Architectural Intelligence

Architectural Intelligence: Part 1

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We are pleased to present a few sections from Molly Wright Steenson’s brilliant book detailing the rich history of Digital Architecture. The book covers five influential architects who insisted on working to forward digital approaches, and proceeded to create the design path for a lot of modern digital design, including the origins of Information Architecture.

In Part 1 of these book excerpts Molly covers the history of how Information Architecture emerged as a practice and the beginnings of what we know of as IA today.

Understanding through Architecture

Richard Saul Wurman, born in 1935, popularized the concept of architectures of information, the profession of information architecture, and the title of information architect. Along with Christopher Alexander, he is the architect of influence on information architects and interaction designers. Wurman articulated the confusion of the early World Wide Web, offering the means to make it more navigable and, thus, more human. Throughout his career, Wurman has been interested in cities, communication, learning, mapping, information design, and conferences. Likewise, he was and is a prolific publisher, speaker, organizer, and instigator of ideas. He boils his career down to the singular pursuit of “understanding,” to making information inform—finding the form in information.       

Wurman trained and worked as an architect—he completed both a bachelor and master of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, worked for iconic architect Louis Kahn, then ran his own architecture practice till 1976. Bemoaning the ways that design fell short in making the world more meaningful, Wurman wrote, “That’s why I’ve chosen to call myself an Information Architect. I don’t mean a bricks and mortar architect. I mean architect as used in the words architect of foreign policy. I mean architect as in the creating of systemic, structural, and orderly principles to make something work—the thoughtful making of either artifact, or idea, or policy that informs because it is clear.”17 With this approach, he pushed the boundaries of how architects and designers configure their work, as Gary Wolf noted in a Wired magazine article in 2000 (a project that itself launched because of connections made at a TED conference). “Richard Saul Wurman, trained as an architect of buildings, has become America’s premier architect of information,” state the first lines of the introduction in his 1989 book Information Anxiety.

Wurman’s work bridges design and architecture by claiming space through the structuring of information, whether in two or three dimensions, on the page or through social interaction. He developed methods to control information overload through mechanisms that categorize, serialize, spatialize, and typologize information. Moreover, he understood the dynamics of convergence, and promoted the sociality that learning and information sharing could provide. An interviewer wrote in 1976 that Wurman “keeps telling me that he’s in communications and I keep telling him that he’s in space.”20 Essentially, Wurman is in both places: for him, is there any difference between cities, publications, and information? He approaches them all in the same manner. He made the collecting and sharing of information not only an architectural endeavor, but also the right of the residents of a city. He developed (and continues to develop) information sharing platforms that make the world more accessible. These platforms include the mapping methods he developed in his articles and atlases, the publications that assembled the work of numerous designers, and conferences such as the Aspen International Design Conference in 1972, the AIA Convention in 1976, and the TED conferences that he founded in 1984 and led until 2002. His work bridges space from the page to the person, with the fostering of understanding and learning at its center.

Of course, Wurman wouldn’t necessarily see it this way. If you ask him, he will tell you that he is in the business of understanding. “I never thought that information would be important to architecture, I thought that understanding would be important to life,” he told me in an interview. The same axioms appear and reappear in his work. His words are so consistent that it is hard to figure out where to quote them first—1963,1974, 2001, or 2013? There is also much to draw from: at least eighty-three books, the many conferences he produced, and more recently, websites and apps. His prolificness resists being cast in an interpretive light, as information architect Dan Klyn discovered in his research on Wurman and the application of his ideas to information architecture practices. Wurman reminded him to keep it simple—to keep it dumb.

As a collector and promoter of ideas, Wurman crosses over other figures in this book. His edited volumes include maps that Christopher Alexander had a hand in designing, as well as some of Alexander’s language on patterns. Wurman is a close friend of Nicholas Negroponte, who spoke at the first TED conference (and many since). Some of the themes that run through his work will also appear in other chapters of this book: convergence, generativity, and translation. In many different modes, this is what we will see Wurman do: translate architecture into a foundation for the digital world, translate printed information into a three-dimensional understanding, translate both of these modes into the social realm. Through Wurman’s work, we better understand information and cities, interfaces and architecture.

