What’s in a Name? Or, What Exactly Do We Call Ourselves?

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Get us together for a cocktail hour, a conference or on a mailing list and the question inevitably arises: So what exactly do we call ourselves? And for every dozen people, there are probably two dozen opinions.

Boxes and Arrows was no different. Defining our audience involved some discussion, and like the community-at-large, deciding what to call this audience sparked the most heated discussions.

Information Architecture is what we say it is
by Adam Greenfield

What is information architecture? We intend to sidestep, if not quash, this controversy by simply adopting the rubric “information architecture” for all the various activities we pursue. Or, put another way: IA is what we say it is.

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Names are for tombstones, baby
by Marla Olsen

We keep arguing because “information architect” is a poor fit for what people are really doing. So I doubt we’ll see agreement on what to call ourselves any time soon. And that’s okay, as long as we realize we’re part of a community of distinct-but-related disciplines.

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Information Architecture is what we say it is
By Adam Greenfield

Sometime toward the end of 2001, I was asked, along with the other members of the Boxes and Arrows marketing team, to craft a tagline that would simultaneously explain and promote this thing we were all building.

Now, this is not a simple task. The labeling of things is always a difficult proposition, as you will surely and intimately understand if you work even briefly in the profession of information architecture.

How do you tag something in such a way that people encountering the description will rapidly and intuitively understand the contents behind it? Succeeding in this is a matter of no small effort: the larger the disproportion between the size of the idea and the amount of words you are given to contain it in, the greater the subtlety required of the writer.

And if labels are inherently problematic, still more so are their cousins: mottos and bywords and slogans. Human beings believe, whether consciously or not, in the incantatory power of these words, as if simply adopting a slogan like “order and progress” could magic the wilderness of an unruly frontier state into the wards and sectors of a republic. As if exhorting consumers to “fly the friendly skies” could mask the fact of being crammed like cattle into an aluminum tube six-and-a-half miles into the freezing air, to be spoon-fed microwaved pap by surly wardens.

Well, none of that for me. The tagline of this publication should be “the journal of information architecture,” very simply because that is what it is. It is a journal—a written chronicle of the changes in a given field. And it’s devoted to the field we understand as information architecture. It’s not the perfect description, but it is the best.

Oh, sure, there were other options mooted—alternatives that may have been catchier or sexier. In the end, though, there was a compelling logic in being exactly as crystalline in our self-description as in the practices we advocate. If we stand for anything as a community (and the point is infinitely debatable, but work with me here), it is clarity in the service of making the complex appropriately simple. It’s always a good thing to practice what one preaches, right?

All well and good, but it still leaves one problem not addressed. This is an issue that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever attended a gathering of people working in the field, whether a cocktail hour or a brownbag lunch or a roundtable discussion at one of the increasing number of professional conferences devoted to our practice.

We call it (generally with a groan and a resigned, Charlie-Brownish smile) the “What is IA?” discussion. No matter what the stated agenda, it seems, some well-intentioned newcomer—and occasionally a knowing provocateur—invariably raises the question of the field’s provenance. Is it traditional library science retrofitted and renamed for a digital age? Is it a subset of interaction design? Isn’t it just something that all good web designers do anyway, unconsciously? What’s the difference between it and usability? How does it relate to “architecture architecture”? And what’s an “XMOD,” anyway?

What is information architecture? We intend to sidestep, if not quash, this controversy by simply adopting the rubric “information architecture” for all the various activities we pursue. Or, put another way: IA is what we say it is.

This may strike some as arrogant, but it has an appealing logic and (again) simplicity: If, as we hope and intend, Boxes and Arrows becomes the voice and the forum of the community’s foremost practitioners, how can it be otherwise? The practice evolves along with the understanding of those who define it through their work. (People in this community being more than usually attuned to nuances in naming, however, there will be differences in opinion. Believe me, we’ll hear about this.)

My own guess is that the definition, as it evolves, will tend towards the inclusive. The practice of sound information architecture has always asked of us that we remain attuned to ideas from the worlds of software engineering and anthropology, ergonomics and, yes, marketing. And I hope this will continue to be the case. So it’s a little tautological maybe: but if it’s IA, you’ll find it in Boxes and Arrows.

We hope that you find this journal of information architecture useful—that it will turn out to be engaging, inspiring, provocative, strongly supportive of your efforts. Who knows, maybe you’ll even enjoy it. Now wouldn’t that be something?

Names are for tombstones, baby
by Marla Olsen

Why do we keep arguing over the definition of “information architecture,” broad, narrow, big, little, West Coast, Polar Bear, or other? Maybe it’s because we’re a profession that, among other things, focuses on classification and categorization. But, arguably, it means “information architect” is a poor fit for what people are really doing.

When you look at the working world, you find that people go by many titles—information architect is just one—and those titles get defined in completely different ways.

This confusion over titles and industry jargon is nothing new. During the CD-ROM-based “new media” era of the early 1990s, one industry pundit seriously purposed writing a translator’s phrase book between the various new media camps that evolved from the fields of software development, book/magazine publishing and the entertainment industry. Among the questions was what to call the person leading the “creative” effort: project manager, creative director, producer, etc. Sound familiar?

