Coming of Age

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“Our future colleagues will not remember a time when the field of ‘information architecture’ did not exist.”It seems like a lifetime ago when I asked my boss if I could adopt the title Information Architect. After all, according to the definition from the Richard Saul Wurman book “Information Architects,” that is what I was. He laughed at me and said Information Architect isn’t a title, or a role. It’s not a job. He had never heard of information architects, therefore they didn’t exist. That conversation took place only four years ago.

We have come a long way since then. Individuals in companies have passionately championed the need for IAs in the development process. Some have even succeeded in building a discipline, a practice of people, a foundation for others to build on. Despite the dotcom bust, where it has been difficult for even the best of us to persevere in championing this role, many of us are thriving and succeeding.

We have been nurtured within the halls of ASIST, AIGA-ED and SIGCHI. We have discovered that in spite of our original backgrounds, we have far more in common with each other than with many in the organizations that fostered us.

We are beginning to see leaders emerge; think back to the last conference you attended and the voices that resonated with you long after you returned home. We now have conferences dedicated exclusively to the field — the field of information architecture. We are emerging as a profession. We are being taken seriously.

As the information glut moves more and more online, our skills and expertise are fundamental to the success of an audience intent on finding the information they seek. The need for structure around our profession is becoming clearer. Most of us come from other fields: library science, technical writing, graphic design, among others. We have the responsibility now to establish a body of knowledge, a legacy for those who will practice information architecture after us. Like the generation of kids who have grown up with computers their entire lives, our future colleagues will not remember a time when the field of “information architecture” did not exist.

The last several months, culminating in the last few weeks, marks a milestone in the evolution of information architecture as a profession. Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Morville authored a second edition of the famed Polar Bear book, “Information Architecture for the World Wide Web.” Christina Wodtke’s “Information Architecture: Blueprints for the Web” and Jesse James Garrett’s “The Elements of User Experience” were both released the same day. New IA textbooks are being published every year, adding to the ever-growing list from which educators build their curricula. In fact, an excerpt from a recently released textbook, “Information Architecture: An Emerging 21st Century Profession,” can be read here this week.

While publishers invest more money in publishing and promoting new books for and about the field of information architecture, new voices, more voices are added to our foundation. This is a good thing. Diversity of experience makes us stronger and in turn, the profession richer.

As companies, corporations, governments and other organizations move more and more of their information online, the role of the IA becomes increasingly critical to the development of web applications and websites . The act of finding information goes from a casual, personal endeavor to a necessity, to a way of doing business. In some cases, quick, efficient information retrieval can even mean the difference between life and death.

As we head into the holiday season and the end of 2002, we witness the birth of a new organization. One devoted solely to information architecture and its practitioners. No longer the little special interest group, the stepchildren who never quite belong, IAs will find a home within the Asilomar Institute for Information Architecture (AifIA). Placing emphasis on education, research and advocacy, the AIfIA is stepping up to the challenge of creating a strong voice for IAs in the evolving information age.

As a profession, we are coming of age. Over the last several years a solid foundation has been laid, upon which we will all continue to build. Tools and organizations and leaders have emerged to help us do our jobs with confidence and expertise. We have become a strong community of both practitioners and innovators. We are standing on our own, ensuring that our profession is recognized, our skills appreciated, and our voices heard.

Erin Malone is currently a Product Design Director at AOL in the Web Properties division. She has been a practicing interaction, interface and information designer since 1993. She can be reached at .


  1. Interesting and accurate article. However, i want to comment on the site AIFIA, mentioned in this article.

    Indeed, i am surprised at how much of a poor experience i find this site to be. I am not refering to the content itself, which i have not explored in depth yet. However, the overall look and feel is not very compelling. I know this is a very subjective opinion, but i have been around enough talented visual designers to know a good visual design when i see one. There is enough talk about emotion in design at the moment that i find myself feeling quite offended these days when i see a site which screams at me: “i was built by IAs!”. BTW, i am not a visual designer, simply someone who thinks that one of the factors to get a good user experience is to marry usability with solid aestethics. I want to get my info and feel warm and cosy about it, not like i am staring at a faded 1960s picture of someone’s living room. As Christina Wodtke mentioned in her “autoroute” article, it is very very important for IAs to understand Visual Design(and vice versa). But it is not about about simply understanding the capabilities and limitations of each. It is about using and feeding off each other, about creating usable experiences which appeal to our senses. Hard to measure but necessary.

    In addition, it took me quite some time to understand the interaction of the home sub nav. OK, so these are just important topics you want to bring forward. Fine, i chose “Who are we” and oops, where am i now? My eyes are looking at the content and i see “People”. Fine. I am in “People”. I look back at the left nav and see “People” highlighted, but then the rest of the choices there are confusing me. Some i seem to recognize from the home page, but not all. Then i look up and see “About AIFIA” highlighted in the main nav. Ok, i get it now. I am in this section of the site. So why isn’t the section header in the left nav more clearly and prominently displayed? Why is it treated right now just as another link? It is not indented, not bigger…it does not look like a section header or a title. It looks like another choice i can make, on the same level as the others….
    This threw me in for a serious loop…there is a serious lack of contextual orientation in this site.

    That being said, this site seem to be a great resource which will hopefully continue promoting IA throughout the world.

  2. interestingly enough a visual designer who thought the site was designed by Zeldman thought it was gorgeous. the designer is also the author of this article.

    funny how much our prejudices inform our judgments. i wonder if we had listed our site to have been designed by kalibar 1000 the reception would have been different. After hearing a lecture today on captology, i suspect it would have.

    I put in my four years of art school where I learned many things are subjective. the aifia site has usable and unusable aspects, but I feel comfortable saying I feel also that it is gorgeous. subjectively, I delight in the color and layout. and as for the rest, we have time to make it better… with good constructive criticism.

  3. I always find it so strange that some people jump in and criticize a site that has barely just launched first on its look and feel. Maybe I somehow just gloss over that stuff because I am only in search of the content? I dunno. I just think it’s a bit early to worry about that stuff. It think the message of the group is far more important right now. And maybe someday if I ever find work as an IA again, I’ll join ’em.

  4. I think the look/feel of the AIFIA site is both appropriate and pleasing; content is concise and comprehensive. Best wishes to the group; I look forward to its growth and success.

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