Architecting Stories | Information Architecture for Writers
The moving walkway is now ending. Please, look down.
Airports are hardly the place for peaceful introspection, with the bombardment of sounds and signals designed to rush you along to your next gate while convincing you to spend far too much on a bottled water and a bestseller-yet-terrible business book.
And yet, there’s magic to the madness—in the best airports, at least. Like it or not, it’s impressive how you can arrive in a new city anywhere on earth and find your way from gate A5 to E14 (a gate you only found by consulting the departures board upon arrival) in a half hour, typically without consulting a map or app even in a jetlagged haze. Instead, you go with the flow. The general mass streaming towards the center of the airport guides you without much thought; from there, signage leads you to the next terminal and concourse and gate almost automatically. There are exceptions and terrible airport layouts to be sure, but a combination of affordances and signifiers augment your reality and help you navigate an unfamiliar terrain without much effort.
That’s the beauty of architecture. The instagrammable rafters and glass walls are merely decoration; the forgettable and utilitarian entrances, hallways, stairs, and hidden conduits are where the building comes to life. They’re what help you instinctively navigate a building, find your gate, grabbing a drink and battery recharge along the way.
Picture a wide concourse, lined with duty-free shops and restrooms, with a moving walkway in the center and signage overhead. That forgettable ad for AWS might grab your attention for a second—but the sign for Terminal B or the warning to not exit unless you want to go through security again get quickly seared in your mind. And 99% of the time, you’ll know to push or pull or simply walk towards a restroom door without thinking about it.
Why? Affordances. The concourse and doors both contain affordances, things that tell us intuitively how we can interact with them. A long concourse with walkways down the center and gates off to the sides is an obvious way for us to walk; a narrow path sealed off behind closed doors screams “Do not enter” even if there’s no sign to that effect. Once glance at an environment, and we typically know if we can proceed or not (true both in nature—a wide-open field looks more inviting than one covered in thorn-bushes and vines). Door handles are often the same; handles protruding from the side of a door typically mean we should pull it, while a bar along the width of the door typically means to push it. There are poorly designed doors that break the norm—and risk you accidentally running into a door you thought you could push—but by and large, the norms hold. They’re affordances we’ve learned. There’s no specific natural reason we must make door handles like that, but we do, and so we continue to do so to take advantage of humanity’s general understanding of that affordance.
Signifiers—or signs, for a more common term—are a bit trickier, with both affordances to make them grab your attention and new information we must stop and process. Take the departures board or screen. We know one should exist and that it should be a wide rectangle with a list of flight callsigns and times, typically hung at or above eye level—all learned affordances. Once we find it, we must stop, find our flight either alphabetically or based on time (something we figure out automatically after looking through a few flights), then start looking for the next signifier: Terminal and gate signs with their own shape, size, and color affordances along with text and symbol information.
Could we find Gate E4 by walking past the first 4 terminals before entering what we’ve decided is terminal E, then walk past the first 3 gates before stopping at the fourth? Perhaps. Signifiers are a shortcut, though, a quick way to share information.
Both affordances and signifiers require simplification. A half dozen handles to let people open doors however they want would help no one; neither would a lengthy sentence describing terminal E. We trim down, give the least information possible in the most generally understandable way, and trust most people will figure things out.
Architecture requires a surprising amount of information. The broad themes make themselves obvious—few have trouble navigating a well-designed concert hall—but a bit more effort is needed to make sure fire extinguishers and exits and restrooms are easily discoverable.
And information requires a surprising amount of architecture. The way you know how to flip through a book, find a word in a dictionary, jump to the conclusion of a story all are thanks to affordances. The text on a book’s cover tells you intuitively how to open it, the order of the alphabet helps you know to open the first 1/4th of the dictionary to find words beginning with E, and the default intro/narrative/climax/conclusion order of a story helps you know to go 3/4ths of the way through an article to find the ending. They’re learned affordances. Or you can make new ones. Old dictionaries and family bibles include indentions to mark sections; newer travel guides might have a darker color printed near the edge of pages for a similar goal.
Or add signifiers—headings, italics, block quotes, blank space, page numbers, outlines, all things that help people find their way through your text. Put a table of contents in the front, a menu on the top of your webpage, footnotes at the bottom of a page. They’re how we organize—architect, even—information.
Information Architecture the study of how we arrange information to create meaning, to fight the entropy and confusion and information overload, to make straight the way. It’s how we take a random group of words, a few abstract concepts seemingly unrelated—pure disorder, the written equivalent of entropy—and turn them into something informative, instructive, new knowledge from the combination of the old. It’s how Wikipedia sends you on a rabbit trail of knowledge, how YouTube guides you through the process of uploading a video, why you know to check the bottom of an article for comments. Perhaps it’s not as involved as real architecture, but it’s a part of your daily life nonetheless.
And it doesn’t have to be exotic, the work of designers and bookbinders and Wikipedia editors. It’s the ordinary information architecture that strikes me as most fascinating, useful, needful.
Take a book. Your earliest lessons in narrative writing taught you to that to write, you first must break your ideas down. Outline them. Tell what you’re going to tell, then tell, then tell them what you told. Rising action, climax, falling action. Structure.
That suited your earliest stories—and generally maps the broad themes of most written material—but it never quite told you how to write well. If anything, it taught you to be repetitive and to stretch an otherwise short idea.
What’s actually needed is textual wayfinding, signifiers and affordances in your text that help readers navigate your idea. Explain unfamiliar concepts just as an airport adds detailed info signs near immigration lines. Some things need defining right when you get to them. Breeze past other terms—they’re the equivalent of gate numbers that need pointed out but not expounded on. Order your thoughts logically, building one thing on another. Don’t jump ahead of yourself. In fact, that’s the best reason to have someone else proofread your text—they’ll notice text and logic jumps that feel less obvious to your mind. And if there’s something you think readers may be partly but not fully interested in—a list of ten best items, say, where someone might read a couple of the entries—include outlines and headings to make them easy to navigate.
That’s the information architecture you need to practice every day, thinking through your content as though it’s a grand hall. Is the stage clear, or cluttered with random items? Do the decorations accent the stage and add to the ambiance, or are they distracting extras? Are the exits clearly marked, the seats ready for your reader to enjoy the show? Are the paths made straight?
Only then is writing well architected.
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