Defining the damn thing

I’ve decided to start collecting definations of IA. Feel free to add any you come across or heck, […]

I’ve decided to start collecting definations of IA. Feel free to add any you come across or heck, make one up!

From Addwise

“Information Architecture (IA) is the process of organizing and presenting data to the user in a meaningful, clear and intuitive manner. IA is the foundation of all great websites. All other design aspects – form, function, metaphor, navigation, interface, interaction, visual, and information systems – build upon the groundwork of information architecture. Initiating the IA process is the first thing you should do when designing a website.”

webworld’s interview with lou

“Information architecture involves the design of organization and navigation systems to help people find and manage information more successfully.” “

Lou again, on O’reilly

Information architecture involves the design of organization, labeling, navigation, and searching systems to help people find and manage information more successfully.

Organization systems are the ways content can be grouped. Labeling systems are essentially what you call those content groups. Navigation systems, like navigation bars and site maps, help you move around and browse through the content. Searching systems help you formulate queries that can be matched with relevant documents.

Jesse James Garrett in his “Elements of user Experience” says

Information Architecture: Stuctural design of the informaiton space to facilitate intuive access to content.

Stephen Downes gives a philosophical definition

Well – what is an information architect?

From my own experience, I would say that the practitioners are professionals, versed in every aspect of web design, adept communicators, and gifted visualizers – they are people who eat, sleep and dream web design and structure. But you can’t put that on the job description.

Or – as I Sing the Body Electronic author Fred Moody observes: information architects are the sort of people who understand that the instructions on the shampoo bottle are just wrong: “Lather. Rinse. Repeat.”

Squishy says

Information architecture is the science of figuring out what you want your site to do and then constructing a blueprint before you dive in and put the thing together.

Shel Kimen says

“What is information architecture?

At its most basic, information architecture is the construction of a structure or the organization of information. In a library, for example, information architecture is a combination of the catalog system and the physical design of the building that holds the books. On the Web, information architecture is a combination of organizing a site’s content into categories and creating an interface to support those categories. It stems from traditional architecture, which is made up of architectural programming and architectural planning. “

Somebody explained what an IA does to her mom like this

“You know when you’re on a website and you see a bunch of navigation choices to click on? I’m the one who decided what the choices are, what they are called and where they take you when you click”

thank god she added

Much like our real world namesakes, we design spaces for human beings to live work and play in. The big difference is the materials we work with: cement is replaced with thesauri, timber with hierarchies and steel with interaction flows.

information architecture – a whatis definition is based on technical writing….

“information architecture is the set of ideas about how all information in a given context should be treated philosophically and, in a general way, how it should be organized.”

and finally (because I have got to get some work done today)

Mattie Langenberg

Information architecture, as the name implies, is basically about taking content and a structure to present that content to an audience. Whether the content is intended for a private audience on an intranet or for the public, it is the information architect’s job to ensure that information is well-organized and presented in an easily accessible interface.


Ricardo Martins Sangion sent me a file of definitions he’s been collecting. Sorry, he had very few attributes (he was collecting them for personal use), but if you know the source, I’ll add it…


Information architecture is a combination of organizing a site’s content into categories and creating an interface to support those categories.



The information architect maps the entire structure of the site and organizes the positioning of pages within sections, developing a functional and intuitive plan to get the user from point A to point B on the path of least resistance.



Information architecture, as the name implies, is basically about taking content and creating a structure to present that content to an audience.



Design and communication skills are essential. The ability to create the structure of a Web site and the ability to explain and illustrate that structure are key. The IA must be able to ensure ease of navigation, simplicity of design and communicate the site design to the client as well as to the development team.



In an organizational chart of a given Web project, the IA is generally found somewhere between the administrative team (producers, project managers and editorial staff) and the development team (designers and programmers). The IA is the major communications vehicle between the two teams. [He or she] participates in the thinking and strategy before a project and the creation of the finished product. Information architects generally wear more than one hat on a given project, so versatility is important. You may be required to be a project manager, a designer or both. If you’re just getting started in the industry, it’s probably a good idea to take on one of those positions, and then work your way into information architecture.



“[information architecture is]”…

creating consistent and functional systems for navigation, graphics, page layout and title languages so that the user knows where to go, what to do, and encourages them to return.”

— Web Review, Peter Monville



Information architecture is the process of organizing, labeling, designing navigation and searching systems that helps people find and manage information more successfully



Information architecture involves the design of organization and navigation systems to help people find and manage information more successfully.



the blueprint of the site upon which all other aspects are built – form, function, metaphor, navigation and interface, interaction, and visual design.



information architecture is a combination of organizing a site’s content into categories and creating an interface to support those categories. Gwen Leapaldt Resume p.s. she’s got deliverables on her site



One who designs and supervises the construction of knowledge derived from study, experience, or instruction, or knowledge of a specific event or situation, or a collection of facts or data.



