Information Architecture

(The thumbnail illustrations are clickable.)

This is an argument for the establishment of a field of study to be called information architecture (IA) in defence of an application for a professorate in the field announced by the department of informatics at Øsftold Regional College in October 1993. This paper does not pretend to cover all of the aspects that might be considered traits of the field of information architecture. It might, however, form the basis of an extended work on the subject.


Why IA?


Quite simply because it's needed and needed badly. Computer science, informatics, information technology - a disparate, ubiquitous field of many names has matured to the point where it needs a concept and set of ideas to provide a backbone, a structure or framework into which the various technologies and sciences of the field can be grafted. At its present state of maturity, one probably more akin to adolescence, CS needs a conceptual environment sufficiently encompassing of academics, economics, arts and sciences, management and industry - to allow participants from all those persuasions to find common ground and understanding.

The rationale is to pave the way for further and easier maturing in which the strictures of conservatism loosens its grip. Thus allowing the most creative and restrained to contribute equally to a field that is increasingly viewed with suspicion and confusion by the public. A public that progressively has little choice but to accept the products of a science in which they find their traditional ideas of order, beauty and mysticism of little value.

There is also the need for the computer scientist to find a platform on which to build an understanding of the identity of the profession. More often than not the computer scientist is a professional trained in another discipline, but having migrated across borders of learning in order to apply a new technology in an established field. Too many such migrants find themselves outside both the new field and the old - with little support in either - other than admiration and grudging respect for work indispensable and well done.

Even the field of computer science itself often lacks a clear identity. In academia, departments of CS are often administratively and academically organized under departments of mathematics or economics. Clearly, a general description, providing a comprehensive framework within which mainstream disciplines and specialist application could find their place, would contribute to the building of confidence both with professionals and public.

Finally, the worlds of information environments need legitimate work on form, design and project management. Increasingly, what used to be called databases are becoming environments of information with structures of such varied form that they no longer can be systemized or described along the traditional constraints of database systems.


Caveat


My academic training as architect and the terminology of much of what is written here, obviously leaves me open to the criticism of applying a "building" approach to computer science and informatics. To those who would be tempted to apply preconceptions in that direction when reading this paper, I would direct the following appeal: Architecture is something quite different from the process of building. It is a discipline which is as detached from building as the creation of software is from the manufacture of computing machines. While both the concepts of architecture and its relationship to the design and erection of buildings has changed through history, we are only at the very edges of attempting the formulation of concepts that mimic equivalent relationships.


Definitions


To use the term "architecture" with any meaning other than that of simple analogy, quite precise definitions are necessary. It will also benefit the discussion before us to trace the development of both the profession and the idea itself in a historical perspective.

The "art" of architecture is something quite separate from the practice of the profession by the same name. It loosens thought to be reminded that the eminently authoritative Gardener's "Art Through the Ages" includes architecture among its arts.(1) Very basically, an understanding of the spacial form of buildings and the manner in which they reflect light is sufficient for the formulation of that architectural theory which has to do with forming aesthetically pleasing space. Neither technology, nor technique appear to be of more than passing interest of cultural anthropology. Arches and vaults were, until the late 80's,(2) the exclusive realm of Roman invention, in my historical understanding of building form. At the other conceptual extreme, the architectural profession is clearly divided in its appreciation of the public use of its professional attributes to negotiators of international peace treaties of no mean importance. The title has acquired a multitude of meanings in everyday life that increasingly allude to superior abilities in organization and creativity.

Historically and within the bounds of the building industry, architects have been those who have created beautiful and sound buildings. With an increasing reliance on advancements toward more successful but also more vulnerable technologies, builder and architect parted company. Some will insist that the transition took place in the Renaissance, others at the height of the Industrial Revolution and yet others will insist on naming architects of the pharaonic dynasties. For the argument at hand, it is sufficient to note that the societies of professional architects of the various industrial countries were not established until the very end of the 19th century. The logistics of great wars and non-vernacular materials and methods required the chronological separation of the planning and erection of buildings. Built environments of alien form and complexity required creation and recording in informational form as a prerequisite for approval and financing.