In this chapter, I start with Wurman’s 1996 book Information Architects. I jump back to 1963 to begin a discussion of his mapping-related publications and projects and the spatial and serializing strategies they use. Then, I look at his narrative interfaces: his information-organization techniques and what kinds of understanding they foster. Finally, I look at the convergent platforms he designed: the conferences and conversations his work sought to start. In conclusion, I revisit what is architectural about his approach and how it influenced digital design.

Information Architects

The world was drowning in so much information that everyone was choking on it. This chaos was the cause of so many problems in the world, from education to business to politics to health care. The world needed information architects.

Richard Saul Wurman’s 1996 book Information Architects situated information architecture as a necessity in rectifying the deluge. “There is a tsunami of data that is crashing onto the beaches of the civilized world. This is a tidal wave of unrelated, growing data formed in bits and bytes, coming in an unorganized, uncontrolled, incoherent cacophony of foam,” he wrote in the first lines of the introduction. “And yet, through this field of black volcanic ash has come a group of people, small in number, deep in passion, called Information Architects, who have begun to ply their trade, make themselves visible, and develop a body of work on paper, in electronic interfaces, and in some extraordinary exhibitions. These people will be the wave of the future,” Wurman wrote. Information architecture was a noble calling. And the people that we will meet in the next chapter listened.

A richly saturated, 240-page coffee-table book, mostly black pages with white print, Information Architects presents the work of twenty designers and design practices. It shows numerous examples of information design, including the graphic design of publications, examples of wayfinding for public space, and software interfaces. At that time, the distinction between information design and information architecture did not yet exist—Wurman’s book strove to be a polemic that introduced the distinction.Information Architects celebrated work that crossed media boundaries, between new approaches to design for publications, software interfaces, mapping, sketching, and environmental design, work that could span, scope, and scale. What made the projects in the book architectural was the fact that they were in some way spatial. They organized space and human processes, something that all of the projects in Information Architects showcase in different ways.

The projects in Information Architects that spanned screen to page expanded the notion of what either could be on their own. Nathan Shedroff and vivid studios designed the CD-ROM Voices of the 30s as a curriculum, a “library in a box” that offered a thematic approach to the experience of living in the 1930s. It was designed to allow students to design their own paths through the material, a prescient approach for a preWeb format. Demystifying Multimedia, a book and CD-ROM designed by vivid studios for Apple, feels like a software interface on a book page. It is a guide organized by the processes that one follows in designing multimedia projects (prototyping, production, testing, distribution). Working the way through the book is itself a multimedia process, even though it takes place on a book page.

Similarly, Maria Giudice and Lynne Stiles, principals of information design company YO, translated the processes of digital printing in the AGFA Digital Color Pre-Press Guide, a highly visual guide for designers. Like the work of Shedroff and his team at vivid studios, Giudice and Stiles focused on the processes of completing a task, then organized the information and media that would best accomplish the task. For the Peachpit Press website, their first web project, they had to acknowledge that they did not have the same graphical richness as the AGFA book. “Designing for the Web, at least in these early days, means shrugging off attempts to control the ‘graphic design’ and focus on the interface: how the reader understands and accesses the content of the publisher’s site and its network of pages,” Giudice and Stiles wrote. “The most important aspects of a successful web site are organization and navigation—the design must support both.”26 

Other projects in Information Architects take the notion of information architecture forward into physical space, introducing how the exhibition design in museums organizes space and experience, such as in the work of Ralph Appelbaum, and the curation and information strategies of Donovan and Green and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Erik Spiekermann, the founder of MetaDesign, demonstrated how a studio could produce systems ranging from the minute elements of a typeface all the way up to a strategy for reuniting a formerly walled city. Information Architects includes examples of both. The FF Meta typeface that Spiekermann and his colleagues at Sedley Place Design created was intended for the German Bundespost in 1987, but the post office didn’t use it. Released commercially in 1991, the Meta typeface can be found out in the world at many scales, in books and magazines, bus-side advertisements, airport wayfinding systems, and transit maps. Information Architects also demonstrated how MetaDesign applied the logic of scale to a map and to a city at large. Spiekermann and his colleagues designed the post–Berlin Wall public transit map in 1992, a project that influenced how people found their way around Berlin. After the wall fell, Berlin began a lengthy process of consolidating the myriad transit systems of the two halves of the city, all of which were governed by different agencies. The goal was to design an adaptive map that could be updated by the BVG (Berlin Transit Authority). In so doing, the map helped to re-present and synthesize the city’s reunification.