Information architecture involves the design of organization, labeling, navigation, and searching systems to help people find and manage information more successfully



At its most basic, information architecture is the construction of a structure or the organization of information. One the web, information architecture is a combination of organizing a site’s content into categories and creating an interface to support those categories. It stems from traditional architecture, which is made up of architectural programming and architectural planning. chaoskitty



Information Architecture is a multidisciplinary approach to the structuring of information.

Richard Saul Wurman defined the Information Architect in the following way:

“The individual who organizes the patterns inherent in data, making the complex clear; a

person who creates the structure or map of information which allows others to find their

personal paths to knowledge; the emerging 21st century professional occupation addressing

the needs of the age focused upon clarity, human understanding and the science of the

organization of information.”



At the North American Web Developers’ Conference earlier this month, Bebo White – the designer who built the first web server in North America – talked about the changing role of the webmaster.

Surprisingly, page design and HTML make up a small part of today’s webmaster duties. And technicians often maintain the actual computer equipment. The webmaster today spends much time describing what a web site ought to look like, and explaining how it ought to integrate into an overall management or marketing strategy.

So much has the job as webmaster changed, said White, that the term ‘webmaster’ ought to change as well. Thus, he proposed, a more descriptive term – like ‘information architect’ – might be appropriate.



Information designers combine the architect’s ability to plan, the writer’s ability to simplify and the designer’s ability to highlight key areas (give selective emphasis). Most information architecture gurus agree on the main functions of an information architect or user interface designer: he/she brings order out of chaos and makes the complex clear. IA specialists, as opposed to graphic designers, are involved in the meaning and context of content, not just the text they are illustrating.


Information architects map the structure of sites and organizes the location of pages within sections, developing a functional and intuitive navigational plan to get the user to specific information using the optimal path. graphicbiz

visit Definitions of IA for a few more

For more commentary on the nature of the beast, check out this old posting of a letter from non-user centered IA travis ; then go to peter’s april archive, and scroll down to april 15th….

Also look at Peter Morville’s column Defining Information Architecture where he doesn’t, and Andrew Dillon’s IAs in search of an identity? and his I Think Therefore IA?

Also, the August / September 2000 issue of the ACIA bulletin was centered around the practice of IA, and the interviews shed light on what IA really encompasses, as opposed to what we’d like it to.

Do we have a pattern? Can we come up with a consistant defination? Find any others?


Add Yours
  1. 1

    What I did was take all those words that people used to describe IA and pulled out relevant nouns, verbs, and modifiers. I then tried to assemble a list according to the five-W’s and H; who, what, when, where, why, how. I adore using those as a tool for sorting things.

    Before I get in to that, I thought it was interesting that all of them described IA in one of two methods; either they described IA as a process and what that process is, or they used a metaphor. Lou talks about the design of systems; Squishy calls it “the science of figuring out”. This resonates strongly with me. A lot of what I do involves process.

    And all of this talk about process segues into two quotes, about process: Process is more important than outcome. When outcome drives the process we will only ever go where we’ve already been. If process drives the outcome we may not know where we’re going, but we will know we want to be there ? Bruce Mau

    Or, as my darling designer puts it, Basically process is the key to producing something unique, without it, we only build what is predetermined, and that usually sucks.

    So, my list, organised via 5W+H:
    Who (are we working for…):
    the user, an audience, PEOPLE

    What (are we working with…):
    data, information, content
    foundation, structure, blueprint
    systems, navigation, thesauri, hierarchies
    design, spaces, flows

    When (do we work):
    before [during, and after…?]

    Where (do we work):
    the Internet (intra-, extra-, inter- Nets) [what about books, other media, real life?]

    Why (do we do what we do):
    help, live, work, play, interact, access, communicate, find, manage, search
    meaningful, intuitive

    How (do we do it):
    organise, present, label, construct, present, design

    The brackets are my thoughts and expansion of what was offered. Andrea Gallagher’s concept of IA as it applies to information as a whole, the idea of organising information systems, regardless of where they are, still intrigues me.

    So, we could say that,

    “An information architect for . The is built . The goal of her labour is .”

    Or, more specifically, an information architect is the system creator and information organiser. And her driving goal is making information usable to her audience. We create order out of Chaos. We are Prometheus bringing back the Fire of the Gods. Which is fitting because Prometheus means, “forethought”, of course.

    The only problem with this definition ? aside from its grandiose claims to divinity ? is that it is too high-level. And I doubt you could “sell” it to a Client. But that’s a different topic all together.

