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:
- Mastering various stone crafting techniques,
- Mastering the processes of stone construction, and
- 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.
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.
1. Information Architecture: From Craft to Profession
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
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
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
17. Info Glut, Info Trash, Info Hype, and Info Stress
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