The notes below emerged as unfinished thoughts written for inclusion in a chapter for the forthcoming book
‘Advancing IA’ edited by Resmini, Rice and Irizzary and published by Springer. The chapter was unable to be
completed, for which I continue to receive psychotherapy. Cite at will.
THOUGHTS ON INFORMATION ARCHITECTURE
AS IT RELATES TO DESIGN: THE LOST IA
Since the publication of “Maturing a Practice” (Hobbs, et al., 2010) Terence Fenn and I have
published a variety of texts on a variety of themes within the field of Design. From this body
of work key themes relating to the intersection of IA and Design include: complexity and
synthesis, composition and meaning-making, social design and the cultural turn. Other theory
developed in this partnership has explored the domains of design research, ethics, strategy
and education which, to a greater or lesser extent, relate to the key themes mentioned prior.
A particular thread, the sub text if you will, has sought to arrive at an understanding of
information architectures in the world decoupled from mainstream notions of IA in relation
to digital technology and digital design through the lens of various applied sciences. IA in this
mainstream formulation emerges from domains such as HCI, usability and Library and
Information Science (LIS) which are argued to provide reductive accounts of IA (Fenn & Hobbs,
2014) limiting a consideration of its socio-cultural contexts, including the theory thereof. The
consequence is a narrowed conception of IA as a field in relation to the complexities to be
found between technology and the mediation of (social) reality.
The Lost IA
Pervasive IA, as described and defined by Resmini and Rosati (2011) is certainly a form of
design and appeals to a wide variety of theory, including Design theory. However, they do not
provide a theoretical argument for IA as a form of Design from a disciplinary perspective. In
particular reference to their book, “Pervasive IA: Designing Cross-Channel User Experiences”
(2011) their account is praxeological, meaning that it lays out how to do Pervasive IA in
entirely designerly terms. Their starting point is that IA is a form of Design (Resmini & Rosati,
2011, p. 1) and I would argue that they succeed in their effort because they understand
Design, not least because Resmini studied architecture.
(Resmini & Rosati, 2012), on the other hand, is neither designerly nor a form of
design. It is an applied science. Its theory is derived from Library and Information Science (LIS)
and its disciplinary orientation lies in Information Science (IS). Figure 1 describes Classic IA in
this regard, in relation to the M3 model.
So called by Resmini and Rosati in their brief history of the practice (Resmini & Rosati, 2012), and as is
exemplified in the book “Information Architecture for the Web and Beyond” (Rosenfeld, et al., 2015)
Figure 1 Classic IA in the M3 model (author)
I suspect this positioning is why so many in its community of practice struggle
why people like myself, and the handful of others including those who have taken an active
interest in the Academics and Practitioners Roundtable, see a need for a discussion of a
discipline of IA. It would appear that in this respect, IA already has a discipline and a
theoretical foundation. This, however, is not a fait accompli.
Classic IAs applied sciences function brings with it a philosophical pragmatist stance, or
modality, which it shares with Design in a broad sense, but this is not enough to make it
designing. Its functioning within digital design processes, also doesn’t make it designerly.
Design, all design, has a way, and the Classic IA of today, doesn’t do IA that way.
The community of practice, largely in the USA, refers to these theoretical discussions as DTDT,
Defining the Damn Thing, which it prefers not to engage with and in so doing presents a general
distaste for such intellectualisation (Hobbs, et al., 2010)
The confusion between Classic IA, as a specialist applied science, and a more generalised and
designerly IA applied in the design of digital objects
, may be clarified by the lost IA. The lost
IA, as conceptualised here, was lost in the emergence of user experience design (UX) in the
mid 2000s and the reshuffle of practices and emergent practices, that had briefly existed
under the umbrella of IA prior to shifting to within UX.
Between the mid 1990s and the mid 2000s the lost IA, in relation to the WWW, was something
like a matured webmaster. IAs who were proficient in this role considered it to be a strategic
one, mainly in marketing terms
. At best, such IAs understood the fundamental manner in
which the structure of websites operated as an architectonic, rather than a tectonic, even if
only aspirationally and without a clear use of design terminology.
I draw upon Nelson and Stolterman (2012) here who offer a general description of an
architectonic in design: “If [a finished design is] well presented, the composition gives users
an overall apprehension of the design, where everything relates and each detail contributes
to the whole. This helps to fulfill the design’s purpose and function. The design will then have
the appearance of a teleological whole — an architectonic design” (Nelson & Stolterman,
2012, p. 170)
In my experience of that period in time
, thinking through and developing a concept for the
whole was IA. It was a craft, it was compositional in a designerly sense and its deliverables
were considered to be design artefacts
. In these cases, IA operated as a binding agent, a
centre point, from which all other activities of designing and building digital design objects
found their rationale and engaged with, mostly, antagonistically
. Another quote
appropriated from Nelson and Stolterman may assist further in describing this lost IA:
That is, bounded and discreet artefacts such as websites or mobile applications.