It is with the advent of the functionalist movement between the world wars, that the great convulsions in architectural theory arise. Ideas where form and function are intellectually and culturally inseparable become the basis for world architecture as it has unfolded across the rest of this century. It should be quite clear that until forged metal and concrete became available virtually all materials used in architecture were hewn from nature.

The heyday of the architectural profession, at least in this country, were the years of great expansion, roughly the 100 years between 1875 and 1975. A general architectural practice during the 1960's and 70's would be responsible for virtually every aspect of design and building from the very inception of the process with the client through to the maintenance and alterations required as the finished building responded to new functions. While building consultants would be employed to calculate the statics of the building structure, services and special aspects such as acoustics, the architect would be responsible for the entire process including the necessary ideas and solutions which were detailed by the consultants.

I will not go into any discussion of why that situation has changed for the vast majority of architectural practices.(3) The important point to note is that society has found it necessary to educate and employ people who are able to organize the design and building of spacial environments on the basis of functional content, ecological situation, cultural context, aesthetic convention and technological criteria. In the context of this discussion, it is important to note that architects are those who span all the various professions and needs involved, organizing them into a comprehensible whole.


As it is today


The vigilant will have noticed that a number of architects are active in computer science today. The melding of computer science and architecture has probably been the greatest single influence on that part of the field which has received greatest public interest during the last few years, the digital media. It was the Architecture Machine Group at MIT under the leadership of Nicholas Negroponte that led to the establishment of the MIT Media Laboratory. (The publications of the group are included in the bibliography.)

The fields of systems analysis and software engineering, are both eminently concerned with the planning and organization of the computer software of informational environments. Computer human interaction is also a field dedicated to making the relationship between computing environments and humans as pleasant as possible. There are surely other fields equally dedicated to making human involvement in computing and data both interesting, useful and rewarding. However, most have the common fault of concentrating on the creation of software systems with a technological bias. They spring out of the need to create programs running on particular machines to solve particular problems. Their approach to the solution of those problems are more often than not based on the culture of a technology where culture technological or otherwise has not always been at the forefront. More importantly, their approach to the development of computing systems is toward the processing of information rather than conveying g or presenting it.

One of the prime motivations for my involvement in information architecture is the fact that informational content is very fast becoming more important than the software processing it. We need only look at the phenomenal growth in wide area networks such as the Internet to realize the it is the information itself that dictates the form and function of the informational environment in which it resides and is conveyed. Traditionally user-friendliness has concentrated on the needs of a user who is perceived to be at technological and cultural odds with both computer and software. Little real attention has been given to the fact that when information and its users transcend the limits of complexity where comprehension is immediate and total, they occupy a complex information environment. One need only look to the state of communications software in true wide area networks to understand the reasons for the frantic work in development of navigational aids such as Gopher, WAIS and World Wide Web.(4)

With the tremendous growth of the Internet, I believe it will very soon become evident that inherently 2-dimensional interfaces to informational environments of such enormous size and complexity will fail. The Internet had an estimated 16 million users in April of this year which had grown to 20 million by September. Apart from the wonderfully self-regulating intricacies of managing the technical interconnectivity necessary to satisfy that type of demand, there arise two interesting phenomena.

While wide area networks (WANs) have existed for many years in commercial and business communities, they have certainly not had the degree of openness and diversity that characterizes the Internet. The commercial networks such as Compuserve, Prodigy and America Online may claim both diversity and distribution, but they have after all, become mere subnets of the Internet. Most of their users connect through fairly slow speed, unsophisticated technology and move relatively small amounts of data.

An example of the sort of diversity and distribution that is arising is the ftp server I have been involved in building over the last year in collaboration with a colleague in Switzerland. During the summer and fall of 1992, two activities coincided to form a rather interesting source of information on the net. Berthe Chouiery of the Artificial Intelligence Lab at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne had grown sufficiently disgusted with the banality of discussion on the soc.culture.lebanon Usenet group (scl) to announce the posting of some cultural information on an ftp server at the lab. The prevailing themes of discussion on SCL are usually religious and political bones of contention that often elicit comments that verbally transcend the ferocity of the worst battles of the recent civil war in that country. On rare occasions both heavy culture and profound humor will break through, but it has been found very difficult to maintain anything but sporadic attempts at upholding the name of the news group. Berthe's first contributions to her own area of the liasun3.epfl.ch anonymous ftp server were some very charming pictures from Syria that she had taken during a vacation in the early summer of 1992.