The information architects that Wurman introduced in the book were translators. They took human processes and interests, determined their informational requirements, and organized them accordingly. They understood that these processes unfold over time and space, and they designed interfaces that put them in order for their users. Thinking back to the definitions of architecture that I introduced at the beginning of this book, it is clear that these designers were thinking architecturally: conceiving and mapping, conveying and translating, measuring and modeling. Similarly, they were architecting as a verb: working from the minutiae to the major, fitting parts and wholes into something greater than the sum. Wurman claimed in the introduction of Information Architects that the practitioners of this burgeoning field would be the future. By these definitions, perhaps it’s fair to say that they were.

Information Architects and the Web

In the earliest days of the Web, resources were available about how to build a website but few about how to design one. Laura Lemay’s very successful book Teach Yourself Web Publishing with HTML in a Week, which came out January 1, 1995, introduced the basics of Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), the Web formatting language, and the Netscape website offered a few pointers. But for the most part, people tended to learn Web design by doing Web design, by using the “view source” command on cool websites, looking at the HTML, and then trying the code out for themselves. These early Web tinkerers didn’t necessarily think about an end user. Rather, they thought of themselves and their interests in playing with the Web’s latest conventions and publishing whatever content they wanted. (I could include myself and my 1995 personal site,, in this category: a fine example of “just because you can doesn’t mean you should,” in terms of Web design.) The “cool” factor of websites stood in for a design sensibility. But as communications scholar Megan Sapnar Ankerson writes, what constituted cool could really be anything—“a hodgepodge so arbitrary, that it appears hard to draw out any defining characteristics of cool.”24 But design? For the most part, in the early days of the Web, it didn’t exist.

Not surprisingly, the early Web was a messy place. It grew in an ad hoc manner because the tools and languages for building websites were not locked in a proprietary system. Before blogging systems took hold in the early 2000s, design conventions hadn’t been locked down. This ease and openness was what made it evolve so quickly.

But it’s also what made it inconsistent, if not chaotic. For this reason, information architects tasked themselves with providing structure, formatting, and sense to the Web. Information architect Christina Wodtke wrote about the chaos of the early days in a 2014 Medium post on the history of information architecture. “[The Web] wasn’t very interactive. To be honest, it barely had any interface design either,” she wrote. What passed for interactivity had more to do with what a user did with browser buttons, such as bookmarking a page or filling out a Web form. “But what the Internet did have was information. Everybody put everything they had up on the Web, from help pages to marketing brochures. It was a mess, and someone had to make it all make sense. So while most software interaction designers declined to play with the very limited set of tinker toys the Internet offered, others stepped up to fight the ‘tidal wave of data.’ And they become the first Information Architects.”

One of the first resources that promoted a structured approach to Web design and development was the “Web Architect” column authored by Lou Rosenfeld, Peter Morville, and Samantha Bailey on Web Review (itself one of the first weekly publications about Web design and development), which launched on August 17, 1995. In his introductory column, Louis Rosenfeld addressed the problems that the early Web presented. “What is Web site architecture?” he asked. “Well, Web users face a number of problems: awkward designs, confusing navigational aids, documents covered by walls of blue links, and on and on. In fact, at every level of a Web site’s architecture, there are plenty of things that can and often do go wrong,” he wrote. He wrote that Web architecture should take into consideration the site’s audience, balance the site’s design with its functionality, offer short-but-sweet pages, and extend to support future growth. “A ‘good’ architecture for a Web site succeeds at all levels of granularity,” whether of the page elements, the page itself, or the overall structure, he wrote. Ultimately, a Web architect would not hit the site visitor over the head with “your site’s coolness factor”— he warned, “They’ll get mighty sick of cuteness and splashiness after a while, and hey, let’s face it: A successful site should not concentrate on initially engaging the interest of new users. . . . Don’t sacrifice that functionality to aesthetics, because after the feeling of falling in love wears off, you’ll be married to your Web site.”

Still, early IAs didn’t trust design. It seemed at odds with the more serious, rigorous work of “architecture.” Design was window dressing, the icing on the cake. “Architecture” meant solving problems. It meant being thoughtful. Rosenfeld, Morville, and Bailey advised budding Web architects to work at all levels of granularity to make good site blueprints (or site maps), employ appropriate metaphors in their design, and tune up their pages and site architectures. They did not suggest becoming designers—they instead advised their readers to think like architects.

