Moving from Flatland to Hyperspace: The “Evolution of a Mindset” Part 1 of 2

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The starting point
My personal journey from designing and writing for print media to becoming an information architect for websites conjures up images of Flatland, written by Edwin A. Abbott, an English clergyman, educator, and Shakespearean scholar (1884).2 The main character in this timeless story, A. Square, is a geometric shape living in Flatland, a two-dimensional world. Upon “Anyone who uses the web understands having a good web user experience—and having a bad one. The web is a flowing, two-way medium: it responds to your signals, either allowing you to do what you want to do—or not.”meeting a stranger from Spaceland (the Sphere), A. Square, a mathematician, experiences a series of revelations regarding the nature of his existence. The Sphere shows him Spaceland, a land of three dimensions, and allows A. Square to view his own world from this three-dimensional perspective. Overcome with excitement and curiosity, A. Square imagines worlds of four, five, six, seven-and even eight-dimensions.

Because of my fascination with the web medium, I tend to think of my days designing for print as living in Flatland. My entrée into the web world-Spaceland, or “Hyperspace”—was not a smooth one; in fact, it was downright mind-bending. Prior to designing my first website, I had worked for seven years as a graphic designer and writer, mostly producing simple print materials: logos, stationery, brochures, newsletters, advertisements, and the like.

One of my clients, a sign language interpreting agency, asked me to design a website that would promote its business, deliver news, and allow people to request and evaluate its services. The agency needed to reach three distinct audiences:

  1. businesses interested in its services
  2. deaf people who used its services
  3. interpreters who either worked for the agency as independent contractors or might be interested in doing so

Each target audience needed access to different information and needed to perform different tasks. There was also a significant body of information pertinent to all three groups.

I wrote lists, scribbled on index cards, drew rough page layouts, and sat on the floor trying to make sense of it all. I shuffled cards, cut and taped, and arranged and rearranged. As I struggled to envision pages connected to pages and links crisscrossing within the site, I actually got headaches. Fortunately, the WYSIWYG web editor I was using incorporated a simple site mapping tool that represented the site as a tree structure. That tool helped me immensely in organizing the site. Little did I know I was taking my first steps into information architecture.

About a year later when I was well into designing and writing websites for small businesses (generally no more than 50 pages), I heard the term “information architecture.” With that, my world took on a new dimension, and I have never looked back… until now.

How did we evolve?
Have you had a similar experience? Your own path to information architecture may have been less direct than mine; however, it is a fact that most of us lived in Flatland for a long time. Thus I have begun to ponder the transition from two-dimensional design to the multi-dimensional practice of information architecture. And because I no longer get headaches, I wondered how my mind had evolved to embrace the thinking necessary for designing complicated information structures.

In tracing the path from print to web, first consider the end product of the respective design processes. In both cases, the designers have different goals, work rules, and methodologies that are dictated by the medium itself and by the way users will experience that end product. The extreme difference between reading a brochure about loans and applying for a loan through a website demonstrates the depth and breadth of this transformation.

Two-dimensional designs
Print materials exist for the purpose of delivering a message. Books, magazines, newspapers, brochures, and advertisements all contain information we may choose to read and/or utilize. Someone or some organization wants to show us something, to give us some knowledge or advice. Included in this message may be a call to action: buy this car, try this diet, or read this book.

What does a person experience while looking at print materials? Jakob Nielsen, well-known usability guru and principal, Nielsen Norman Group, equates the experience to merely “seeing.” Compare this to browsing the web, which he terms “doing” since the web is an interactive medium.3 The print user interface is elementary: people are accustomed to conventions such as reading from left to right down a page, turning pages, using page numbers, and referencing indices and tables of contents. Nielsen says, “Print design is based on letting the eyes walk over the information, selectively looking at information objects and using spatial juxtaposition to make page elements enhance and explain each other.” 4 He also notes that print materials are generally linear in flow, intended to be read in one direction, rather than structured to provide interaction between pages.

By its very nature, print is a one-way, static means of communication. Interestingly, print materials are actually three-dimensional-able to be touched, folded, and handled physically. They are tactile. At their best, print designs communicate intended messages effectively through good visual design and writing. Edward Tufte, renowned information designer, speaker, and author, strongly asserts that the print medium is far superior to the web medium, largely because it allows for a much greater “information resolution.” 5 One has only to look at a detailed map to understand this concept: the detail and depth of information contained within a well-designed printed page greatly surpass what may be achieved using web graphics, which have low resolution and lack visual complexity.

