Architectural Intelligence

Architectural Intelligence: Part 2

by:   |  Posted on

We are pleased to present a few more 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 2 of these book excerpts Molly covers the early history of Boxes and Arrows alongside a few events and details from the early IA community.

From Information Design to the Information Architect

Although early information architects were suspicious of design on the Web, just outside of their field was “information design,” an established practice that had its own scholarly publication (the Information Design Journal from 1979 onward). Information designers focused on the presentation of information. As Robert Horn wrote in 1999, “The values that distinguish information design from other kinds of design are efficiency and effectiveness at accomplishing the communicative purpose.”33 Information design worked at multiple scales, with designers creating documents that were easy to find and understand, “interactions with equipment” (in the realm of human–computer interaction) and the navigation of “three-dimensional space . . . especially urban space, but also, given recent developments, virtual space.” This definition echoes Lou Rosenfeld’s recommendation of considering the multiple scales of website granularity, from page element to page to website, in his first “Web Architect” column. The difference is that information design found a place in multiple kinds of design practice. It went by different names depending on where it was practiced: “information graphics” for a magazine, “wayfinding” for an architect, plain old “design” for graphic designers. These fields shared an approach that started with cognitive science, working in an array of practices ranging from computer interfaces to data visualizations to urban space, by a number of different titles, and would eventually come to blend into the concerns of information architecture.

A number of pre-Web and emerging Web and software companies called their work information design before later differentiating their work as information architecture. For example, Karen McGrane, a user-experience designer who led the user-experience practice at the agency Razorfish from 1998 to 2006, was initially hired as an “information designer/writer.” When she became the group manager, she took on the mantle of “information architect” and changed the name of the information design group to information architecture. “At the time, the term ‘designer’ was so strongly associated with graphic design—particularly in the agency world—that it made sense to latch onto the word architect,” she says. Information design meant the design of charts and graphs, so it wasn’t really the right term, particularly once Razorfish began to acquire data visualization companies that had that practice as their forte. “[Information architecture] connoted something more structural, less visual,” she continues. “I think it also suggested the work of an architect in defining how a system or space should work and function, separate from what it should look like.”

Information architects and information designers were also different from visual designers, many of whom worked with Flash, a browser plug-in for vector-based animation and rich media on the Web. Flash files were very small, making it an attractive format for designers to deliver highly visual experiences on the Web. As Megan Sapnar Ankerson writes, “Flash appealed to a new vision of the web, one vastly different from the static, silent, textual form that imitated the aesthetics of print. . . . Its popularity rising with the dot-com bubble, Flash rep-resented a transformative moment in web production discourse where presumptions concerning ‘quality’ web design (how the web should look, feel, sound, behave) were in flux.” There were vibrant communities around design, such as Kaliber 10000 (k10k), founded by Michael Schmidt, Toke Nygaard, and Per Jørgen Jørgensen in 1997, one of the first portals for Web designers, and the forum founded by Joshua Davis that was in existence from 2000 to 2001. While I am not covering these design communities in this book, they are an important element—and sometimes element of opposition—in the more seemingly left-brained information architecture and usability testing approaches of the time. They demonstrated that the Web could push the boundaries of visual design in developing Web-native aesthetics.

Professionalizing Information Architecture

Information architects were particularly successful in organizing and professionalizing their practice by using blogs and email lists to support, educate, and provide resources for the community. The community developed its own conference, the IA Summit; an email list, SIGIA-L (which stood for Special Interest Group IA-List), in 2000; a peer-reviewed journal, Boxes and Arrows, in 2002; and a non-profit institute, the Asilomar Institute of Information Architecture (which became the Information Architecture Institute in 2005). Here, I want to home in on the IA Summit and Boxes and Arrows

The first IA Summit took place in 2000—the first full-fledged conference devoted specifically to information architecture—and has taken place every year since. The organizers and sponsors reflected the two strains of interest in the field at that time, library science and Web consulting. Conference chairs Lou Rosenfeld, Gary Marchioni, and Victor Rosenberg came from library science backgrounds (Marchioni and Rosenberg were professors of library science at University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill and University of Michigan, respectively), and the Association of Information Science (ASIS) and dotcom Web consultancies Zefer, Sapient, and iXL sponsored the gathering. Speakers included Web and design luminaries including Clement Mok, Mark Hurst, Alison Head, and Jeff Veen. While many of the talks were introductory in nature, defining what information architecture was from the perspectives of the speakers, the IA Summit felt “edgy” and “experimental” as Rosenfeld said in 2001. The summit galvanized not only the attendees but the broader IA community. By the time of the second IA Summit in February 2001, the SIGIA mailing list had exploded to more than 1,650 subscribers, and local IA groups had formed internationally. There were jobs for IAs, too, with at least a hundred online postings. In short, it was a booming field, and information architects were keen on fostering its growth.

