of The American Society for Information Science

Vol. 27, No. 1

OctoberNovember 2000

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Architects and Information Architects
by Karen Parolek

Karen Parolek is senior information designer at NBC Internet. She can be reached there at One Beach Street, San Francisco, CA 94133; or by e-mail at karenp@nbci.com

Update 02/15/05: Karen Parolek is now a principal at Opticos Design, Inc. in Berkeley, CA.  She can be reached by email at karen.parolek@opticosdesign.com

Specialists in numerous fields, including library science and Web design, are now calling themselves information architects, but the roles they have assumed are diverse. As with any newly developing profession, there is a need to refine and clarify the role of the information architect and the accompanying job description. I have a formal education in architecture, have worked with numerous architects as an architectural signage designer and am now working as an information and interaction designer. From my experience I believe that analyzing the roles of traditional building architects (herein referred to as architects) and comparing their roles to the those of an information architect might shed some light on our quest for clarity. This article presents a description of each of the major roles that an architect fulfills and a proposed translation of each of those roles for an information architect. However, there is one caveat: most of the following comparisons will be directly related to the Web industry, as that is where my experience lies.

Strategist and Programmer

In the traditional profession, an architect's first responsibility on any building project is to meet with the client to determine the goals and requirements for the building, as well as the overall vision of the building. The architect works with the client to develop a set of requirements for the building called the program. The program spells out each major function and the detailed requirements for each function, such as size and access requirements, as well as the general overall requirements.

Similarly, an information architect is responsible for meeting with the client to help determine the overall goals of the project and what the client wishes to accomplish. Together they define the list of functions to be included in the project as well as the general requirements. An example in website design might be determining that a site should include a product catalog, a calendar of events and a newsletter, that it must be accessible by all people with version 3.x browsers and above, and that it must be optimized for an 800x600 size screen. In some instances, a strategist might be hired as a consultant to assist in this development.

Principal Designer

An architect's next responsibility is to translate the requirements into a building design. This process involves designing the structure, the spaces, the flow through those spaces and the faces of the building. On small buildings, a single architect may complete this work alone. On large or complicated projects, the architect will first develop a schematic design for the building and then bring in specialists, including structural engineers, mechanical and electrical systems engineers, interior designers and landscape architects, to assist in the development of the details.

Likewise, an information architect must translate the project requirements into a design for the information experience. This process similarly includes the gathering and analysis of the information, the design of the information structure, the flow through the information and the face of the information or how the information is displayed. As in architecture, once an initial design is in place, consultants such as information designers, interaction designers, interface designers, usability specialists, technical writers and visual designers may be hired to assist in the design development.

Communicator of the Design

Numerous people are required in the creation of a building, so a key responsibility of the architect is to communicate the design intentions to everyone involved. The first level of communication is to the client, typically through a set of schematic sketches and drawings. Once this design direction is approved and the process continues, the architect must communicate the design intention to the various design consultants that have been hired, such as the structural engineers, interior designers and landscape architects. This information is typically communicated through a set of drawings that consists of floor plans, elevations (drawings of the exterior of the building) and sections (drawings that display the interiors of the building and their relationship to the structure). 

In the final construction phase, the architect must communicate the designs to the building team, including the general contractor, plumbers and electricians, who are then going to translate those designs into a real building. For this purpose the architect creates a set of construction documents, which include the finalized floor plans, elevations and sections, as well as much larger detail drawings and written specifications.

In the same way, an information architect must ensure that the design intentions are communicated to everyone involved in the project. Again, the first level of communication is to the client, often through an initial set of sketches or mockups. Once the client is satisfied, the design intention must be communicated to the design consultants who will be working on the design development such as the interaction designers, visual designers and writers, typically through a set of diagrams, sketches and mockups. Finally, the completed designs must be communicated to the engineers who are responsible for building the site through diagrams, mockups, prototypes and/or written specifications.

Coordinator of the Design and Keeper of the Vision

Once the design intention has been communicated to the consultants, the architect must ensure that all of their work is coordinated into a cohesive finished design, often not an easy task. As each consultant assists in his or her specialty, the architect must ensure that the consultant's work fits into the overall design intention and is coordinated with each of the other consultants' work. Throughout all of this coordination effort, it is ultimately the architect who must ensure that the vision for the project is achieved. The final design and accompanying set of drawings and specifications must seem to have been done by one designer. In addition, once the design development is complete and the project has moved into the construction phases, implementation problems often arise. The architect is again responsible for coming up with a design solution for these problems that fits with the overall design and vision. The coordination effort is critical to the successful completion of the building.

Similarly, an information architect fulfills this role when multiple consultants are involved. The information architect's knowledge of the various specialties often makes him or her the most appropriate person for this coordination, and the responsibilities of the principal designer require it. The end result of this coordination effort is a cohesive and effective design. In addition, after the design work is completed and the engineers have begun to build the site, the information architect assists in any redesign that may be necessary due to technical problems that are encountered.

Project Manager

Due to the architect's role as the coordinator of the design, interest in ensuring that the project is built according to the design specifications and relationship with the client, generally as the primary contact, the architect often assumes the role of the project manager. This project management responsibility includes conducting the bidding process and contract negotiation for the construction team, managing the timely effort and deliverables of all of the specialists and overseeing the construction phases as the project is built. These responsibilities are critical in ensuring a successful implementation of the design and are often the most time consuming of all of the architect's efforts.

Unlike an architect, an information architect very rarely takes on this project management role. Typically a specialist is hired or the client does this him or herself.


Of all of these various roles that an architect fulfills, the role of principal designer seems to be the most widely affiliated with the word architect. The architecture profession itself is concerned with this incomplete comprehension of what they do even within their own education system. Recently, at the final architecture studio reviews at the University of California at Berkeley's College of Environmental Design, the faculty and students were discussing the importance of design in architectural training. Charles Correa, a visiting professor and noted architect and city planner from India, made the point that design is only a part of architecture and that there are many good architects who are not good designers. The great designers are the ones we hear about in the news, but they are really in the minority. The vast majority of architects are in the trenches, putting the programs together, communicating and coordinating the design and managing the projects.

Applying the above analysis to the field of information architecture, a person proving competency in most, if not all, of the roles discussed may be justified in using the term architect in his or her job title. However, if a person fulfills only one or two of the roles mentioned, it seems that words such as designer or specialist are more accurate. The reality is that many firms have found effective ways to ensure the fulfillment of all of these roles through multiple specialists without needing one person who is competent in them all. They may have determined that it is too much to ask one person to fulfill all of these roles, and it is better to split up the responsibilities. However, these participants are designers or specialists, not architects, as they are fulfilling single roles in the overall process. Only those that do in fact take on all of these challenging roles should by analogy consider the title of "information architect."

The reality is that all traditional architects must be competent in each of the roles mentioned above. Some are better at the design aspects and may choose to concentrate their efforts there, while others are better at the coordination roles or the communication roles. However, traditional architects must pass a rigorous nine-part exam that proves competency in each of these roles in order to be called an architect. Because of this broad range of expertise and the difficult nature of playing all of these roles, these architects have earned a certain respect in our society that we must be careful not to encroach on unfairly. We must be respectful of these competencies and the history of the architectural profession in debating how we use the term architect. As information specialists, we all know the power of language, and we must be careful how we use it. If we are to use the word architect in our job titles and the description of our profession, we must ensure that we are justified in doing so.

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