    I think that as often as the discussion comes back to “What is IA?” something is going to have to be done about that question. I think that, as IAs, we’re pretty good at holding a disparate collection of data in our heads without freaking out. But the brain needs to categorise things; everything is sorted by how it relates to everything else. So most people relate to the world through labels.

    I think that one of the points that was made last night was pretty good. Rather than reinvent the wheel, let’s emulate designers or doctors. We develop specific labels for specific practices. And, just as any doctor can diagnose the common cold or write a prescription for Retin-A, but only some of them can treat a subdermal hematoma or perform a triple by-pass. What are those specific titles? Beats the hell out of me. Again, that’s a different topic.

    I don’t know, I was just playing with the words… 😉 Thoughts, comments, criticisms are all more than welcome.


  2. 2
    gentle ben

    aren’t IAs just the people who helped designers out back when there was lots of work to do? doesn’t seem like you’d need them these days unfortunately.

  3. 6

    If we could only market ourselves as well as Wurman’s publisher

    “There is a tsunami of data that is crashing onto the beaches of the civilized world. This is a tidal wave of unrelated, growing data formed in bits and bytes, coming in an unorganized, uncontrolled, incoherent cacophony of foam. None of it is easily related, none of it comes with any organization methodology. Now for the good news: There is a dune on the beach. There is a breakwater in the ocean that is clearly emerging in these last fleeting moments of the 20th century. The breakwater is indeed breaking up the tsunami of data and focusing it in a more organized way to answer our questions and concerns. There is a new breed of graphic designers, exhibition designers, illustrators and photographers, whose passion it is to make the complex clear. I call this new breed of talented thinkers Information Architects and this book was created to help celebrate and understand the importance of their work – a work which inspires hope that as we expand our capabilities to inform and communicate that we will value, with equal enthusiasm, the design of understanding.”

  4. 7
    Adam, again

    I’ve been using this one. It’s heavily biased towards retrieval, and therefore probably in need of some adaptation, but it’s found a place in our new Dm1 glossary:

    “The art and science
    of organizing information to facilitate its rapid and intuitive retrieval.”

  5. 8

    “If we could only market ourselves as well as Wurman’s publisher.”

    And why the hell can’t we? I know we’ve got a lot of creative people who are able to think along those lines. I know we’ve got a lot of creative and talented visual designers working with us. As Dillon said, “professionals in many camps tend to share the same goals: the design, development and implementation of more humanly acceptable information systems. As long as we are battling to get human-centered design taken seriously, such professionals are all on the same side.”

    Given the large number of design / UE / IA sites that are in this “circle”, why not do some sort of campaign, à la the Web Standards project. Let’s call for a new standard: a human-centred design standard…

  6. 9

    It’s interesting that some of the above definitions dwell more on the data-classification aspects of the IA role, the abstraction of information into objects. Phrases such as “present that content to an audience” don’t fully address our role as communicators.

    A dialogue must take place for IA to be effective. The most satisfying response from an audience is “Hey, I get that, thanks.” User involvement and user research help us move closer to providing, in Wurman’s words, “the structure or map of information which allows others to find their personal paths to knowledge.”

  7. 10

    I posted my question to the SIGIA list and — along with some terrific debate– I’ve gotten a few more attempts at a definition.

    “”Information architecture is the process of planning, designing and implementing the organization of web-based information (content and labeling) and operations (navigation, search, tasks necessary to help meet an enterprise’s business needs.

    “As part of this process, information architecture intersects with the fields of usability, graphic design, and information design, as well as with systems design.”

    Note that this definition focuses on the task of organization. That to me seems to be the sine qua non of being an IA. “

    Fred Leise

    “Here’s mine: Information architecture is the architecture of information. LOL… maybe that’s too vague.

    I think that something general like

    “the art & science of organizing, planning, designing and architecting the vast amount of data, of all kinds, that we human beings are increasingly bombarded with in the information age”

    …might work :-)”

    Eileen “Turtle” Parzek

    “I’ve always seen Information Architecture as the act of:

    Defining Data Structures by organizing existing data. [categorization]

    Defining how Data Structures should be created, expanded, collapsed, split,
    joined or be removed. [data maintenance]

    Setting rules for how new or altered data will be filtered into or out of Data Structures. [data flow/version control]

    Finding and defining relations of information within and between distinct Data Structures. [links/searches]

    Developing human and machine usable paths within and between Data Structures. [navigation]

    To be successful the Information Architecture looks at data not as a dimensional object but as a non-dimensional entity which needs to be organized, maintained, related and represented in the most optimal way for human, machine and environmental communications.”
    – jw

    there are quite a few more, and I recommend you check out the threads as they grow (thanks again to andrew for hosting the SIGIA archives.) george has a particularly long and intriguing one worth checking out.

