In IA Thought, Information Architecture, What We're Reading
Summary: Excerpts from an interview with Richard Saul Wurman, who shares how to promote understanding with the principles of information architecture.

Buried inside a used copy of Information Architects that Dan Klyn recently scored for $50 is this hidden gem: an article from the January 2000 issue of Knowledge Management, a trade publication, that features a long-lost Richard Saul Wurman interview. We’ve included some of the best excerpts here—including Mr. Wurman’s predictions for the future of IA.

RSW Journal article

What is the problem your work addresses?

Design is dressing something up to look better, not to be better. It is packaging, styling, fashion—an obsession with the new. Architecture creates a solution that makes sense, an existence based on what something wants to be. Its great test is that it has to work. With a map, no matter how good it looks, it’s no good if it doesn’t work. Performance is everything. There must be reasons for decisions. Good information architecture serves understanding, not aesthetics.

Who was your greatest influence?

On structure, architecture and the hierarchy of information, my ideas on information architecture parallel the teachings of [International Style architect] Louis Kahn, who gave me the permission to do whatever I wanted, but also the instruction that enabled me to grow out of the recognition of my own ignorance.

What is information architecture?

It’s an attitude—not a process—and a responsibility. Question what you read, look at and hear in conversation. Don’t be ashamed of saying that you don’t understand something. Put things in context. You understand something unfamiliar by comparing it to something you understand already. Be innocent. Explain it to your mother or your 12-year-old child. Understand what it’s like not to understand. Study the principles of cartography, of information organization, of technology—but don’t use all of those things just because you can.

What are its basic principles?

There are five ways of organizing information and two ways of showing change of magnitude visually. Sometimes you can use words to describe knowledge, sometimes a simple diagram, sometimes a complex map. Sometimes it’s dynamic, sometimes static. Make each piece of information understandable. Avoid the disease of familiarity. Allow the information to tell you how it wants to be displayed. As architecture is “frozen music,” information architecture is “frozen conversation.” Any good conversation is based on understanding.

What is needed to imbue this attitude?

Everyone, from grammar school on, should have courses in information architecture. We learn in grammar school that the only way to organize things is using the alphabet. We even sing it. We’re not taught that there are other ways of organizing things. We need to turn our education system into a learning system. We’re taught in school that there’s a best way to doing something. In business, we’re given an assignment to figure out the best way. There are many good ways. There are multiple solutions to a problem. We live in an age of “also.” You can do it this way, but you can also do it that way.

How does this play on the Web?

Web users need an overview of a beginning, an end and where they are between them. They have no sense of time, place, scope or where they are in the total amount available. That disorientation is very disconcerting. Many Web pages are designed to show off technical capabilities rather than communicate effectively. They are at the most primitive stage, like the earliest days of silent films. Those we consider terrific today—because of all their movements, colors, icons and shadows—will seem laughable in 10 years.

What is the future of information architecture?

Five years from now, technology will allow flying through knowledge spaces in order to make connections—a comparable change in understanding the introduction of movable type.

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