It’s impossible to understand context. There’s always something we’re missing. Not long ago, during a rim-to-rim hike of the Grand Canyon, I was thinking deep thoughts about two thousand million year old rocks. They made me feel small. While we’re more stable than a tornado or a sandbar, we belong in the same category. We are delicate, imperfect patterns that come and go in the blink of an eye. But we’re also more ancient than rocks. We are made of stardust, indestructible matter as old as the universe.
That’s when I heard the rattle.
Lost in thought, I nearly stepped on a snake. In unfamiliar territory, it’s impossible to understand context, but it’s still vital that we pay attention.
In the 1990s, I helped to grow a company called Argus. Over the course of seven years, we pioneered the practice of information architecture and bootstrapped our way from two to forty souls. But when the bubble burst, we sunk the ship. We didn’t see it coming. Later, while packing books into boxes, I suddenly realized what I’d lost. It wasn’t just a company. Argus was a part of me. We’d built an organization of people, systems, and information that embodied and extended our selves. That’s the thing about context. It’s impossible to see until it’s gone.
A year after we closed Argus, I met Andrew Hinton. A group of us were gathered on the beautiful conference grounds of Asilomar to discuss how we might advance the practice of information architecture. At the time, our work was tied to websites, but Andrew told us to embrace “the structural design of information environments.” So we wrote those words into the bylaws of the Information Architecture Institute and into the new edition of the “polar bear book,” and that became the definition of information architecture that’s celebrated by thousands of people in dozens of countries each year on World IA Day. Our words and actions have unforeseeable consequences beyond our current context.
There’s a new ship in town by the name of TUG. It’s reframing information architecture. The Understanding Group was founded by Dan Klyn and Bob Royce, and I’m a strategic advisor. It’s the perfect place for Andrew to be an information architect. He gets to tackle massive projects while surrounded by amazing people. And he’s able to continue what he began in Asilomar: building out the “architecture school” of information architecture.
In articles and talks and in this book, Andrew is helping us all to realize that we’re not designing software or websites. Since “language is infrastructure” and “the map is the territory,” the things we build and inhabit are “places made of information.” From the perspective of experience, these digital ecosystems are as real as the Grand Canyon. This unfamiliar territory can engage, inspire, or overwhelm. It’s easy to get lost, and there are snakes. That’s why this book is important. It’s a map for mapmakers. It won’t explain everything from here to there. That’s impossible. But if you’re brave enough to hike its crags and canyons, you will be better at making places and understanding contexts. This book is not a straightforward journey, nor is it short, but it’s one I highly recommend.