, 1998; 67
  2. Kumar, Girja, S.R. Ranganathan: An Intellectual Biography., New Delhi: Har-Anand Publications, 1992; 45
  3. Kumar, 93
  4. Garfield, Eugene, A Tribute to S.R. Ranganathan: Part 1. Life and Works, http://www.garfield.library.upenn.edu/essays/v7p037y1984.pdf; 40
  5. Taylor, Arlene G., The Organization of Information., Englewood: Libraries Unlimited, Inc., 1999; 180

Mike Steckel is an Information Architect/Technical Librarian for International SEMATECH in Austin, TX.