Methods of organising information

In my previous posts on information design I have given my personal definition and outlined a possible historical timeline. In this post I discuss the methods of organising information.

In the book Information Architects, Richard Saul Wurman proposes that there are five main ways of organising information. To facilitate easy memory of this system he devised the acronym LATCH. L is for Location: maps organise information so that locations may be perceived by their geographical relationship to each other. A represents Alphabet: dictionaries, encyclopaedias and telephone directories use this system to organise words, concepts and names. T is for Time: museums often organise their exhibitions chronologically using timelines. C represents Category: this is a method often employed by department stores and supermarkets. H is for Hierarchy: hierarchy is a value system that places things in relative importance to one another. The image below is Wim Crouwel’s radical redesign of the Dutch telephone directory. The number comes first followed by the surname making for easy referencing. This image is from: http://www.2×

LATCH Extended
In his essay ‘Information Interaction Design: A Unified Field Theory of Design’, Nathan Shedroff suggests that there are seven ways to organise anything: alphabet, location, time, continuum, number, category and randomness. Continuum and number extends Wurman’s notion of hierarchy with randomness a proposed addition. Numbering systems such as the Dewey decimal approach is primarily a method of strengthening the hierarchical structure of headings. Top ten numerical lists are another method of indicating the hierarchical value of things within a continuum. Shedroff suggests that randomness be included as a viable method of organising information. A preconceived pattern of information might not always be a desirable outcome. Allowing the individual user to identify their own sense of order within information may on occasion be more beneficial to them. If a challenge is involved, for example an interactive device presenting options within an exhibition environment or a game, then a clear organisation of information might defeat the purpose.

Transforming data
The transformation of data into a meaningful form begins with the selection and analysis of the relevant data required to perform a communication task. How things are organised effect the way they are perceived. Testing the alternative methods of organising data is a necessary prerequisite to the design of information. What to highlight, and how something is to be retrieved, will often be key in determining the most suitable and effective method of organisation. If you wished to travel between one location and another, a map rather than an alphabetic index would be the most appropriate form of organising the information.

A location is a particular place or position, often expressed in terms of co-ordinates on a map. A map is a diagrammatic representation of a physical area showing the relationship of one thing to another. A map guides a reader in travelling from A to B, aiding navigation between points on the map. Maps usually, although not always, transcribe the real world at a reduced scale. A pictorial language has evolved to notate physical reality onto what Edward Tufte describes as the ‘flatlands’ of print. Maps can be used to represent social, physical, political and economic divisions. The writer William Owen has said that ‘maps give their makers the power to define the territory in their terms and write a singular vision onto the landscape’. Maps purport to be a reliable, accurate and true representation of the world and influence our perception of reality. The north orientation of maps is a convention that has been followed by cartographers since its inception by Ptolemy. Underground maps tend to organise stations in a modular, diagrammatic form rather than how they actually appear geographically. Paul Mijksenaar in his book Visual Function observes that ‘when reality is highly schematised, the link with that reality is quickly lost’. A research group at Delft University embarked on a study of the London Underground map. They proposed a compromise alternative that involved combining the strengths of different concepts. The Delft model rendered the central London area topographically and included key landmarks that enabled visitors to relate to the reality of what lay above them. Outer London remained represented diagrammatically as most visitors would travel through these outlying areas underground to get to the central London attractions. The map below was produced at Delft University in 1983 by Paul Mijksenaar. The image is from:


The alphabet is an arbitrary sequence of symbols that is a learnt convention, which has been taught and reinforced through our lives. Most books have an alphabetic index. Often we know what we are looking for but don’t know where to find it. An alphabetic index provides us with a reference for locating the information we are seeking. Websites with dense information might equally employ an alphabetic indexing system to enable access to information without having to scroll around pages or following endless links between pages. Alphabetic indexing isn’t always the most appropriate method of organising information as there are many situations where the initial letter of a word has no particular significance. Occasionally ergonomics or mechanical requirements are factors that override the proposed LATCH system. Most people are familiar with the traditional layout of a qwerty keyboard. Charles Latham Sholes established this standard in 1867. Why aren’t the letters organised alphabetically? To understand the seemingly random arrangement of letters one must examine the evolution of the keyboard. The mechanical operation of the original keyboard required a key to be pressed down which operated a lever containing the letter to move up and make contact with a carbon impregnated ribbon which printed the letter on a piece of paper. With the original configuration of letters the levers would collide and become jammed together when an operator was typing at a fast speed. The solution was to move letters that were commonly typed in succession further apart, for example the letters ’i’ and ‘e’ are common pairs. Although modern keyboards do not face the same mechanical problems as the earlier models, the qwerty convention still remains in operation today. There have been many attempts to reorganise the keyboard but none of the improvements have warranted such a revolution. The layout of a type case used in traditional letterpress printing was not by alphabet. The position and size of each compartment related to the frequency of use in setting and the ease at which a hand had access to the type. Ergonomic human factors in this case decreed the resulting organisation of type in cases.

Time as a method of organising information is used when information is presented in chronological order for example in travel timetables, historic timelines, family trees, cooking instructions, television guides, calendars and diaries.

