Richard Saul Wurman and Information Architecture
Richard Saul Wurman coined the term “information architecture” in the mid 70s in reference to the design of information, and information science influenced the research on computer interfaces at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center through the mid 80s. After a quiet period for the field, information architecture experienced a resurgence in the mid 90s, with the growth of the World Wide Web. Rosenfeld and Morville’s book, Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, developed the ideas of information architecture and brought mainstream attention to it.
In this part, Dan Klyn discusses how he became interested in Richard Saul Wurman’s work on information architecture.
Tell me more about how you transitioned into information architecture and your interest in drawing on architecture and Richard Saul Wurman’s work.
When I met Peter Morville, I gravitated more to him as a mentor. The way I approach being a mentee is that I find somebody I want to be like, and do everything that they do. What does Morville do? He teaches, does consulting, and writes books and talks at conferences. I was going to do all those things.
I came back to Wayne State’s library program as an alumnus and said, “What if I offered a course on information architecture? You know it was invented by librarians in Ann Arbor and I know these guys.” I started teaching it for four hours on Sunday afternoons. I taught it from the Polar Bear book, exactly the way that Morville taught it at the University of Michigan, which is pretty much chapter by chapter, and by having the students do a strategy report.
What’s funny is that it was so boring, the way he taught it. He would admit it was the worst. I subbed for him a couple of times at University of Michigan School of Information and the students liked me, and with the combination of his independent consulting business getting really busy and seeing that I really loved teaching this stuff, he resigned from teaching it.
He wrote to the dean, Olivia Frost, “I’m too busy to teach anymore, but Dan subbed for me and did a really great job. You should hire him.” So they did.
I was the dog who had chased the car and caught it—I didn’t know what to do. I had taught this a couple of times and it was fairly boring. I was in the gap between the second and third editions of the Polar Bear book. Folksonomies and tagging were starting to become a thing. Increasingly I felt the Polar Bear stuff was getting kind of old. That was part of the impetus to learn more about architecture.
To my limited knowledge, nobody in the field was addressing the architecture part, but I was wrong.
My first IA Summit was 2009. Chris Farnum, who worked at Argus, introduced me to Andrea Resmini and Jorge Arango. I didn’t talk to Chris for the rest of the Summit. I just glommed onto Resmini and Arango like a barnacle. I’m sure they found it highly annoying, but I was just delighted because my sense was that we had the information part covered but there was so much more to do in the direction of architecture. These people who were trained as architects were so much further ahead of us. They knew Andrew Hinton, who has been talking and thinking about architecture since the founding of the IA Institute. That’s when it all started happening for me.
Then Jesse James Garrett spoke at the IA Summit and blew it all up, and that was great. He said there’s no such thing as information architects—that there are only user experience designers. Having begged my boss for the budget to go, being stoked about information architecture as a thing, and to have the culmination of that be, “Hey, this thing that you think is really important is so not the thing”—that was a formative experience for me. I am certain that I wouldn’t have ended up starting a company nor would I have gone as deeply into the Wurman direction had information architecture as a concept not been threatened with non-existence by Jesse.
I’ve had the chance to talk with him specifically about it a number of times, and it’s precisely what he hoped to do. There is a tradition in architecture of provocation as a mode of discourse that I was unaware of. I defy you to find someone who loves and is more knowledgable about information architecture than Jesse James Garrett. His introductions to both editions of Christina Wodtke’s Blueprints for the Web is some of the best writing on “What is Information Architecture.”
At the time I didn’t know any of this. I was a sincerely mortified. He started out by saying, “I realize that it’s an honor to give the closing plenary at this event, and the last thing I would do is subject you to a product demo” which is then, I felt, exactly what he proceeded to do.
He rightly identified information architecture and interaction design as being in a sort of struggle of where when one rises, the other is down. Then, the president of the premiere user experience design consulting company, Adaptive Path, proposed a total reframing of the field to demote these constructs and presented this new superset, and there was nobody selling a higher bill rate nor with a higher likelihood of getting the work than Jesse James Garrett and Adaptive Path.
At the time, it seemed like an incredibly shrewd and crude way of recalibrating the community of practice to better align with what a consulting business was doing in the world. While that may be part of the truth of what he was doing, he’s always talked about it with me as a fear of stagnation in a field that he loved. He saw a way to reframe the discussion.
His reframing act in that speech was an act of information architecture. If I was not as threatened by disruption, I maybe could have enjoyed how brilliant the performance art was there, where he was using the thing that he’s saying is no longer a thing to create different kinds of meaning for other concepts that are relevant. I only saw it as a threat.
I behaved like you do when you’re under threat, which is fight or flight, and I geared up for a fight. “Information architect” was important to my identity at that point. I thought, “I’m going to go talk to your dad—I’m going to go dig into Wurman, who clearly is a bigger gun than Garrett, and we’ll talk about some things.”
Jesse and his then wife had a small child the next year, and after 2009 he really didn’t travel for conferences or anything for the next couple of years. This was unfortunate because I had a role in bringing Wurman to the IA Summit in 2010, and specifically hoped to see him to go beat up Jesse James Garrett. Of course Wurman didn’t care, but he showed up. There was no collision of the ideas or vindication, but life goes on.
The young volunteer who was responsible for organizing Mr Wurman’s birthday party at that summit in 2010 was Abby Covert. Were it not for Jesse blowing up my world, making me mad, making me call Wurman, and making it necessary for his birthday to be observed at the event where the throwdown was supposed to happen, I wouldn’t have met Abby, and without that, I’m not sure what I would do.
We decided together explicitly that this is really important to us and that we were going to work together to make sure that information architecture would continue to be a thing—that it wouldn’t be completely eclipsed, completely subsumed, into user experience.
It’s not that we don’t like user experience. The experience of users is everything that happens on the basis of the work that we do. We had the sense that we had to fight for, argue for, and make really clear examples of the value of information architecture as part of user experience design.
I think a lot of that struggle between IA and UX was because the first generation of information architects really didn’t have the architecture piece. It was just an analogy and a metaphor, and focusing on the architecture part has been the cornerstone of what Abby and I and a few others have specifically been trying to do in the field.
There’s a lot to do, still, but we’ve been fairly pleased with the results so far. I think the world is conspiring on our behalf also. For example, when Apple launches a new music service, Trent Reznor says there needs to be one place for music online—there’s the adoption of “place” as the way of saying “what are these services.”
I also think it’s just the fullness of time. In 1998, to say that this is architecture and these are places made of information that have to be good for people—that you can take the heuristics for what made physical environments good for people and just apply them directly to digital wasn’t something you could do in 1998. It would only be an analogy.
I remember what those digital places were like and you would have to be predisposed to seeing everything in terms of architecture, everything in terms of space. Today I think if you told civilians, “It’s a place that’s made of information where your life happens, and a lot of the reasons why this physical building is worth keeping up could be used to govern what we do in digital,” they’d say, “Yeah, of course.”
 An annual conference focused on information architecture that started in 2000.
 Information architect and active member of the IA community, and co-author of Pervasive Information Architecture.
 Also an information architect and active member of the IA community, and a co-author of the fourth edition of Information Architecture for the World Wide Web.
 Another information architect and active member of the IA community, and author of Understanding Context.
 An organization founded in 2002 to advance the field of information architecture.
 Information architect, author of The Elements of User Experience, and co-founder of Adaptive Path.