J R R Tolkien was an information architect
By Gerry McGovern
Information architecture is concerned with the organization and layout of content. It is a discipline that has evolved over centuries, finding its roots in writing and printing. J R R Tolkien was a master information architect. He created complex genealogical and geographical architectures. If you want to master information architecture you need to acquire the type of skills Tolkien exhibits.
Currently, I'm reading The Lord of the Rings to my son. It is a stunning work that mixes an age-old plot -- good versus evil -- with fabulous worlds and rich characters. Something that continuously takes my breath away is Tolkien's mastery of genealogy and geography.
The genealogical lineage of the characters is awesome. It must have taken Tolkien years to develop all the family trees. The geographical landscape is rich and stunning. Putting each town, village, river, mountain and open plain in its proper place is an act of incredible cartography.
I'm sure if Tolkien was a young man today and he was given the job of organizing a 500,000 page website, he'd take to it like a gamer to a joystick.
"If I have seen farther than others, it is because I was standing on the shoulders of giants," the great inventor Isaac Newton once said. Information architecture will benefit by standing on the shoulders of publishing. It will also benefit from establishing a core set of standards.
Learning from the past and embracing standards is part and parcel of the creative process. The key innovation of the Internet was a set of standards that allowed communication between all types of computers. The key innovation of the Web was a common publishing language (HTML).
One of the biggest myths I have come across is the belief that creativity is about having no limitations. In fact, it is often quite the opposite. Writers, for example, have accepted that there are only a few plots that work.
For all its complexity, The Lord Of The Rings is built on simple, sturdy, tried-and-tested plot structures. J K Rowling's Harry Potter has huge similarities to Tolkien's work. Shakespeare stole the plots for most of his greatest work from plays already written. A key motto of art is: 'Geniuses steal, beggars borrow.'
Information architecture deals with the organization and layout of content. People have organized content for centuries, asking questions such as: How do we classify this? Look at the bible. Or get your hands on a major Sunday newspaper, such as The New York Times or The Sunday Times (UK). These papers are major exercises in classification.
Yes, search has different challenges on the Web. However, publishers have addressed search by creating table of contents and indexes.
Content layout is a critical skill in publishing. Through much trial and error it has been found that there are only a few ways to lay out content if you want to guarantee readability.
Look at the front page of most newspapers. The layout is almost identical: large picture, lead story, three/four minor stories. A certain font size is used for headings and body text. There is a certain column width. Stories operate within a certain word range. Most newspapers use black text on a white background because it's easier to read.
Information architecture is a tremendously exciting discipline. However, it should move forward by building on already established knowledge. Reinventing the wheel is the pastime of fools. After all, whoever invented the wheel was an idiot. Whoever invented two wheels was a genius.
- J R R Tolkien was an information architect @ gerrymcgovern.com