This is anexample of a song text deposited on the servers.

At the same time I had become immersed in my third attempt at learning to read and write Arabic. The previous two had foundered in a myriad of teenage interests, the least of which was learning yet another language, especially when I already spoke it fluently in an environment where quite a number of people did very well as illiterates. So a prime motivator in the struggle against my own "illiteracy" became the reading and transliteration of Arabic songs. A slowly increasing number of additions to a fairly large collection of songs by a particularly famous and well-loved Egyptian singer were transliterated and portions of the sound digitized. A book of the complete texts of the songs of Um Kalthoum is available. Texts would be transliterated on a Macintosh running an rabic version of the OS and dtp software. The text would be screen dumped and converted to GIF images, which were the only practical standard of distribution. A minute of sound from the beginning middle and end of the songs would be recorded and digitized in the Sun .au (Next .snd) format. Gradually other performers were recorded and transliterated. Pictures and short animations were produced and descriptive text files made to accompany each informational unit. We were in fact producing a multimedia repository of cultural material from the Levant with special emphasis on Lebanon.

Over the past year, the number of contributions at the Lausanne site have become large enough to approach what is perceived to be a limit to the amount of space available for the anonymous ftp server. In order to defer the decision on serious forms of censorship on the material contributed, we decided to distribute the material by opening another site. Contributions to what has become a "hitchhiker's multimedia server of cultural material from Lebanon and the Levant" are now being made to ftp.dhhalden.no.

Our two servers are complemented by borg.poly.edu (temporarily rama.poly.edu) which contains software for text editing in Arabic and soundsbytes about Lebanon recorded from radio broadcasts. There are certainly many ftp servers containing cultural material, but most of them are archives, either for mailing lists or Usenet news groups. This group of servers are the core of the cultural material and contributions are only announced on Usenet.

The experience of building up the material on the servers has a twofold importance. One is the fact that the future use of WANs will certainly not be limited to a database / user relationship, where large centralized databases will dominate. Various forms of distributed information structures will grow up, were the amount of information available on the net will be directly proportional to the number of users and the information each one cares to make available to others. The other thing is the challenges of providing the informational environment being created with recognizable structure and form. We suspect that quite a few people who become interested in the server give up before they manage to retrieve any significant material. The reason is quite simply because there is no recognizable structure or form where the necessary functions for navigation, recognition and retrieval are present. The distributed form of the servers add complexity to the situation. And there are no attributes to the servers that indicate the nature and cultural affinity of the contents. (Nor would there be if any of the ordinary Internet interfaces such as WAIS or WWW were to be used.) Granted that the graphical WWW clients would allow imagery to be used that might evoke vague forms of cultural affinity, but the basic architectural features by which we normally recognize and navigate in physical environments would not be served.

It is certainly not that I consider the manifestation characteristics analogous to 3-D space necessary for structuring on the net. One of the enduring elements of informational environments is that they best serve needs not otherwise provided by physical information services. They are innovative, complementary and not always mutually exclusive. It is however obvious to me that vast collections of information, whether sedentary or transient do attract the presence of people. The thesis is that where people are present there must be space, irrespective of dimensionality. The use and maintenance of informational environments can only benefit from conscious planning of form and function. Certainly such function includes all the elements of the ordering and use of traditional space such as communication, awareness, aura, presence, form, planning, beauty, technical structure and detail, financial viability, and son on and so forth.


The elements of the field


In this section I will attempt to describe some of the prerequisites for the understanding and description of a field of study and research called information architecture. I should be careful to mention that these are only a few of the elements that I find basic to the concept and that preoccupy me at the present. In addition they are those elements of computer science and informatics that I see as important to the field.

