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Information Architecture Versus Graphic Design

  |  December 27, 2001   |  Comments

Graphic design supports information architecture -- notthe other way around. Here's why.

Too much Web design suffers from an over-reliance on graphic design principles. Too many graphic designers have tried to force the Web to be what it is not, in the process creating ineffective and sometimes unusable Web sites. Quality Web design is driven by information architecture design principles. Graphic design should support these principles.

The Web requires an information architecture design rather than a graphic design approach because:

The Web is a literate rather than a visual medium. That is to say words, not images, are the building blocks for the vast majority of Web sites. Commercial graphic design focuses on grabbing the consumer's attention through the use of strong visual images and short emotive phrases. Graphic design is concerned with how a page looks. Information architecture design is concerned with how a page reads.

The Web is an active rather than a passive medium. We are constantly making decisions, such as to search for a particular term, to click on a particular link and so on. Information architecture design is concerned with supporting such decisions through search and navigation processes.

The Web is a visually constrained environment. Computer screen size and resolution, combined with download issues, mean that visual experiences are poor on the Web. Certainly, in comparison to a glossy magazine or a large TV screen, the Web cannot compete from a visual communication point of view.

The Web is accessed through computers. By their very nature computers are functional, work-oriented tools. You sit upright, close to a screen. Most people buy computers for two principal reasons. First, to work. Second, to educate themselves or their children.

The Web is a time-sensitive environment. There is one word to describe the average person who uses the Web: impatient. People don't like being kept waiting on the Web.

The very architecture of the Web is about linking units of content. Effective Web design is about organizing and classifying content so that it can be easily found and read, listened to, or viewed.

AOL, eBay, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, CNN, Google, Yahoo, Amazon.com, Napster, and Cisco are just some examples of organizations that take an information rather than graphic design approach to Web design.

Many people were upset I described the Web as a library in a recent article. But it is a library. It's a library of books, ideas, music, art, cars, houses, government legislation, technology news, and computer software and hardware. Unfortunately, the Web is a library that very often has the books on the floor and the lights turned out. Information architecture design is about turning the lights on and putting the "books" in their proper place.

I'd like to conclude with a quote. It's from one of the most extensive surveys of public opinion on the Internet, which was published by the Markle Foundation in the summer of 2001:

By far the leading metaphor for the Internet in the public's mind is not "a shopping mall" or "banking and investment office," but rather "a library." Despite the popular depiction of the Internet as a channel for commerce, the public mostly views it as a source of information, and these uses appear to explain its popularity much more than its utility as a way to shop, bank, or invest.

Let's give the public what it wants.


Gerry McGovern Gerry McGovern is a Web consultant and author. His most recent books are Content Critical and The Web Content Style Guide, published by Financial Times Prentice Hall.

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