Another central endeavor gave the booming information architecture community a voice: Boxes and Arrows, a peer-reviewed, blog-based journal for information architects. The goal of Boxes and Arrows was to provide a critical position from which to explore the practice of information architecture. “Boxes and Arrows is the definitive source for the complex task of bringing architecture and design to the digital landscape,” wrote Boxes and Arrows publisher Christina Wodtke in the site’s first post. “There are various titles and professions associated with this undertaking—information architecture, information design, interaction design, interface design—but when we looked at the work that we were actually doing, we found a ‘community of practice’ with similarities in outlook and approach that far outweighed our differences.”41 Boxes and Arrows launched with eleven stories, including a comparison of three online bookstores, a discussion of the clash between design and the executive suite, and a review of Ray and Charles Eames’s iconic film Powers of Ten, as well as pieces on participatory design, usability testing, government consulting, and the simplicity of Yahoo! Mail. Each week, Boxes and Arrows published several articles written by active participants in fields affiliated with information architecture.

Not everybody in the community agreed with calling the practice “architecture.” Nathan Shedroff, author of Experience Design and the founder of vivid studios, one of the first Web design firms, was cynical about the titling. In the same launch issue of Boxes and Arrows, he criticized the self-named architects:

For a field that is barely even two years old, the exact same egomaniacal process is starting but, this time, with even less substance. I sat through a presentation last year of Experience Architecture which, as far as I could tell, had no new insights, processes, or techniques to offer other than what would already be covered (or uncovered) in Experience Design. The only reason for this title was to differentiate this one company’s offering. . . . Can you imagine a group of Fashion Architects declaring their supremacy over Fashion Designers? Yes, that’s what we’ve come to.

It wasn’t that Shedroff had a problem with information architecture: he wrote a column titled “The Architect” in New Media magazine (the title of which garnered him a cease-and-desist letter, as we saw in chapter 1) and counted Richard Saul Wurman as his mentor—he worked for him at his studio, The Understanding Business. Shedroff criticized the territoriality of claiming architecture. IA was too reductive in its framing, where design, or experience design, or interaction design, offered a broader framework.

Information architecture hit its peak around 2004. At its highest point, Wodtke and Morville had been interviewed by the Wall Street Journal. Using Google Trends to chart the relative interest in two search terms, “information architecture” and “user experience,” shows a wide gulf between them in January 2004, with the lines hurtling toward each other over the next four years. By 2008, the lines intersect, and after 2009, interest in user experience overtakes that of information architecture, a gulf that continues to grow as information architecture drops considerably in interest. This map of search interests corresponds to what was taking place in Web information architecture and user experience.

By 2009, seven years after Shedroff’s critique, information architects started backing away from their title and began calling themselves designers. As we have seen, the practice of information architecture grew in opposition to design—the approaches and interests of information architects differed from those of designers in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Information architects had focused heavily on the professionalization of the practice and the claiming of the term “architect.” Why did many of them begin to step away from that title?

There were strategic and structural reasons for the decline of IA and the rise of user experience design (UX). First, there was the distinction between “big IA and little IA,” a conversation that started in the community in 2003 after a blog post that Peter Morville wrote, a differentiation between the categorical work of the library science–oriented information architect (little IA), and the expanded purview of big IA, involving ethnographic research and design strategy. This distinction produced a split within the community as it began to separate out the different tasks in information architecture. In retrospect, the division could be viewed as a difference between the IA produced by library scientists and that of strategic designers, as Peter Merholz, Garry van Patter, and Dan Klyn have noted.

