Design is a structured process for managing ideas

Lots of people think of design as being about having ideas. They think “design”, then they think “creativity” and the word conjures up the idea of bringing something new into being. Design does make new things. But design is most often about finding new ways of seeing, understanding and shaping the world. Design is most often about combining things, or using and applying things in new ways to generate value.

This website is about design and information architecture in particular. If design is about managing ideas to generate value, then information architecture is about establishing a framework in which this is possible and makes sense. 

IA helps to define the type of value and the ways in which ideas can be managed and manipulated to generate that value. It’s about creating the contexts so that users or agents in experiences can act with intention to fulfil needs.

Information architecture is the context in which things make sense – the sense-making frameworks we establish and operate in.

What is information architecture?

Information architecture is the framework in which environments, things and people can meaningfully interact. Meaningful interaction is required for agents to act with predictability and intention. An agent might be a human completing a task – using a website to shop. It could be a machine or a bit of software consuming, using or transforming information for some intended purpose.

Predictability means any of these types of ‘agent’ can reasonably predict what an action will result in. Predictability is a pre-requisite for acting with intention. When an agent understands the range of possible actions and can predict likely consequences of their actions they’re operating in a meaningful and helpful information architecture. They understand what is possible and can take action to try to fulfil their needs and desires.

Information architectures can overlap and interact. Information architectures can be cultures and conventions. Information architectures can be implicit or explicit. They can be progressively revealed. They can be fixed and static or evolve based on patterns and rules. They can be shared. But they can also just be an individual perspective. So let’s start with a definition of two types of information architecture.

Individual perspectives & Embedded environmental signals

We all carry our own unique perspective, experiences and knowledge with us into every new experience. This framework constitutes a large proportion of the information architecture of the experience. But the environment also has an information architecture which encourages you to adopt a shared perspective. 

Imagine a bench, placed facing out to sea – a designer (or information architect) has introduced an element into the environment that encourages a certain perspective or way of seeing the world. The same can be true for apps, websites and any digital or physical environment. The information we embed and make accessible helps us to experience and understand the world in a structured way. A menu on a website tells you the most important areas within that digital environment. Interfaces communicate the range of actions and interactions you can perform. The extent to which this ‘coercive perspective’ or Environmental information architecture is effective will affect the type of meaning making that you’re able to do….

We live in information. Every environment has meaning embedded in it that we can interpret. Even that bench, facing out the sea might have information. Perhaps there is a plaque with the name of a loved one. But there might be other types of information to nudge your meaning making in a certain direction. Perhaps the sky conveys information about an imminent rain storm. The location of the sun in the sky holds information about the time of day. No matter where a person finds themselves, they’re surrounded by information. 

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Individual information architecture is the personal perspective or frame that we bring to every experience.

Environmental information architecture is the IA that is embedded into an information environment. It will almost always direct meaning making and understanding.

Experiences happen in a combination of these two architectures.

Experiences are the result of an interaction between these two types of meaning-making architecture – the unique perspective of the user and their decoded representation of the embedded architecture in the environment.

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Imagine the three scenarios depicted in the picture above. Each column describes a different mix of the two types of information architecture. The pink column represents the individual information architecture and the yellow the environmental. The dotted line represents the level of information architecture (or meaning making context) that needs to exist for the experience in an environment to make any sense at all.

In scenario A we see a partnership where the agent and the environment both contribute to the meaning making. The agent is able to bring their intention to achieve results within the defined environment. 

Scenario B is a little more coercive or directive. The information architecture limits the options for meaning making. 

You might say that comparing A-B is like comparing a novel with the movie adaptation. You’ve probably got more opportunities to project meaning when interpreting a novel than a big screen adaptation. For the movie the actors, director and crew have already taken some of the meaning-making decisions, so you’re left with less to do. 

In scenario C we see the reverse of B. There’s a vacuum. So in order for the experience to make sense the individual has to work overtime. This increases the cognitive load that we place the agent under. It’s also much more likely that they won’t be able to pull the experience up the level of making sense. They might go unsatisfied or unable to complete their task because the environment they found themselves in just didn’t make sense or actively got in their way. And the resulting experience might be different from that of another agent experiencing the same environment – there’s less reliability and predictability for everyone.

Intention and context

Design is the result of intentional activity to arrange elements to create the product of a design. So:

Design (the verb) describes a process for managing ideas and activities to produce an intended result which generates value.

A Design is the output of that design process

I’m not sure a design can exist without some form of design process.

But information architecture can exist without an IA creating it. Information architecture is carried around in everyone’s heads – individual IA. And Environmental IA can also exist without conscious design/architectural effort. This ‘unintentional IA’ is one reason why the practice of information architecture is important to cultivate. Without intentional focus and attention, the IA within a design can easily work counter to the designers intention.

Unintentional IA is everywhere – it’s the unintended, meaning-making context that envelopes individuals as they enter into experiences. As we’ve seen with the columns, if you leave the meaning-making context to chance, then you’re dependent on the experiencing-agent to make more of the meaning. And there’s another consequence. Because there is always information embedded in every environment, if you haven’t consciously shaped it, there’s a chance the IA will work counter to your intention as a designer or information architect.

Agents will always be directed by signals in the environment. They always combine their own context and experience with signals in the environment. The intentional or unintended architecture always provides a shaping context in which agents make meaning, understand and take action. This is why intentional information architecture is better than unintentional IA. Not only can it help people make meaning more efficiently and with less effort. But because you’re playing a bigger role in the transaction of meaning making you’re able to exert an influence and direct the meaning making to fulfil more of your goals and objectives… You contribute more to the experience.

Imagine this: I’m sat on a bench and a stranger sits down next to me. In one version of the story I don’t say anything. The stranger talks and talks and talks and I’m just the passive recipient. The conversation could be about anything – I literally have no say in the meaning and information. I might listen attentively, zone out or stand up and wander off – it’s pretty unpredictable. I make no meaningful contribution in the information exchange. It’s like scenario C where there is a shortfall in the information partnership between agent and information architect.