Operating systems and GUIs


These are the very basics elements that present the user with the inherent form and functionality of the system being used. It is important to realize the basic difference between the vernacular such as the rich command line interface (CLI) of Unix and the designed-by-accident kitsch of MS Windows.

While all operating system interfaces do provide the functionality necessary to get work done, none yet give the user any experience of the qualities of form necessary to real interaction with informational space. In real life we have various physical characteristics that allow immediate interaction at various levels of consciousness. Color, mass, texture, weight, size, temperature, sound etc. are all characteristics which allow us to make judgements and decisions at a glance.

At the very best, the most advanced of graphic user interfaces provide the most meager functionality. They put intolerable demands on the actions of users and are basically both blind and deaf - oblivious to the users most simple needs. The only saving grace might be the foresight and complexity built into the vernacular Unix system which by virtue of its own functionality as a communications system, provides commonly recognizable ground for technical structure.

Communications


While operation systems and GUI shells might be the technical and functional basis for building environments, data communications are the services that tie them together and create space. It is a pity that virtually all research and publication being done on data communications concentrates either on technical aspects or communications workspace. There is very little discussion of the culture of communicative space which is gradually being created as the net grows.

There has been much talk recently of the "pioneering spirit" which is disappearing as commercial use of the net grows. There is also a pervading fear that the general spirit of altruism that has characterized that net will be choked by remunerative arrangements of various kinds. Any conscious efforts at forming the net in the direction of certain recognizable cultural forms would be abhorrent. However, there is a need to recognize the cultural forms it takes and to use those to advantage in when creating occupiable environments.

It is through long-term occupancy of digital space that the necessary awareness of environmental architecture will arise. When using a vernacular CLI like Unix over lengths of time, the various cultural influences gradually become apparent. Barking dogs and lurking gremlins conspire to seduce the user into admiration and respect for an environment that is both robust and dynamic. The three basic building blocks of IP networks lack that form of intimacy. Neither SMTP, FTP or telnet have the basic appeal of Ken Thomson's dog Biff or the exasperating unattainability of awk.

Through the CoMMedia(5) research project into a remote workplace system, I have been able to "live" on the net for extensive periods of time. The project which is described in a separate paper, basically consists of the following. An ethernet in our house based on three machines in my home office, a NeXT, a PC AT and a Macintosh IIcx. The ethernet was also initially configured with a Mac SE and a standard Mac II (since moved out with our son). Connectivity to the Norwegian Internet provider Uninett and the net beyond is through an IP router and a 64 Kbps digital line back to the Østfold Regional College which is on the Uninett backbone. The project is being carried out through the support of Uninett and Norwegian Telecom who have provided the Internet connection and the digital line. This form of connectivity gives me the opportunity to be in continual touch with the rest of the Internet. There is no need for logging on and off through serial lines with permanent remote shells and if necessary cross mounted disk volumes on the equipment at my college office is mirrored at home.

The project has provided an ideal situation for experimentation with remote workplace techniques and extensive exploration of the net. It has also created the means for establishing a "digital family". (See page 7.) While everyone was living at home during the first half of this year, all members of the family had email accounts and direct access to the net. Even now when the children have moved, my wife and I use the net for communication during the day time when she is at home prior to going to work and I'm at work in Halden.

We are now looking into ways of getting the distributed family interconnected again. Our son who has taken his machine with him to the west coast of Norway, would be an ideal candidate for an ISDN connection. It would allow him a measure of contact into the Internet for communication home, with his girl friend at the University in Oslo and to reestablish his contacts with the international ornithological community. With our daughter and her boy friend are on a sabbatical year in Ghana, we have established contact with the Fidonet administrator in Accra. Hopefully we will be able to arrange a regular network contact with them in Komasi in the interior of the country soon.

The point of the exercise is to experience extended immersion in a digital communication environment. That should provide at least part of the knowledge and experience base necessary to design and plan synthetic environments that people might recognize as beneficial and enjoyable.