  8. 11

    We are really screwed up here in Australia. Below is a job description advertised recently. But also I was interviewed for an IA position(only 1 ever) at Sapient here in Aus and missed out, the reason:
    “You are too focussed on the user.”

    No wonder they shut up shop and bailed from aus.

    here’s the latest job description posted june 25th.

    Information Architect

    Familiarization with existing applications and related code Continued development of existing code to implement enhancements Annotation of existing code where necessary Code debugging and testing Modifications to existing code to correct problems or potential problems Working closely with the development team on project specific tasks Designing and building software components from WEB applications to ATL business objects Participation in design and code reviews Component unit testing QUALIFICATIONS: Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science, Computer Engineering, Electrical or Mechanical Engineering 2 – 4 years’ relevant development experience Some familiarity with power distribution systems preferred Excellent understanding of Windows NT Workstation and Server Demonstrated development experience working with relational databases (Oracle experience preferred) Ability to install and support various desktop applications Ability to work in team environment Self-motivated and creative Experience with: C++, JAVA development This position is fast-paced and may periodically require odd hours during the week or on weekends. Conectiv is an equal opportunity employer.

    Please contact Mia Westbrook –

    No wonder I’m can’t find a job

  9. 12

    I have posted some thoughts around this at my site as well as a couple of PDF documents that I used at AltaVista to educate other teams and people about what IA was and our role at AltaVista. It goes a long way to getting out of the super high level and into the more pragmatic – what do we do all day and why is it good – thinking. These docs helped us evangelize and generally change some of the internal culture. It was a difficult process, but having to define and clarify in a succint fashion was helpful in justifying our existence (at the time). Of course it didn’t hurt that we also rolled interaction design into our set of responsibilities as well.

  10. 13

    The intangible craft of defining the structure for Websites.

    The foundations for this structure are CONTENT,
    CONTEXT and USERS. The more you know about them, the stronger your foundations will be. Note that context includes the Stakeholders.

    While defining the structure of your building, you also define the spaces and the naviagtion between them, strucutring user paths. You have to carefully label these spaces so the visitor knows where to enter and what he’ll find there.

    As websites become increasingly complex, they gain functionalities, you’ll also have to specify them and how the user is going to interact with them. If you have lots of content you come up with navigation aids like maps and shortcuts, and plan ahead for growth in time.

    To be an information architect, you have to be crazy: about communication, about the Web. You also have to have a skillset in web design. Critic thought, and an eagle´s eye for detail.

  11. 17
    Keith Tatum

    Everything I know about Information Architecture I have learned from the game Defender (Atari). The small navigation window gives you a sense of where you are, what’s going on around you and where you’re headed next. It’s good to know these things. If your Web site can tell you those three things, chances are that you have a solid Information Architecture in place. 😉

  12. 19

    Allot of the discussion in this forum has been about how information is organized into logical groups, labeled siloed and then some how navigation is built around that. User want
    intuitive navigation and interfaces, often times intuitive and logical are 2 different things. IA is the first step in the process of understanding the content (creating a database of organized content) but you do not want to really present that to the end user. The interface is the link between the organized data and the user and so far on the web this has been given very little thought. For example this forum, there is allot of text on this screen but because we have become accustomed to the clumsy scroll bar as a method of navigating the text it seems that everyone thinks that the reading of text on the web has been solved. There are fundamental problems such as reading text and viewing images in a browser environment which have not even been approached yet.
    IA is just a term like many others made up in the heady days of the boom. Why not just call yourself designers, and spend less time justifying a weak title and more time creating and address these fundamental usability problems.

    Speaking for myself I can design visually, code, and structure and think about project strategically. I feel like these are the base level qualifications for begin involved in new media design. The sooner this become the norm the sooner clients will start taking serious what we do and this endless cycle of self justification will end. No one questions an architecture firm when they say they need to carry out research on demographics and have an anthropology consultant and create detailed schematics before building a building. The same should be true for new media.

  13. 20
    Susanna K. Hutcheson

    I’m growing a bit tired of we copywriters being overlooked in this Information Architecture thing. I consider myself an Information Architect because I write the words that fill the space that makes up the whole damn thing!

    I also advise clients on usability issues and help them develop a site that gives the user a good experience while selling the product and/or service of the client.

    So I don’t think an Information Architect is necessarily one who designs the site or counsels on usability or both any more than the person who writes the copy.

    In summary, I think an Information Architect is a person who in any number of ways designs the virtual building that we call a Web site. And that includes the foundation, the walls and exterior and the infrastructure, of course. But it also includes the inventory and how it’s displayed in the building and the aisles.

    So designers — get over yourselves.

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