Core Distinctions

When somebody asks me what I do, I say I’m an information architect. This often elicits puzzled looks. Many people don’t know what information architects do. So I clarify: I categorize things by setting them in relation (and often in contrast) to each other, so they’re easier to find and understand. In other words, I make distinctions for a living.

Often this clarification doesn’t help either. (Ironic, no?) “Making distinctions” sounds much too abstract. They only get it if I say that I help design websites and apps to make them easier to use. Websites and apps are things they have experience with; they are lower on the ladder of abstraction. Talking about websites and apps helps, but I must admit I feel uneasy about boiling IA down in this manner.

Setting up distinctions for ease of understanding transcends digital design. We establish distinctions when we define a line of products or reorganize our team. We establish distinctions when we put particular items on particular shelves in a store. We establish distinctions when we pack for a long trip. Some of these distinctions are less consequential than others. (I will still find my socks if I just toss them in the suitcase — it may just take a little longer.) But some distinctions are critical to success. If your product lineup is incoherent, your products may not sell well. If you swallow a pill from the wrong bottle, you may die.

We use language to set apart concepts and establish relationships between them. Therefore, language is the primary object of information architecture. The difference between the labels “MacBook” and “MacBook Pro” is just four characters of the Latin alphabet. Set next to each other, these two labels establish a possibility space: they hint at a continuum, a field of similarities and differences between two related concepts. The choice of the labels MacBook and Pro is not arbitrary. Both are laden with meaning — for people within a particular culture. (One of the goals of marketing is creating such a culture on demand.)

We’ve established distinctions for a long time. It’s how we make sense of things. The book of Genesis starts with distinctions​: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Before the story can start — before we can have agency — we must do something about chaos; the “formless and empty.” We need context. Heaven and earth; then and now; God and man; day and night; land and sea; sun and moon — and on it goes. The act of creation starts with making distinctions; defining the boundaries of a conceptual space. Information architecture brings a designerly approach to the establishment of these spaces. An approach informed by discipline, craft, research, and deep understanding of the needs of human beings. Abstract, yes — but also essential.