Public computing


In the teaching of computer science and informatics today, a great deal of effort is concentrated on either business computing or industrial computing. It appears that the experience of the successful development of the telephone has not been fully understood. Just as private use of the telephone system is that which provides the greatest revenue for most telephone companies, it will be the general public use of computing that will dominate digital communication and computation in the future.

Both the entertainment and to a certain extent the advertising industries have already recognized the future importance of public data services. Video games on TV and interactive games on bulletin board services are bound to converge. Interactive movies are already being offered.(6) It is a popular homily that it will "all come together" when the cable TV decoder moves from the top of the TV set to underneath it and the remote control has QWERTY keys added.

However, entertainment will not by far be the dominating service provided through public computation in the future. Current activities in the field do not take into account the possibilities of simple informational sharing. It is my belief that the public will be quick to recognize the and enjoy the benefits of efficient and quick sharing of digitized information of all sorts. Usenet would seem to be a very good example, especially when observing the amount of personal contact that is made.

Two aspects of public computing stand out. One is the challenge of providing informational environments that are conducive to personal contact, experimentation and exploration. As the public create and use vast informational environments, it is not necessarily certain that interfaces to those environments of the traditionally "user friendly" and "recognizable" form will be the most successful. It will a major challenge to develop some form interface for the exploration of informational environments that will provide the necessary appeal and confidence.

The other is that people will probably create the databases they want themselves. It is assumed that the dominant pattern will be one of a number of gigantic database with vast numbers of users. Although that sort of configuration does exist in the world of snail mail (magazine subscriptions and junk mail), the really interesting stuff is personal. Personal mail dominates for various reasons. It can be of the form person to person or personal organization to member. Either way it's basically solicited. The reason it's interesting is of course that it is personal but also because it's cheaper. There's simply a fairly stringent limit to the amount of quality subscription mail that a private individual can afford.

On the background of that kind of fairly direct and basic experience, it should be fairly obvious that email and file transfer services would be popular with the public at large.

"Multi Media"


As an increasing number of institutions of education and research become interested in multimedia and seek to establish programs in the "field", I find it increasing difficult to define the term adequately. It is often tempting to apply facetious explanations either pertaining to the number of cables required by a multimedia system or by alluding to ladies in darkened rooms levitating tables.

It is important to recognize the inherent attributes and characteristics of various digital media and information carrying datatypes. It is their appropriateness with respect to informational content and the message to be conveyed that should be understood. Above all, the challenge to multimedia as it might be understood as a field, is how to organize the informational types. How to choose media and formats. How to apply design principles, interaction and how to express cultural content in the perceived interface with the environment being created.

Virtual Reality


In the heat of new discovery and enthusiasm of possible windfalls, the fact that very few technological developments are without fairly close precedents is often neglected. During the development of the "first" multimedia applications toward the end of the 80's, many of those involved were blissfully unaware of the multimedia characteristics of some very successful and necessary informations systems. The most obvious example are air traffic control systems. They work with a very close interaction between sound, animation and alphanumeric information. Databases and data communications have been a part of ATC systems for years. The only thing that does not make them "true" multimedia systems is the preponderance of analog media. That however, is simply an expedient of the available technology.

Recent developments in VR systems suffer from much the same apparent historical independence. There are however two very strong and historically enduring precedents to VR environment development. The eldest is also in aviation. Flight simulators must be the most successful and useful VR environments to date. It is extremely difficult to surpass the excitement and realism of trying to land a 737 in a full scale color vision flight training simulator. Apart from the very analog realism of the flight deck interior and hydraulic motion system, flight simulators have become very digital. In fact all digital software simulators are increasingly being used in various parts of flight training.

The second pre-VR virtual reality application of interest to developers and users of VR systems are architectural and industrial modelling systems. Both simulation and walk-through capabilities were implemented early on in the development of CAD systems.

The only important departure from previous technology are the new display systems and applications areas. Head mounted display systems offer a special form of interface which is particularly interesting in information architecture - the ability to actually "enter" a synthetic environment, as opposed to viewing it from the outside. HMDs have incorporated 3-D sound systems from the very beginning, which makes them additionally convincing in spite of very low and disappointing levels of visual resolution. An other side to VR interface systems that enhances the perception of synthetic space are the various manipulation and tactile feedback systems such as body suits, data gloves and exoskeletons.