The “Polar Bear” Book

As websites increased in complexity, library and information science approaches provided advanced ways to organize information. Library and information scientists were an important voice in the IA community, who defended the specificity of a scaffolding, structural process. Those were the fields that Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville came from, with master’s degrees from the University of Michigan in Information and Library Science. Rosenfeld cofounded Argus Associates with UM professor Joe Janes and hired Morville, then a student, in 1994. Argus provided consultancy that focused specifically on information architecture, and its blue-chip clients included AT&T, Chrysler, and Dow Chemical. Was an academic degree from an I-school (an information science program) necessary? Rosenfeld and Morville were the first to say that IA didn’t require this level of specialization. “You don’t need a library degree to be a successful information architect. Despite the requirements listed in some job descriptions, it’s hard to have had years of experience within this fledgling medium. More important . . . is common sense, plain and simple. The Web is too new for anyone to feel secure in claiming that there is a ‘right way’ to do things,” they wrote. But while the burgeoning discipline of information architecture was open to people from a variety of backgrounds, it did set out a right way, or at least a better way, to do things.

In the days pre-Google, it was hard to find information on the Web. Search engines existed, but they were not as effective as they are today, and without a usable information organization scheme, it was difficult to navigate a website. Information architects determined the appropriate organization schemes for a site, such as organizing information alphabetically, geographically, metaphorically, or by task; the navigation for the website, with keywords designed into the page; and the labeling schemas for the individual pages and their subsections. Information architects created site maps with information hierarchies showing how a user might move from one page of the site to another (these maps were originally called “blueprints.”) “Sites that use well-planned information architectures are as magical as the phenomenon of routing users and packets respectively,” Rosenfeld and Morville wrote.”

Information architects defined the architecture of a digital space or information environment. This notion is akin to what architects call the program, the function of an architectural space. Thinking about buildings as an analog encouraged early information architects to consider not just the design and the structure but also the inhabitant of a space. “What is it about buildings that stir us?”31 ask Rosenfeld and Morville in their book, Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, first published in 1998 (referred to as the “polar bear book” because of the polar bear drawing on its cover and now in its fourth edition, published in 2016). Rosenfeld and Morville describe a set of buildings and environments in Ann Arbor—a smoky bar, a cozy café, or an office that used to be a garage. “Why so much talk about the impressions that physical structures make on us? Because they are familiar to us in ways that web sites are not. Like web sites, buildings have architectures that cause us to react. Buildings and their architectures therefore provide us with great opportunities to make analogies about web sites and their architectures.”

Rosenfeld and Morville talk about architecture differently than architects would. Architects, to recall the first chapter of this book, would refer to the design of buildings. They would be unlikely to say that buildings “have” architectures. It would be the apperception of the design that would cause a reaction. Rosenfeld and Morville appropriated certain metaphors of architecture in a different language than architects would use. In so doing, they gave early Web practitioners a way of looking at the world: seeing the scope of structure, the necessity of function and program, to use the architectural terms. Just as architects designed the program, the structure and engineering, and the overall experience of a building, an information architect determined the functionality, the structures and categories of the information the site provided, and the user experience—the way that someone would experience moving through the website. Thinking of the Web from an architectural perspective meant thinking of who might move through your website, in the same way that they might move through a built space: wouldn’t you want it to be elegant, thoughtful, and attractive?

Molly Wright Steenson

Molly Wright Steenson is a designer, author, professor, and international speaker whose work focuses on the intersection of design, architecture, and artificial intelligence. She is the Senior Associate Dean for Research in the College of Fine Arts, the K&L Gates Associate Professor of Ethics and Computational Technologies at Carnegie Mellon University and an associate professor in the School of Design (with a courtesy appointment in the School of Architecture). Steenson is the author of Architectural Intelligence: How Designers and Architects Created the Digital Landscape (MIT Press, 2017), which tells the radical history of AI’s impact on design and architecture, and the forthcoming book Bauhaus Futures (MIT Press, expected 2019), co-edited with Laura Forlano & Mike Ananny. A web pioneer since 1994, she’s worked at groundbreaking design studios, consultancies, and Fortune 500 companies. She holds a PhD in Architecture from Princeton University, a Master’s in Environmental Design (architectural history) from Yale School of Architecture, and a BA in German from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with honors and distinction.
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