Dan Klyn is a leader in the information architecture community, with a strong interest in drawing more directly on architecture and the work of Richard Saul Wurman to inform IA. He is the co-founder of The Understanding Group, a consulting firm focused on information architecture.
In this part, we focus on how he entered the information architecture field. In part two, Dan Klyn how he became interested in Richard Saul Wurman’s work in information architecture.
Entering the Information Architecture Field
This is a broad question, but how did you get into information architecture?
I was in the Library and Information Science program at Wayne State University in 1998. The difference between job and career opportunities for librarians and for people who knew how to work on the World Wide Web was vast, and even though I started with good intentions to work in a library—I wanted to be a descriptive bibliographer—I knew how to make web pages and I had a knack for organization. It was easy to get into what became UX, if you had a Library and Information Science degree, and knew stuff about websites.
How specifically did you learn that this was a job that one could do—that librarian skills were applicable to working on websites?
I didn’t know that for sure. I got a job as the webmaster of Wayne County while I was at graduate school because I’d taught myself HTML. I was using the web solely as a way to publish my academic work and to connect with other people.
When I graduated in 1998, I went to work at AllMusic.com. Michael Earlywine, who invented AllMusic.com, the All Music Guide, was seeking people with the combination of library degree and ability to understand the functional design of websites. He called it a Functional Designer. He saw my role as the “what” before the “how.” I was there for two years and I became really good at the job, which was information architecture, but I didn’t know the name for it.
AllMusic.com was trying to build an online music magazine where you could just click on the name of a song and have it deliver an instantaneous high fidelity playback of music. It was too early for its time, though. I was responsible for the functional parts of the design but had also been given more and more leeway into visual design.
In 2000, I got a job at Q, which is a design firm that’s still in Ann Arbor. Q hired me because I could do a Photoshop layout that could be rendered across web browsers, to the pixel. At the time this was highly valued because they wanted the design to be right and browsers couldn’t render fonts, or lots of other things, but I could trick the browsers into doing them.
They were pioneers of selling design consultant services for the World Wide Web. Q had a partnership with two other firms in town. Many of the earliest commercial websites were put up by a triumvirate of Q, for visual design, Argus for information architecture, and Interconnect for the technology platform.
I didn’t know anything about these areas. I just interjected myself into the technology people’s space, and the information architecture space, because I knew about the aesthetic, spatial design stuff. Not through any training—just because I have a knack for it. I could do it all and they used these other partners less and less, especially on the smaller stuff which would be a pain in the neck for the other partners.
I’d certainly never thought of architecture as was I was doing. I had no sense that what I was doing, or that the value that I was bringing, had to do with architecture.
I also didn’t think that it was design—I didn’t have any training or a degree, so I wasn’t comfortable calling myself a designer, and I had not yet heard of information architecture.
Then, in early Spring of 2000—one of the first days the tables were out on the sidewalks—I went to a meeting on Main Street in Ann Arbor to talk about a project for Consumers Energy. On the other side of the table from me were Peter Morville and Lou Rosenfeld*.
That was the first time I’d heard the words “information architecture.” Prior to that, we just referred to their company, Argus. The concept of information architecture wasn’t really necessary or relevant, somehow, to situating me in a company that has a partnership with them.
I looked at the designer I was with, then looked at Peter and Lou, and I thought “I’m on the wrong side of the table.” These guys made a whole business—they had 40 people working for them—doing the thing that I’m good at and love. I could see pretty clearly at that point that I was doing a baby version of what they had already created a consulting business around.
That was when I knew that information architecture was a thing.
Unlike me, Peter and Lou were working more as librarians and taxonomists—organizers of things. They weren’t talking about space as a three dimensional place where geometry is employed toward meaning, or anything like that. “Architecture” was only metaphorical at that point.
The more I investigated it and poked at it, the more it made sense to me why they called it architecture, because they, like me, didn’t want to be called “designers.” They didn’t think that the visual is part of what they did. information architects, in their work, didn’t have purview over the visual dimension or how space is configured. I think back then they would say information architecture is more about the semantic. Though their answer may be different now, they always held the architecture part uncomfortably.
* Peter Morville and Lou Rosenfeld were founders of Argus, and agency focused on Information Architecture, and authors of the book Information Architecture for the World Wide Web.