In terms of architectural design, VR systems are fairly easy to relate to. As they are very visual, all the normal parts of architectural design in 3-space pertaining to light and color can be applied. This has been a fairly acute experience every time I have tried VR system whether of the entertainment or visualization variety. The most alarming was a vision system modelling a kitchen interior. It was quite possible (an quite amusing) to enter kitchen cupboards and emerge through work tops. The ultimate must be to enter the kitchen drawer as I did and pull it shut after me! However, the experience is not to be recommended in what must be the most glitzy and coarse kitchen on earth. Even the most powerful of visualization systems will not carry on technology and shear number of generated polygons. The application of fundamental graphic and spatial design principles will work wonders for even the most basic system as in most other visual situations.

Cyberspace


As I have covered various aspects of cyberspace in other, more extensive papers(7), it is mentioned only because of its importance in the present context. Cyberspace as I prefer to apply the term, is that digital space which is determined by the extents of the computer on which one is working.

Cyberspace is a digital, n-dimensional space which can be occupied and which presence is meaningful. Thus cyberspace can be formed, designed built and constructed.

An interesting aspect of the concept cyberspace is that it already has some cultural heritage. The eldest and strongest of which is probably E. M. Forster's The Machine Stops. Although many would claim William Gibson's right to creating the cultural settings of cyberspace, Forster's short story described digital space of wide area communication in 1909.

MUDs and MOOs


The most "tangible" and accessible applications of cyberspace to date are the MUDs and MOOs of the Internet. MUDs (Multi User Dungeons) were initially (and mostly still are) rather violent, text-based virtual reality games on the Internet played by young men. Over the last two years a more benign variety of MUD often programmed as MOO's (MUD Object Oriented) have appeared. MediaMOO created and maintained by Amy Bruckman at the MIT Media Lab is one. Others are LambdaMOO at Xerox PARC and Cyberion City (also called MicroMUSE). The basic object of MOOs is to foster interaction between residents (or visitors) and to explore and expand digital space.

It is interesting that most MOOs are architecture oriented. I.e. they describe some form of building environment as the backdrop for social interaction. In a mail Amy gives the following description:

From asb@media.mit.edu Sun Oct 10 17:34:51 1993
Date: Sun, 10 Oct 93 13:30:11 -0400
From: asb@media.mit.edu
To: Borre Ludvigsen 
Cc: asb@media-lab.media.mit.edu, asb@media.mit.edu
Subject: Re: Information architecture 


Hi Barre!

The core of MediaMOO is a physical replica of the Media Lab; however,
I created something called the "virtual internet."  You step inside a
computer, dissolve into a collection of packets, and then can find
your way to another site and step out of a computer there.  So at
apple.com, folks built a mini copy of Apple computer.  The result is
rather a disconnected collection of pieces.  Everyone can build what
they like and there's no one to tell them not to.  Someone once called
the place a "multicultural mess."  I was delighted.  Info on MediaMOO
follows.

Most of your adventure games style MUDs are modelled after small
medieval towns.

LambdaMOO is modelled on a big, rambling house... but that metaphor
breaks down in places.

Cyberion City (also called MicroMUSE) uses radial coordinates to
organize space in a futuristic city.

Read rec.games.mud.announce for a list of addresses for about 400
MUDs, and lots of other practical info.

I suggest connecting to a dozen as guest and just poking around.  Have
fun!  I'd love to see what you write on the subject.

-- Amy


Thanks for you interest in MediaMOO!

PHILOSOPHY

MediaMOO is designed to enhance professional community amongst media
researchers.  You can chat with colleagues, interact with virtual
objects, and build new objects and places.  Please help extend the
virtual world!  Nothing is there unless people build it.

The basic design is a virtual copy of the Media Lab, but folks from
other places are invited to build their own offices and connect them
via the "virtual Internet"!  Just find a computer and step inside!