Second, in the early days of the Web, interactivity took place largely by clicking links in the Web browser. Search engines were not as effective as they are now, and so structuring information was vital in order to make the Web usable and useful. In 2005, Tim O’Reilly coined the term “Web 2.0” to describe a new set of practices on the Web: interactivity on the page level, such as the slippy interactions with Google Maps and emergent social media with the photo-sharing Flickr. Jesse James Garrett and his colleagues at the user-experience studio Adaptive Path called this increasing functionality in the browser “AJAX,” which stood for Asynchronous JavaScript+XML.”45 AJAX enabled the Web browser to render and produce more interaction without having to make a call to the server. Again, think about how quickly Google Maps responds to your clicking and dragging, or how the Google search engine makes suggestions for you as you type. These actions are provided by a JavaScript engine that the browser loads in an invisible frame that provides a much faster response than going back to the server for more information.

AJAX and its related technological approaches and Web 2.0 produced new approaches to design and new business paradigms. Social media exploded with Facebook, which launched on campuses in 2004 and, by 2007, was in heavy use by adults and teens alike. Twitter launched in 2006 and started becoming massively popular in 2007, with its terse character count and its extensibility across computers and mobile phones. And what about smartphones? Apple launched the iPhone in 2007 and Google the Android operating system in 2008, making the smartphone the site of interactivity.

Interaction Design

Interaction design is another umbrella term for design practices at the nexus of software design, human-computer interaction, information architecture, and interface design, among others (sometimes interchangeably, and sometimes fiercely defended). The question for interaction designers was not one of ontologies and facets of information, although they frequently engaged in the same kinds of user research (and what had been termed “big IA” in 2003). Interaction designers develop the function and the feeling of these human-machine-software interactions that move between multiple modes and apparatuses. Interaction designers specify, communicate, and prototype these actions.

Interaction design developed out of the edges of industrial design, the point at which the designer’s purview needed to address the object, the interface, and the relationship between the two. It was coined as a term by Bill Moggridge, an industrial designer, and Bill Verplank, a mechanical engineer, in the 1980s. Moggridge designed the GRiD Compass, the first laptop, in 1980. When Moggridge turned it on for the first time, he found himself absorbed not by the form of the laptop but the software running within it. “All the work that I had done to make the object elegant to look at and to feel was forgotten, and I found myself immersed for hours at a time in the interactions that were dictated by the design of the software and electronic hardware. My frustrations and rewards were in this virtual space,“ Morridge wrote. Designing the interactive experience was at least as important as designing the device. He initially called this intersection of interface design and software “Soft-face.” His collaborator Verplank suggested “interaction design.”

The practice of interaction design picked up steam in Europe, particularly at the Royal College of Art under the leadership of Gillian Crampton Smith. She founded the Computer Related Design MA program in 1990, adapting it from a CAD (computer-aided design) technology course into a new perspective on design. By 1998, Crampton Smith’s program had a broader focus than that of Web-based information architects, with three areas of study: “interactive information worlds,” “tangible computing,” and “intelligent environments,” the general areas that are taught in interaction design programs today. Crampton Smith left the RCA to found a school, the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea in Ivrea, Italy. The two-year master’s program educated students from more than twenty countries, from 2001 to 2006. Carnegie Mellon’s School of Design launched its master’s in interaction design in 1994, and has graduated students every year since. (Full disclosure: I am an associate professor in CMU’s School of Design, and was an associate professor at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea).

Since interaction grew out of the design of tangible and physical objects, it was also well suited to architectural connections. Several faculty members at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea were trained as architects (although in Italy, design degrees are conferred by schools of architecture, so this was not a surprise). For example, Stefano Mirti taught “Buildings as Interface” in 2003 at Interaction-Ivrea, a course that encouraged students to design for interactions at the urban scale and inspired master’s thesis projects in the area. Architecture scholar and University of Michigan professor Malcolm McCullough saw the architectural possibilities and potencies in interaction design. “As ambient, social, and local provisions for everyday life, those realities have become part of architecture. Whereas previous paradigms of cyberspace threatened to dematerialize architecture, pervasive computing invites a defense of architecture. In sum, my essential claim is that interaction design must now serve our basic human need for getting into place,” he wrote in his 2005 book Digital Ground: Architecture, Pervasive Computing, and Environmental Knowing.

