Today in my thesis class at SVA I had the students complete an assignment that initially felt simple, but was in my opinion one of the more complex tasks that I have asked them to do.

I asked them to anticipate the top 3 questions that could be asked of them about their work based on how they plan to present it. Then I asked them to answer those questions clearly and post the resulting document to their public blog.

Given that my thesis is around how to bring the concept of information architecture to new audiences, I documented the top 3 questions I currently get as a result of introducing IA. I can’t speak for my students, but this assignment was really exciting, challenging and rewarding to accomplish. I urge any of you working on something big out there to try this same method.

Top 3 questions that come up when introducing Information Architecture 

1. How is practicing information architecture different than practicing design?

It is quite common to not see a clear division of these two concepts because the differences between them are not clearly articulated in everyday design situations, nor should they be. Information Architectures are inherent to design executions, whether it be a digital or physical medium. Strong structures and attacking complexity through sense-making are core skills that make good design work “good”. The lack of strong structures and sense being made are often the core failures of “bad” design work.

IA wears many hats

It is fabled that in the late nineties, information architecture was adopted as a term broadly in the tech community to replace an increasingly talked about concept called “the pain with no name” — which was short hand for saying something is “well designed” and “well built” but still makes no sense to the people for which it was intended.

The design world starting using the term information architecture before the technology industry did. Many art schools still teach IA as the backbone of good design, especially communications and print design. Information architecture was introduced to me and many print designers this way in design school. As a critical part of any designer’s job. The idea of a specialization in this part of design existing is not something I even learned about until years later.

In the decades since terms like Information Architect and Information Architecture have been used across the design and technology industries, the term has gone through several renovations of meaning and usage. The way IA is classified, applied and structured has not surprisingly changed as well. As a result of all this shifting, IA as a definable term is sort of slippery to hold on to. They say that your greatest strength is also your greatest weakness, therefore it should not surprise anyone to know that even we sense-makers struggle to make sense of sense-making.

IA lacks “thingness”

An information architecture is a structure that divides up, defines and connects the places where design needs to occur, yet to call IA a noun can feel like we are making it smaller than it really is. IA is much to verb like in its noun-ness for most people to feel comfortable about it existing as a thing.

Structural soundness and the achievement to clarity is only possible when we allow the information architecture and design to influence each other throughout the making process. Leaving us with a designed “thing” that if done well should not have to be dichotomized into the two things that make it strong. Separating out the thingness of information architecture from the thingness of design is quite hard.

Because the hard truth is…

  1. There is no such “thing” as a design that lacks information architecture.
  2. There are many designed “things” that have weak information architecture.
  3. There is no such “thing” as presenting an information architecture without design being applied.
  4. There are many information architectures that bad design has been applied to.

An information architecture is not a document, or a site map and it is not a navigation schema. These are all “things” that can be designed once an information architecture is in place. But the information architecture is really the ways in which the pieces fit into the whole and how the whole works together (or doesn’t)

IA is more result than role

Some times one person is doing both the IA part and the design part. But other times, these are two functions being done by many different people, across groups or even companies. Sometimes information architecture and design are practiced in sequence, other times they are practiced in tandem. There is little pattern, rhythm or repetitive reason when you start letting the  results drive the IA instead of the role. You learn eventually that everything is contextual and what worked in one place is not always going to work in another place. You stop looking for nails because you are holding a hammer.

2. What makes a good IA?

A pre disposition to being a good IA is something that I look for in other people all of the time. Often when I meet someone who is just encountering IA as a term for the first time, they are able to tell me firmly that they have actually been practicing IA for years, they just didn’t know there was a word for it.

The qualities I see as being important to being a good IA are:

  • An ability to look complexity in the face and proceed anyways
  • An inherent need to question everything
  • A natural tendency towards order and clarity of intent
  • A want to pursue the messiest or hardest projects, over the shinier or simpler ones
  • A comfort with being behind the scenes, while others are in the show

3. What advice would you give someone interested in specializing in information architecture?

I have two general pieces of advice that I give to those people I meet that are interested in pursuing IA. One is more actionable than the other. The actionable advice I give to people is to start using the word information architecture in a thoughtful way as much as possible. For example: rather than saying “The way iTunes was designed is not useful” say “the weak information architecture of iTunes really affects its usefulness in my opinion.” When doing your work, think through and talk about how you would improve the information architecture specifically. Look for information architecture vocabulary lessons wherever you can and start talking about IA using a language of critique.

The top words I challenge the IA-interested to learn how to use in conversation are:

  • Taxonomy
  • Ontology
  • Polyhierarchy

The second piece of advice is harder to give, especially without feeling and maybe even sounding defensive. “Get ready for people to question the existence, labeling, importance and appropriate application of IA.” In other words, if you are serious about specializing in a field that is built on semantic intent, argument and reflection, don’t be surprised when that becomes an ongoing conundrum of your life from here on out.

Thanks for reading.