The MediaMOO can be accessed on purple-crayon.media.mit.edu port 8888. Micromuse (cyberion city) is at chezmoto.ai.mit.edu 4201 and LambdaMOO at lambda.parc.xerox.com 8888.

The MOO's are digital informational environments at a very embryonic stage where their creators are primarily interested in social interaction. Its is only a matter of short time before the influence of digital architecture on that social interaction will become topical.

More about MOOs in Scenarios below.



The development of a discipline


The development of a discipline of information architecture has the potential of bringing the field of informatics and computer science together. Depending on how actvivities and professional concerns are defined, a framework can be quite comprehensive or it can limit itself to covering the concerns of the design and planning of informational environments. In the following outline which is proposal over areas to be covered, I will limit my concerns to the latter, design field.

Project organization

The following is an outline of the course of a typical design project which indicates the knowledge and overview necessary for involvement to assure uniform quality throughout.

Inception
Initial formulation of ideas
Feasibility studies
Interdisciplinary collaboration
Client feedback

Design
Functional analysis
Cultural adaptation
Design specifications
Pre (sketch) design
Dummy prototypes and models
Choice of tools for implementation
Cost analysis

Planning
Authoritative approval
Working prototypes
Financial detailing
Detailed design
Descriptive contract specifications
Tendering and subcontracting

Production
Organization of a production team
Administrative leadership
Cost control
Quality assurance
Documentation
Marketing
Distribution

Maintenance
Support
Revision
Experience recycling
Delegation

This form of approach to design and project management has many cumulative aspects. many of the elements mentioned early on in the process will naturally repeat themselves throughout the course of a project and are therefore not iterated in the outline

As the outline above indicates, the areas of knowledge necessary to implement and follow up projects are quite diverse. Most will be described in the section below on courseware.

Elements of design


The above project course outline does not touch on the essence of IA design - the elements of architecture that can be implemented in digital environments. I would like to discuss a few such elements here touching on ideas that indicate possible means of implementation.

Form is probably the most immediately recognizable part of spacial environments. In informational environments, especially those which are not visually based, how it can be treated becomes rather less obvious.

Size is an element of form that has not been addressed in interfaces other than numerically. GUIs are especially appropriate for the expression of size through various attributes that denote that characteristic. Color schemes and texture are both means that can be used to express mass, weight and volume. As it is all unitary elements in a window GUI are of uniform size. Only the more advanced systems have built in warnings for size limits when moving or copying files.

Sound is another element that can be used to denote form. Sound has the added attraction of not needing a GUI environment to work. It is quite conceivable that sound could be used to indicate the size of an environment being entered, the movement of other people in that environment and to portray characteristics of objects encountered in a digital environment. Traits such as weight and mass would fairly easily lend themselves to description by sound.

Other aspects of occupiable space that need to be addressed are presence, aura, awareness and ambience. In 3-space these are mostly described by light, which is readily mimicked in visual digital environments. But in text and sound-based space, other expedients must be used. MUD's are already quite good at using succinct and terse language to cover these elements. The limitations of such powerful restrictions of sense, do however give rise to frequent misunderstandings. On the other hand they can also be strong vehicles of freedom for the vocally and physically inhibited.

In the final analysis it is the relationship between the cultural character of informational content and cultural expression of the environment housing that content that determines architectural success. In traditional 3-space architecture that relationship has been developed through a long-term common recognition of the ways in which the functions of space and technology of structure are expressed. That sort of relationship can be built on the basis of disciplines such as graphic design and musical composition. But in abstract n-dimensional environments the bearing elements must be found in the traditions of computation and communication.



Scenarios


In exploring ideas about IA, playing with scenarios has been useful ground from which to glean some clarity of thought. The following are two scenarios, one very concrete and one more abstract that describe the kind of environments where the application of IA would be expected to contribute to an enhanced quality of community and function.

A MOO


As an ongoing project to be started by 3rd year students next semester, I have planned a MOO that would mimic the reorganized Østfold Regional College. From the beginning of the fall semester next year (1994) the five colleges in the county will be reorganized as one administrative unit with reconfigured departments. One department will be that of informatics and automation. The automation part is the present department of automation at the Technical College in Sarspborg which is 40 kms from Halden where the informatics section is located.