Titles in Flux

If you find the shifting titles and practice names confusing, you’re not alone. It was a problem that needed to be fixed: IAs needed to unify under a different umbrella. “What is clear to me now is that there is no such thing as an information architect,” Jesse James Garrett announced in the closing plenary of the tenth IA Summit in 2009. “Information architecture does not exist as a profession. As an area of interest and inquiry? Sure. As your favorite part of your job? Absolutely. But it’s not a profession.”50 For as much as he and others grappled with calling themselves “designers” or working within “design,” “experience design” had the extensibility to apply to many different kinds of design, “practiced independent of medium and across medium.”51 More could be gained by uniting forces and promoting what the umbrella of digital design practices shared—and that would be best done as user-experience designers. Garrett said he no longer had any interest in the distinction between the fields. The best decision would be to reach out and build bridges with the other people playing in the same field, rather than competing for limited attention. “There are no information architects. There are no interaction designers. There are only, and only ever have been, user experience designers,” Garrett said. (In 2016, he acknowledged that he was amending this position: he told the audience of his plenary talk at that year’s IA Summit that he was more interested in a broader definition of experience and experience design, one that put humans and not users at the center.)

The valence of these titles and practices will continue to change. Just as I list these titles here, new differentiations are taking place. A 2015 post on the Medium platform by Paul DeVay outlined the current stakes around the role of “product designer”—not someone trained in industrial design, but a designer with good visual design chops and some front-end coding capability, who works on a digital product and is managed by a product manager. Seen broadly, someone with the same skills could be described by any of these terms. For people at the forefront of a new discipline, guarding titles is a matter of defining disciplinary territories. But one thing becomes apparent: the rejection of the title “designer” in favor of “architect” and then the consequent turn to designer.

The world of digital design today is clearly a much more sophisticated place than it was in the 1990s. It requires expertise that the early Web did not. In the Web’s early years, using the View Source command revealed the code for the page and was the first point of education for would-be Web designers and architects. While it’s still possible to do this, much more is hidden beneath the hood that is not readily apparent. On mobile apps, however, this isn’t possible at all: it’s a walled garden rather than an open and visible field. And to make things more complicated, our paradigms for digital media are not shaped by the information architecture of the Web, but rather by location and the personal data trails we generate. A different set of skills is necessary to code and build contemporary sites and apps—engineering skills.

This turn has consequences for the design labor force. As front-end Web development positions are increasingly filled by engineers and computer science graduates, workplace demographic begins to look more like that of computer science programs and less like that of design schools (which typically enroll more women than men): fewer women fill these roles at technology companies, and fewer still, coders of color (in 2016, 25 percent of the computing workforce is women, and fewer than 10 percent of those women are of color: 5 percent were Asian, 3 percent were African-American, and 1 percent were Latinx, according to the National Center for Women in Computing Technology). To ensure a more diverse future in digital design, it will be necessary to pay attention to the architectures of race, gender, and class in education, hiring, and promotion practices. There is much work to be done.


Information architecture and its related practices emerged from the liminal space between multiple areas of expertise. Not quite fitting in with the concerns of graphic designers, practitioners of information architecture looked to fields outside their own to inform these practices: library science, human-computer interaction, and architecture. In so doing, they found metaphors and models on which they could build new practices for the new medium of the World Wide Web. The work of information architects reflected back on these fields. The field of library and information science related closely to the concerns of information architecture, developing research methods in tandem with the professional concerns of information architects. Likewise, information architecture intersected with the concerns of HCI research, such as in the use of ethnographic methods, as well as in the structuring of computer systems.

More importantly for our use here, information architects served as a point of translation of architecture to a digital world that would be radically changed by the Web. By using their version of architectural approaches, information architects made the early Web a habitable place at a time when few practicing architects saw its relevance. Information architects translate abstractions to the behind-the-scenes structures that enable digital experience. “Information architecture is the stuff that is never rendered in pixels and it’s never rendered in code,” says Dan Klyn, the information architect we started with at the beginning of this chapter. “Information architecture is about creating a marvelous set of abstractions that enable so many things.” The translation is the structuring and clarification that is necessary in the digital realm. This kind of honesty of organization of information is as vital as the honesty of material for an architect. For information architects, it is the verb of architecture.

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.
View all posts by

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.