Notes on IA from 2002

Tonight, I ran across some files from 2002 (10 yrs ago), some of which were documents from the founding of the IA Institute. At some point I need to figure out what to do with all that.

But among these files was a text clipping that looks as if it was probably part of a response I was composing for a mailing list or something. And it struck me that I’ve been obsessing over the same topics for at least 10 years. Which is … comforting… but also disconcerting. I suppose i’m glad I’m finally writing a book on some of these issues because now maybe I can exorcise them and move on.

Here’s the text clipping.

I agree it’s not specific to the medium. If you can call the Internet a medium. I really think it’s about creating spaces from electrons rather than whole atoms.

If putting two bricks together is architecture (Mies), then putting two words together is writing. The point is that you’re doing architecture or writing, but not necessarily well. Both acts have to be done with a rationale, with intention and skill. And their ultimate success as designs depend upon how well they are used and/or understood.

But what about putting two ideas together, when the ideas manifest themselves not as words alone, but as conceptual spaces that are experienced physically, with clicking fingers and darting eyeballs. No walking necessary, just some control that’s quick enough to follow each connecting thought.

What really separates IA from writing? I could say that putting About and Careers together is “writing” … It’s a phrase “about careers.” But if I put About and Careers together in the global navigation of a website, with perhaps a single line between them to separate them, there’s another meaning implied altogether.

Yet those labels are just the signs representing larger concepts, that bring with them their own baggage and associations, and that get even weirder when we put them together (they tend to exert force on one another, like gravity, in their juxtaposition). The decision to name them as they are, to place the entryways (signs/labels) to these areas in a globally accessible area of the interface, to group them together, and how the resulting “rooms” of this house unfold within those concepts — that’s information architecture.

We use many tools for the structuring of this information within these conceptual rooms, and these can include controlled vocabularies, thesauri, etc. There is a whole, deep, ancient and respected science behind these tools alone. But just as physics and enginnering do not make up the whole of physical Architecture, these tools do not make up the whole of Information Architecture.

Why did we not have to think about this stuff very much before the Web? Because no electron-based shared realities were quite so universally accessed before. Yes, we had HCI and LIS. Yes, we had interaction design and information design. We had application design and workflow and ethnographic discovery methods and business logic and networked information.

But the Web brings with it the serendipitous combination of language, pictures, and connections between one idea and another based on nothing but thought. Previous information systems were tied primarily to their directory structures. But marrying hypertext (older than the web) to an easy open source language (html) and nearly universal access, instantaneously from around the world (unlike hypertext applications and documents, such as we made with HyperCard) created an entirely new entity that we still haven’t gotten our heads around quite yet.

We’re still drawing on cave walls, but the drawings become new caves that connect to other caves. All we have to do is write the sign, the word, the picture, whatever, on the wall, and we’ve brought another place into being.

I wonder if Information Architecture can be seen as Architecture without having to worry so much about time and space? Traditional architecture sans protons and nuclei?

What if Jerusalem were an information space rather than a physical one? I wonder if many faiths could then somehow live there together in peace, with some clever profile-based dynamic interface control? (One user sees a temple, another sees a mosque?)

I wonder if Information Architecture is more about anthills and cowpaths than semantic hierarchies?

I wonder if MUSH’s, MOO’s and Multiplayer Quake already took Information Architecture as far as it’ll ever go, and we’re just trying to get business-driven IA to catch up?


Reading this now is actually disturbing to me. Not unlike if I were Jack Torrance’s wife looking at his manuscript in The Shining … but then realizing I was Jack. Or something.

So. Exorcism. Gotta keep writing.