Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How Information Architecture Works


History of Information Architecture
Information architecture grew out of our human desire to organize information so that it's easy to find when we need it.
Information architecture grew out of our human desire to organize information so that it's easy to find when we need it.
James Woodson/Photodisc/Thinkstock

Humans have been creating and using systems to organize information for millennia, long before computers and the Internet. In 330 B.C., ancient Egypt's Library of Alexandria listed its contents in a 120-scroll bibliography. More recently, the Dewey Decimal System and the Library of Congress Classification were developed to better organize and access ever-growing library collections. [sources: Rosenfeld and Morville; Library of Congress]. You might have used another technique, an outline, to organize information when writing papers in school.

Computer networks, especially the Internet and its popular use through the World Wide Web, have accelerated the rate at which information is published. As a result, we now have massive amounts of data available to us, with more added each day. These networks use the power and flexibility of digital formats to make tasks like cross-referencing as fast and easy as clicking a link. With all this information and speed, the task of keeping everything organized and easy to find seems overwhelming, if not impossible.

As the format of information evolves, humans continue to come up with new and better ways to organize it. Richard Saul Wurman, best known today for being one of the creators of the Technology Entertainment and Design (TED) conferences, coined the term "information architecture" at an American Institute of Architects (AIA) conference in 1976. He also published a book on the topic in 1997. Wurman felt that the term "information design" described how information looked rather than how it is accessed and used. His new term was a more accurate description for the systematic approach to how systems of information work. [sources: TED, Knemeyer, Wurman]

You might hear some other terms used as synonyms for information architecture: usability engineering, content management, content strategy, user experience (UX) design and interaction design (IxD) [sources: Rosenfeld and Morville, Frank]. However, those terms refer to specific areas within IA or a specific technology used to build and manage the information system (such as a Web site).

Now we have an idea of where information architecture originated, and we know it's both difficult to define and essential to address the expanding universe of information. Next, let's take a closer look at why we need it.