Categorisation allows things that share similar properties and attributes to be grouped together. Taxonomy is a branch of science that is concerned with classification. Typologies are classifications based on types of things, for example types of dogs. Department stores commonly use categorisation as a method, for example one store may have a shoe department, food department, toys department and sports department. Within each of these departments one can find sub-categorisation, for example within a food department you have a fruit and vegetable section, a soup section, a meat section, a drinks section, and so on.

These systems organise or order things by rank or importance, for example highest to lowest, tallest to shortest, fastest to slowest and biggest to smallest. Rating systems place things in a hierarchy. We consult reviews of movies or musical CDs to ascertain how critics rate them. Hotel experiences are rated by stars and depending on our budget we can choose a four star or a two star experience. Our educational progress is ranked in terms of percentages and grades.

Selecting an appropriate method
The Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC contains nearly 60,000 names of the US military personnel who died in the conflict inscribed on two long, highly polished, black granite walls. The walls increase in height from one foot to ten feet from the start to the centre of the memorial where they meet as a corner. The names of the men and women who lost their lives are arranged chronologically. The changing height of the wall represents the death toll as it rose, peaked and then declined as the war came to an end. The original proposal was to have the names organised alphabetically. This would have helped in finding a particular person, however it might have depersonalised the individual’s life and their family’s sense of loss – as Tufte comments: ‘in a list of John Smith’s, which one is yours?’ An alphabetic organisation would have diminished the emotional power of the monument. Categorisation by rank or function would equally reduce the importance of individual life. The physical form of this memorial is directly linked to the message it is conveying. The structure of the wall and the information it contains locates those who died with those they died with. Any other organisation would have altered the meaning and form of the memorial. The image below is from


Combining methods
Often more than one method of organising information is employed for the same information. Large department stores organise their products by categories, but they may also provide store directories that list items both alphabetically and by location. If you know what you are looking for and want to locate it with ease an alphabetic directory is most useful. If you wish to compare a range of items within a specific category (for example vacuum cleaners) then geographical location is of more benefit. Music stores organise music by category first for example Soul, Jazz, Classical or Pop and then alphabetically by artist or group. Book indexes will often have multiple categories such as by subject or by people listed alphabetically. Websites offer the opportunity to view information by different categories for example items might be listed by price and then by category or even by a combination of both within a category. Very quickly you can view all categories and then subcategories, the information reconfigures depending on your choices. The ability to cross-reference information allows the viewer flexibility and richer contexts.

The Periodic Table
Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleyev is credited with devising the arrangement of all known elements into the Periodic Table. Elements had been grouped in two ways previously – either by their atomic weight (hierarchy) or by common properties such as metals or gases (category). Mendeleyev’s discovery was that these two methods could be combined in one table. It has been suggested that Mendeleyev was inspired by the game of patience, in which cards are arranged horizontally in suits and vertically by descending number. Using this concept he arranged the elements into horizontal rows called periods and vertical rows called groups. This visual display of information demonstrated two sets of relationships depending on whether one was reading the table up and down or from side to side. Elements are organised vertically to express chemicals with similar properties for example metals sit one on top of each other. The horizontal rows are organised by the number of protons in their nuclei, known as the atomic number. Hydrogen has one proton and therefore has an atomic number of one and is placed first in the top left corner. Mendeleyev’s invention allows the relationship between elements to be understood through visual means. In the book ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’, Bill Bryson describes the Periodic Table as ‘a thing of beauty in the abstract, but for chemists it established an immediate orderliness and clarity that can hardly be overstated’. In the view of Robert E Krebs who wrote ‘The History and Use of Our Earth’s Chemical Elements’ the Periodic Table is ‘the most elegant organisational chart ever devised’. Medeleyev’s scheme was designed to accommodate new elements when they were found. The image below is from:


Organising books
In the book ‘Species of Spaces and Other Pieces’ Georges Perec discusses the many ways in which humans inhabit and organise space. Perec has written about ‘…the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books’. He surmises that a dual problem arises above and beyond the acquisition of a certain quantity of books. There is the dilemma of space to house the collection followed by a means of ordering them. When the quantity of books is so vast how is one to lay one’s hands on a desired volume at will? The solution to the problem begins by making the books visible through the organisation, side-by-side, on bookshelves that eventually become a library. Books might be categorised by room and the function of the room eg cookery books could go in the kitchen. Most books, however, do not necessarily belong to a specific room. Perec suggests that unless one is adopting an anarchic approach there are a number of methods of arranging books. He suggests the following are possible schemes: alphabetically; country of origin; colour; date of acquisition; date of publication; format or size; genre; historical periods; language; priority for future reading; styles of binding; or by series. Perec concludes that none of these systems are in themselves ideal and that most of us resort to a combination of methods which lead to highly personal and unique classifications. In our quest for the ultimate and complete organisational method, Perec remarks that ‘we oscillate between the illusion of perfection and the vertigo of the unattainable’. The world is too complex for simplistic categorisation but this won’t suppress our need to understand through classification. There is very little that can’t be listed, the books of various world records pay testament to this. And if all fails we can always classify under ‘miscellaneous’. The image below is from: