Finding our way: thoughts about information architecture’s history

From UX Collective:

The Great Library of Alexandria

“The most common definition [of the word information] is: “the action of informing; formation or molding of the mind or character, training, instruction, teaching; communication of instructive knowledge.-Richard Saul Wurman

Information is what enables us to access the world and make confident navigation and content choices. At its most basic, information is just the form that humans use to create more certainty in a chaotic and ever-changing world. And Information Architecture is an ever-changing answer to solving the problem to how we best design for the organization, functionality, and framework of complex information. Information Architecture (IA) depends on improving information environments by using unique way-finding solutions to help users mentally navigate and process these environments with ease. Utilizing IA as a process is a great way to structure and enable those who want to interact with our creations.

Digitally, we focus on helping users who access our websites, apps, or video games navigate the products effectively and access the correct content at the correct time. Information Architecture has become an essential and pivotal part of User Experience Design. But it’s not just since the creation of the digital universe that we have been organizing information. Historically, this has been a pursuit mankind has always been interested in.

Pre-Computer Information Architecture

Long before the internet, a whole millennia before, people were classifying, arranging, and organizing information. One notable example was the largest ancient library, The Great Library of Alexandria. The library itself, created to be universal and part of the Musaeum (“Institution of the Muses”) was a small part of an even larger research institution around 330 B.C. in Ancient Egypt. Perhaps the first bibliography organized, the library used 120 scrolls to organize their information.

Melvil Dewey proliferated his information arrangement system in 1876. Created as a pamphlet with just a few pages it grew to be utilized in over 200,000 libraries, the Dewey Decimal System is one of the most commonly utilized information organization systems. Libraries, like the Library of Congress, have also innovated new systems to approach information organization and have helped other institutions structure their environments.

Modern IA

“Architecture is the conceptual structure and functional behavior, distinguishing the organization of data flows and controls, logical design and physical implementation” — IBM, Architecture of the IBM System/360

Although IBM redefined architecture for modernity in information within a research paper in 1964, the term “Information Architecture” used in contemporary terminology, wasn’t utilized until the mid-1970s. In an address given by Richard Wurman, to the American Institute of Architects, he first combined the words information and architecture. This lead to an interest of the philosophy in Silicon Valley. Only a few years later in Palo Alto, XEROX curated a team specialized in information science, (or today human interaction design,) to develop technologies that could “support the architecture of information.” Eventually, the phraseology helped define their corporate mission and they created innovative technologies like laser printing and high-level visions like user-focused development.

Yet, it wasn’t until 1998 when the bestseller book, Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, fired the “shot heard around the world” and helped stitch together a pathway forward into the new century. The education of the mainstream created essential best practices and have helped create the foundation we stand on today.

The Path of IA

Given the advent of artificial intelligence, new linguistic technologies, and a world population growing more digitized by the second, IA has grown increasingly more complex. So, how are we going to navigate the future with rapidly-changing technologies and new ways to visualize data? One school of thought is that we’ve peaked, that information architecture will inevitably collapse into another form, possibly just be another process utilized in the scheme of all things design. Some designers see this as a transitionary period, especially with AR/VR interfaces to begin designing for. If we can envision a world that is infinitely digitized, what will Information Architecture even look like?

Regardless, we as designers are continually writing the history of how we organize, articulate and access information with each other. Information Architecture is light strategically placed to help other’s find their way in the darkness. And if history is any indication, the future is bright.

Finding our way: thoughts about information architecture’s history was originally published in UX Collective on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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