“N-dimensional” designs 6
To the human eye, the web is fundamentally a collection of text, figures, and images viewed a few at a time as pages on a two-dimensional computer screen. Sometimes I envision it as a net of text linked together with web pages placed at critical intersections-the pages functioning much like road signs as they guide travelers to other web pages, information destinations. When viewed as a whole, the web’s level of complexity is so astounding as to be inconceivable.

The web’s essential purpose is to interact with users, creating an experience, albeit some websites are much more interactive than others. Says Clement Mok, Chief Creative Officer, Sapient, “So you’re not really going from screen to screen-it’s a fluid transition, from event to event. With the improvements in streaming data that will come over time, you will get that fluid state, where you’re not going from page to page but from event to event within that container.” 7 When browsing the web, we try to perform tasks, many of them related to obtaining information: we search websites, look up news and weather, book airline flights, and do myriad other things.

In contrasting the print user experience with the web user experience, Nielsen asserts, “After all, doing is more memorable and makes a stronger emotional impact than seeing.” 8 He calls web design “simultaneously one-dimensional and N-dimensional,” explaining that “one-dimensional” refers to time (the time it takes to load a web page with some elements appearing before others) and “N-dimensional” describes moving around the web or navigating web space. 9

Anyone who uses the web understands having a good web user experience—and having a bad one. The web is a flowing, two-way medium: it responds to your signals, either allowing you to do what you want to do—or not. Time passes as you browse, and content changes frequently, sometimes automatically. You hop from point to point, clicking and scrolling your way through web pages and pulling content from databases.

Roger Parker, author and design and marketing communications professional, compares the web medium to the print medium: “Functionality, as measured by the ease and speed with which visitors can locate desired information, is the primary measure of success, rather than ‘branding’ the site or creating a distinct visual image.” 10

In the same spirit, Mok observes, “In the print world, you can question the concept behind a design and ask, ‘Is it useful information?’ You don’t also have to take into account, ‘Oh, is it usable?’” 11 This crucial distinction between print design and web design spells out the basic purpose of each-and also explains the need for information architects. Parker claims that the transition from web designer to information architect, which is much more direct than the transition from print designer to information architect, “requires the evolution of a mindset.” 12

Information architecture: Born of “N dimensions”
Before the advent of the web, information architecture was not an established discipline. True, Richard Saul Wurman, esteemed information activist and author, coined the term “information architect” by declaring himself to be one back in the 1970s, long before the web revolution. 13 He later wrote to his peers on the InfoD listserv, “My passion is to make the complex clear.” 14 In this lifelong pursuit, he has analyzed many forms of information and information systems. The web represents but one of those information systems.

I will not attempt to define “information architecture” precisely because, as a fledgling community of professionals, we are still expending a great deal of energy doing this. In general, we agree that information architecture is a process of structuring information to make it usable, improving the user experience. Indeed it seems that we information architects know who we are. I would like to note that the concept of complexity (and complex systems) resonates throughout any discussion of information architecture. In fact, this complexity is the core reason for having information architects-and the N-dimensional web is the reason such complexity exists.

End Part One
Read Part Two

Meg Cole is a graphic designer-turned writer-turned Webbie-turned information architect. She recently joined the content team at the National Association of REALTORS®, which will soon begin a massive inventory and redesign of the association’s 400,000+ Web pages.


  1. Please bear with me if I’m going a bit off topic…

    “it responds to your signals, either allowing you to do what you want…” made me think of parenting a newborn. I’m a coping new father and more than ever, I now understand what it takes to really establish bonding through interactions. When faced with a complex problem such as giving a newborn what he/she wants, it’s often easier to define what the boundaries are by defining what cannot be done and almost randomly work through the possibilities with a proper mindset until the newborn interacting is reasonably satisfied. Isn’t this mindset similar to the mindset you’re talking about? If so, isn’t this mindset a set of heuristics? What are they in the context of solving an information architecture problem? Are Parker’s and Mok’s observations heuristics? What are the hard boundaries then?

  2. “One has only to look at a detailed map to understand this concept: the detail and depth of information contained within a well-designed printed page greatly surpass what may be achieved using web graphics, which have low resolution and lack visual complexity. ”

    I don’t agree with that, paper and a computer monitor and the graphics they display are simply tools, it depends on the talent of the creator, as to how effective either one can be. Sometimes complexity is not the best route.

    Though I thought the part about paper being something 3 dimensional though it’s presentation is flat and the web is vice versa, to be very interesting and insightful.

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