The MOO would consist of all the physical plant of the entire distributed college and allow students and faculty to explore those parts of the college external to their own. This scenario gives rise to several ideas:

- Methods of interfacing with people physically present and people digitally present. Many will obviously not want to log into the MOO. What are the means of interfacing with them and what are the implications.

There are quite extensive possibilities in expanding and creating functionality in such a MOO. We would want to concentrate on the cultural and architectural aspects and also means of interfacing with useful informational environments external to the MOO. As such we expect it to become an environment for the recognition and development of a describable architectural discipline.

Digital families


There was an initial scepticism to the introduction of the network connection to our house this spring. But as soon as the full implications of the Internet connectivity was realized, everyone through their weight in and used the system continually. Now the distributed members of the family complain bitterly of their detachment from the house. Only Linn-Iren at the University in Oslo is still connected to the house and communicates regularly.

The scenario involved building a digital version of the house where everyone could come in and move about when they needed to visit. The aim would be to look into implementing visual aspects that enhance presence and aura. For example using video-conferencing to connect the various members and bring in the very close personal relationships that exist in a family context.

This form of environment would be good for exploring the limits of visual representation. Avoiding mimicking 3-space, taking full advantage of mixed dimensional space and implementing methods for affordable bandwidth would be typical aims.



Courseware


Initially, the establishment of a discipline of IA could be conceived of as a course of instruction where and appreciation of the elements of the field were taught. In order to implement a full course of study, it would have to be tailored into several years spanning into the post-graduate level.

The following description is a modification of the course I teach in our department adapted to the revised 2 - 3 year course in computer science the department now offers.

The course description which is in a highly outlined and simplified form, assumes that multimedia resources both as dataformats and data communications have been covered in the first 2 years. The course is thus meant for 3rd year specialization students.

Structuring along the lines of knowledge, competence and proficiency, the aim of the course would be to give the students:

Knowledge in forming and designing information space. Such knowledge is gained through exploring and concentrating on decomposed and simplified facets of architecture on both the net and related fields where spacial form is applied.

Competence in planning and administration of design projects. While some of these elements can be taught through lectures and literature, the only way to work up to any level of useful competence is by actually working on projects under deadline pressure and supervision.

Proficiency in organization, programming and information acquisition. The course would be organized much as the present multimedia course, around a series of project of increasing complexity. The projects would address particular aspects of the design of informational environments such as:

The evaluation feedback from the present course has been uniformly positive. Comments like interesting, surprising and challenging are appreciated especially when one of the main aims of the course has been to arouse interest and awareness as a basis for exploration and application of accumulated knowledge.



Conclusion


The establishment of the discipline of information architecture would legitimize and give meaning to:

The present ambiguous state of teaching "multimedia" concepts would also be aligned into the various fields where they belong.



- Børre Ludvigsen, November 1, 1993








Footnotes

(1) Traditionally the remainder of the 7 arts being iconography, sculpture, music, dance, literature and drama.

(2) When I came to read Hassan Fathy with his narrative of pharaonic paraboloc vaulting.

(3) The matter is covered in my paper The Architectural Profession in Norway 1950 - 1992. Written for VCA - Union of computer-using architects in the Netherlands on request of Norske Arkitekters Landsforbund (The Norwegian Society of Architects), February 1992.

(4) The reader is assumed to be familiar with function and usage of all three program systems. Further information can be had from Krol's The Whole Internet.

(5) Cooperation, Communications and Multimedia. A national, distributed multimedia research project with the universities in Oslo, Bergen, Trondheim and Tromsø aslo including Østfold Distriksthøgskole, Norwegian Telecom Research (TF), Norsk Regnesentral, SINTEF DELAB, SINTEF SI, NORUT IT, UNINETT and the National Library in Rana (NBR). The project is described on my www server.

(6) For example Swedish TV1 "Du bestemmer" (You decide) 2105 Saturday October 31, 1993.

(7) Presence and Form and Content and Context in the Architecture of Cyberspace.


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borrel@dhhalden.no