For example Squishy’s Crash Course in Information Architecture (Shiple, c1998)
Working in the role of information architect in globally represented digital design firms in Cape
Town and London between 1997 and 2004
At Ogilvy Interactive they were called information architecture design documents or IADDs.
In part because the traditional creative director role didn’t enjoy anyone else suggesting what a
conceptual design should be and in part because many IAs found themselves in this role without
sufficient knowledge or training in the creative arts or marketing
Every intentionally formed design is given comprehensibility and meaning
through its unique compositional assembly. That composition is the result of
the intrinsic ordering system of the finished design while the functional
assembly of the design is based on an organizing system. A compositional
assembly is not merely patterns of parts: it is an assembled whole that
displays emergent qualities that transcend the qualities of the elements in
isolation or summation. In addition, the substance of this compositional
assembly gives a design its sense of integrity. This substance is reflected in a
variety of ways including the compositional assembly’s character and
appearance. (Nelson & Stolterman, 2012, p. 160)
A huge amount is said in this quotation. Figure 2 below presents the quote in diagrammatic
form so as to assist in understanding it and to position where the lost IA, so conceived as a
designerly act, features in Nelson and Stolterman’s description.
Figure 2 A deconstruction of a design object after Nelson and Stolterman
In this illustration, the area in pink is that area where the Lost IA operated. IA
deliverables such as sitemaps, task flows and wireframes represented the
conceptualization of substance (i.), that is content and functionality, and intrinsic
ordering system (ii.), being the structure. In any digital design, beyond the most
banal, both are required to be designed for the design. I shall elaborate.
Utility, in the illustration, was not mentioned in the quote by Nelson and Stolterman
(ibid) but warrants inclusion for the making of the following point. The two directions,
upwards and to the right, from the intrinsic ordering system holds the key to
appreciating IA, even at the digital object level. This is because structure
encompasses both paths. For any digital design, beyond the simplistic, to effectively
and gracefully unite comprehension, meaning and utility requires a largely
unarticulated knowledge of how structure works in digital media.
This is because structure doesn’t actually exist in IA during the process of designing,
accept conceptually. Otherwise, articulation of structure is always retrospective.
Structure is an emergent quality, inseparable from those things which both define it,
through the negative, and through which it speaks, such as interface, content or
technology. And yet, without its constant consideration through the design process
as the single and only compositional force, anything of experiential value cannot
manifest. There is literally no aspect of digital design, or UX, which does not touch or
is not touched by the compositional structure. If there is, then the design has not
been compositionally resolved.
Come to think of it, this was a fairly significant function in digital design for such a
young practice when conducted with an architectonic mindset. Moving along.
Discussion of this aspect of IA, or this function by any other name, is visibly absent in
contemporary IA as it relates to digital design and I would argue that it is also lacking
as a distinct concern and conversation across the various practices associated with
UX. In both cases, this intrinsic ordering system is almost always left unattended and
relegated to being a further emergent quality of compositional assembly.
The lost IA was a conscious, conceptual effort towards a compositional assembly
which intended to manifest specific (emergent) qualities for the purposes of
comprehension, meaning and utility. This aspect of digital design was so important
precisely because it gave something otherwise intrinsic and hidden in the final
artefact presence and prominence in the digital design object’s making.
Furthermore, the lack of skill in this area of expertise is most visible, then and now,
when products and services tend towards the more complicated or complex. In such
cases, the final product is usually either a mess, over-simplified or, at best, something
usable which nonetheless falls short of its potential to exist as a teleological whole
Hobbs, J., Fenn, T. & Resmini, A., 2010. Maturing A Practice. Journal of Information
Fenn, T. & Hobbs, J., 2014. The Information Architecture of Meaning Making. In: A.
Nelson, H. & Stolterman, E., 2012. The Design Way: Intentional Change in an
Unpredictable World. London: The MIT Press.
Resmini, ed. Reframing Information Architecture. Cham: Springer, pp. 11-30.
Resmini, A. & Rosati, L., 2011. Pervasive Information Architecture: Designing Cross-
Channel User Experiences. s.l.:Morgan Kaufmann.
Resmini, A. & Rosati, L., 2012. A Brief History of Information Architecture. Journal of
Information Architecture, 3(2).
Rosenfeld, L., Morville, P. & Arango, J., 2015. Information Architecture: For the Web
and Beyond. 3rd Edition ed. s.l.:O'Reilly Media.
Shiple, J., c1998. Squishy's Crash Course in Information Architecture. [Online]
Available at: http://homepage.eircom.net/~ballylast/Lesson1.html
[Accessed 12 September 2020].