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Erin Harris from Harvard Family Research Project, with Suzanne Muchin, CEO of Civitas, illustrate the design concept “information architecture” for displaying complex information clearly and simply.

Those of us in professions where information is our primary commodity are constantly on the lookout for ways to improve our ability to communicate successfully in an increasingly information-saturated world. We want people not only to notice and read our work, but also to use it and learn from it. As we struggle to communicate more effectively in the face of an overwhelming amount of information competing for our attention, we need to challenge the standard reporting and presentation conventions and explore new alternatives. Information architecture is one possible tool to improve our communication capacity.

Information Architecture
Architect Richard Saul Wurman coined the term information architecture in 1975. Information architecture uses basic elements of architectural design (e.g., graphics, color, layout, fonts, and empty space) to convey information as efficiently and simply as possible. It is an attempt to make the complex clear.

Five principles are central to information architecture:¹

  1. You understand something new relative to something you already understand.
  2. There are just five ways to organize information, referred to as LATCH: Location (e.g., a map), Alphabet (e.g., a dictionary), Time (e.g., a timeline), Category (e.g., a department store), and Hierarchy (e.g., from largest to smallest).
  3. Don’t beautify; clarify.
  4. To decide which information is worth keeping, determine what you really want to know.
  5. Most information is useless. Give yourself permission to dismiss it.

Information Architecture at Work
Information architecture has been used for a wide variety of topics—most recently for child development issues in Understanding Children: The Guidebook for Children 0 to 3. Civitas, a national child development communications nonprofit, partnered with Wurman to bring his information architecture approach to this book. According to Civitas CEO Suzanne Muchin, information architecture was a natural fit:

The Civitas mission is to translate essential child development content into vehicles that are accessible to parents, caregivers, and frontline professionals. So this is literally our mission—to act in a certain way as information architects of information about young children.

The book condenses the myriad of child development resources into an essential guidebook with the goal of providing a comprehensive knowledge base to assist adults in making informed decisions about the well-being of young children. Using information architecture, the book strives to communicate to a broad audience, cutting across such barriers as socioeconomic status, education, and experience; those purchasing the book range from “regular” parents and caregivers to child care professionals and community organizers.

Two-page spread from the book Understanding Children
A two-page spread from Understanding Children: The Guidebook for Children 0 to 3

Understanding Children uses a question and answer format, a data-driven and nonlinear layout, action-focused content, and the liberal use of color and descriptive illustrations. A two-page spread from the book is provided below to give a sense of the book’s layout. The book’s specific presentation techniques—with examples from the two-page spread—include:²

Color-Coded Organization: The book is divided into issue-based sections (e.g., Childcare) with a different color assigned to each.

Big Question: Each spread includes a color-coded “big question” in the top right-hand corner that frames the topic. (E.g., What do I need to know about child care centers?) The top two thirds of each page includes theories, explanations, charts, graphs, diagrams, illustrations, and icons that address the big question.

Summary Answer: The big question is followed by an answer in summary form. (E.g., A good child care center may be hard to find. Look for low staff turnover, current licenses, and small group sizes.)

Questions: Pages are filled with questions, related to the big question, for caregivers to ask. (E.g., Will my child develop behavioral problems if I send him to a child care center?)

Answers: Questions are followed by answers with data and opinions from experts. (E.g., Not likely. The Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, conducted by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, has followed over 1,200 families around the country since their baby’s birth. While the study doesn’t provide clear-cut answers as to what leads to behavior problems in child care settings, it does find … Good parenting matters … Quality of care matters … Type of care matters.)

Marginalia: Facts and figures and other informational asides appear in the side margins. (E.g., Almost half of parents with children under six have used a child care program in the past year.)

Action Items: The bottom one third of each page contains action items that include specific tips, lists of relevant books, websites, and other resources for caregivers to use (e.g., How to make drop-off time easier).

References and Related Resources

Wurman, R. S. (2002). Understanding children: The guidebook for children 0 to 3. Newport, RI: TOP.

Wurman, R. S. (1997). Information architects. New York: Graphis Publications.

Wurman, R. S. (1989). Information anxiety. New York: Doubleday.

For organizations whose goal is to educate through publications and other forms of written communication, information architecture provides a viable alternative to “traditional” written communication methods that are more linear and text-driven. The use of graphic design techniques is conducive to communicating in a way that makes information more accessible and tangible to a wide audience, meaning that the information is more likely to be understood, absorbed, and translated into action.

For information about how to obtain Understanding Children, visit

Erin Harris, Research Assistant, HFRP

Suzanne Muchin
Chief Executive Officer
1327 W. Washington Blvd., Ste. 3D
Chicago, IL 60607
Tel: 312-226-6700


¹ As outlined in Fischetti, M. (1997, August). Blueprint for information architects. Fast Company, 10, 186.
² Excerpts reprinted with permission from the publishers.

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