Likewise, the term “information architect,” came of life during the creation of another new industry that involved the convergence of several older fields. This was largely as a result of a meme appearing at the right place at the right time—namely Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville’s landmark “Information Architecture for the World Wide Web” (widely known as the “Polar Bear book” for its cover). Rosenfeld has since acknowledged he and Morville adopted the term “because few, if any, would hire librarians to consult on the design of their sites.” And in practice, the term became stretched into a useful, strategically-vague umbrella for people doing a variety of multi-disciplinary things.

So it’s time to look beyond job titles and see what ties together our community in terms of common goals, methods, issues and approaches. Because there is a common community “somewhere between the wide open spaces of experience design (everything from sniffomatics to amusement parks) and the narrow land of thesauri,” as Christina Wodtke puts it.

The common thread
I’ve taken to calling this community of practices “I4” and “I-stuff,” as a working title that’s admittedly jargon, but free of historical and political baggage, and describes a community of practice with four disciplines as its center of gravity:

  • (content) information architecture (also known as the Polar Bear IAs)
  • interaction design
  • information design (in the broad sense of information-focused publication design, in addition to its narrower definition of creating maps, charts and diagrams)
  • (user) interface design

Why those four?

For starters, if you look at attempted definitions based on what we do (taken from AIGA Experience Design’s attempt to describe some of the roles we see in the field), you’ll see substantial overlap between “broad” IAs and interaction designers. And there are other similarities.

To oversimplify drastically, one of the common threads is a focus on structure:

  • Information architects are concerned about the structure of content. Information designers are concerned about structuring visual presentation of the content.
  • Interaction designers are concerned about the structure of the behavior. Interface designers are concerned about structuring visual presentation of the behavior.

In some ways, information architecture and interaction design are the “hidden skeleton,” complemented by information design and interface as the “visible skin.” Just as in the human body, both skeleton and skin are necessary, otherwise you end up with unpleasant results…

But going deeper, these four disciplines share common outlooks and common approaches—for example, a card sorting exercise can be used to help inform information architecture, interface design, and interaction design (and probably information design, but I’ve never explored that).

Intersecting and informing
Slightly further out from this core are content strategists/writers (remember them?) and graphic designers (although it would be better to talk about them as sensory designers to capture the full range of still graphics, motion graphics, audio and video that can be used).

While writers and designers may be concerned about structure (and this is an area where our disciplines have traditionally underestimated graphic design), both also are concerned with the style and tone of the content itself and of its presentation. As Mark Twain said, the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug—and good writers and graphic designers are acutely aware of this.

Both writers and designers may sometimes (rightfully) accuse all four “I” disciplines of paying insufficient attention to form—and dare I say it—style. Style counts, and even if gurus of utilitarian usability are blind to it, the general public isn’t. This was strikingly illustrated in some recent usability testing with which I was involved when users spontaneously commented that the site’s design (what graphic designers would call an extremely “clean” design) made them think the site was easy to use—even if they actually had trouble finding things.

So writers and designers, drawing from their own established disciplines, have much to offer I4 in finding the appropriate balance between content, behavior and form that’s needed for success.

Ideally, all six of these disciplines share a user-focused approach—but “user-centered design” is a viewpoint, not a discipline. And, in fact, all six fields have countercurrents of a “vision-based” approach—no one asked for the Sony Walkman, Napster, or the internet itself, yet each has done extremely well, so presumably they fulfilled a need. (These countercurrents tend to be stronger in the case of graphic design and writing, since their concern with form can edge into style.)

It is entirely possible to do information architecture, interaction design, information design or interface design without considering users—just look around at the numerous bad sites and products that exist. Likewise, it’s also possible to do all of these without testing your design.

But, in the best of worlds:

  • User researchers, inform all these disciplines, but are a bit further from the core for the reasons just described.
  • Usability testing reality-checks all of these disciplines, but likewise is also a bit further from the core.

(Note: I want to make it clear that I’m referring just to usability-as-critique, since the term “usability professional” is also having problems with multiple meanings—it can mean someone who’s strictly a usability tester, be used as a synonym for user-centered design approaches, or used in the sense of usability engineering, which bears a strong resemble to broad IA.)

User research without implementation by one or more of the four “I” disciplines remains just a pile of interesting observations. Usability testing without the vision provided by one or more of the four “I” disciplines will keep plaintively asking, “Does it work?”

So we end up with four “core” disciplines—(content) information architecture, information design, interaction design and interface design, ringed by four disciplines that are somewhat further from the core—graphic/sensory design, content strategy/writing, user research, and usability, which interact with and inform I4.

Stepping back further from the core, there are a number of surrounding disciplines—including brand strategy, business strategy, software engineering, industrial design and architecture, library sciences—that are separate, but share some of the same concerns or have an effect on the “core” disciplines.

A shared milieu
Put together, I4 plus the four closely-related disciplines are among the key disciplines involved in “user experience”—whatever you want to call someone’s experience with the “front end” of a website or software. And realistically, websites and to lesser extent software, PDAs and wireless—are what the vast majority of us are working on. For lack of a better term, call it the “digital milieu,” and it’s another center of gravity.

It’s an important difference, since we don’t design theme park rides or airplane cockpits. It’s not an absolute difference, since our skills and viewpoints blur into print and industrial design (to name just two fields). And some of the most interesting work right now involves integrating experiences in digital space and physical space. But the people having discussions over “user experience” aren’t industrial designers, building architects or perfume designers. They’re us.

So what do we call ourselves? Currently, I’m not sure we can come up with a single title that encompasses all of I4.

I’ve argued elsewhere the need for a “user experience architect/designer” who takes a holistic approach to crafting all aspects of the experience people have when they interact with what we build. But that’s a larger role, similar to a creative director in graphic design, than that of I4.

If your focus is narrow, it’s pretty easy to match a title to a role—you’re an interaction designer or an information designer. But for those who typically do two or more of the I4, it makes for some unwieldy job titles. Depending on what industry you come from, there are often titles that get stretched to fill these new roles. So I doubt we’ll see agreement on what to call ourselves any time soon.

And that’s okay, as long as we realize we’re we share a set of distinct-but-related disciplines—which I’d argue are part of the larger field of “user experience.” After all, other broad-based fields tie together related disciplines. The “programming” field encompasses systems analysts, database administrators and network architects even though they do very different things. The “graphic design” profession includes those ranging from corporate identity designers, to packaging designers, to typographers. But what ties them together is that practitioners in each of these fields share some common outlooks and education (“computer science” or “graphic design,” respectively).

Likewise, we’re a community of practice with similarities in outlook and approach that far outweigh our differences. Maybe we’ll find a term for I4 that everyone is happy with, maybe we won’t. But the things we do will still tie us together.

Adam Greenfield is currently Senior IA at Razorfish in Tokyo. By contrast, his v-2 Organisation is where he gets his groove on. That’s where he talks about user-centered interface design, well-thought-out products, whatever remains of “digital culture,” and the frantic ravings of dead French intellectuals.

Marla Olsen is principal of Interaction by Design. She has done award-winning work for a variety of companies, from dotcom start-ups, to Hollywood studios, such as Disney, to Fortune 500 companies, including Nestle and Transamerica. She’s taught at UCLA Extension, and written about and spoken at numerous conferences about user experience design issues.


  1. Very interesting article. I like what _you_ say IA is. In the context of the US Department of Energy, for whom we do most of our work, IA has a bit of a different connotation (more like “Systems Architecture”). Given that context, here is what _we_ say IA is:
    “Information Architecture is the art and science of system design and construction resulting in an orderly, purposeful arrangement of applications, data stores, services, components, devices and networks that effectively support the mission of the organization. The work of information architecture is guided by a set of adopted standards and processes representing a style and method of design and construction, and is evidenced by an integrated set of system models. The goal of information architecture is to ensure that technology is leveraged on behalf of the organization – to add value to the work of the organization.”

    We see a number of facets of architecture, which are embeded in this definition: practice, structure, style, method, description and client advocacy. I see these same themes running through your article – hmmm.

    Much of this is straight out of the dictionary definition of “architecture,” with a twist of “system” added to give it specificity. Also added are touches of influence from John Zachman and WWISA (World-Wide Institute of Software Architects).

  2. I think Adam is doing both a service and injustice at the same time. To say that IA is whatever we want to call is is a cop out. Why? B/c there are so many different opinions about what IA is and isn’t. Not everyone interested in “this field” have had or currently have the exposure to IA as a micro-discipline, yet are definitely part of this community. On the other hand there are members of the IA community who I wouldn’t think are a part of what I consider to be what “boxes and arrows” (the allusion to site diagramming and thus site structure and behavior structure) represents.

    To be honest I don’t want to be a part of a generic grouping that doesn’t discern the differences between library sciences and visual design (and everything in between).

    The I4 approach is definitely a neat sentiment, but so is User Experience.

    The problem that I’m having here is IA is a corrupted term. As someone already pointed out in much of our industry it means database administrator or similar system admin. In other parts is means what literally Wurman represented (pre-Digital Age) of the person who is a content author, visual designer, and structural designer all in one.

    I’m noticing that this discussion is growingly become a head point for us as a group and it has wider issues, then just what to call ourselves. It is about what do people call us? How do we break the layman’s annoying pronouncements that either, we are usability engineers, or the ones who make things pretty? That is what is important to me and I don’t think that I4 or IA takes on that issue at all.

    If we were to have a departement in a university what would it be? Informaiton Architecture? I think not. Especially at the academic level IA is a specific term that doesn’t encompass all we need.

    Anyway … that’s all I’ze gots for now.
    — dave

  3. I would have liked to have seen George’s concept of the I4 “core” and its surrounding disciplines illustrated in true information design form! Then we might have noticed how it gently suggests that We Are the Center of the Universe! Seriously, though, joking aside… I, too, feel the urge for specificity of terms, because I don’t see how anyone outside can take seriously a *discipline* that can’t even name itself. But I think “I4” hits the *sub*disciplines spot-on. Now, if we could just come up with the name for the greater displine that encompasses them all….

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