The Man behind the Polar Bear Book
Questions for Peter Morville, Information Architecture Guru
Interviewed by phone on September 22, 2006 by The 'fish Editor

Peter Morville was born in Manchester, England, and lives in Michigan. He is widely recognized as a pioneer of Information Architecture. He co-authored (with Louis Rosenfeld) the best-selling book, Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, distinguished as the "Best Internet Book of 1998" by and called "The Most Useful Book on Web Design on the Market" by Jakob Nielsen. The book is in its second edition, having grown from 202 to 461 pages. He has consulted with such organizations as Harvard, IBM, the International Monetary Fund, Microsoft, the National Cancer Institute, and Yahoo! He was part of the team that headed Argus associates, the consulting firm which was at the forefront of the nascent field of information architecture until its demise following the Dot-com bust of 2001. He is president of Semantic Studios, co-founder of the Information Architecture Institute, and a faculty member at the University of Michigan. His work has been featured in many publications including Business Week, The Economist, Fortune, and The Wall Street Journal. Morville’s latest book, Ambient Findability, was published in 2005. Most recently, Morville was the keynote speaker at the 2006 Euro IA Summit in Berlin, September 30 – October 1. He blogs at Morville travels to the University of Washington for two events, both on Oct. 11. At 3 PM in MGH 420, he’ll lead a discussion with students interested in website design, designing information systems, etc. on the nature of Information Architecture. No tickets required.

From 7 – 9 PM in 110 Kane Hall, Morville teams up with Joe Janes, UW iSchool Associate Professor and Associate Dean for Academics, to lend insight into the role that findability plays in the computer user experience. At the crossroads of ubiquitous computing and the Internet, access changes the game. We can select our sources and choose our news. We can find who and what we need, when and where we want. Search is the new interface of culture and commerce. As society shifts from push to pull, findability shapes who we trust, how we learn, where we go, and what we buy. In this cyberspace safari event, Morville explores the future present in mobile devices, search algorithms, ontologies, folksonomies, findable objects, ambient advertising, and the long tail of the sociosemantic web. The power of search – and findability – can redefine our sources of authority, inspiration, and competitive advantage. Students attend for free, but tickets are required. For ticket information, visit the ASIS&T UW Chapter website at

Ambient findability describes a fast-emerging world in which we can find anyone or anything from anywhere at anytime. Information architecture (IA), as defined on his website,

  • Information architecture involves organizing web sites (and other information systems) so people can find what they need.
  • Information architecture: the art and science of designing Web sites to make them as usable as possible.

JH: I read that the third edition of the polar bear book (Information Architecture for the World Wide Web) is almost done. When will it be published?

PM: We’re hoping to have it out by the end of the year so it possibly could be a textbook for the winter session.

JH: Okay, maybe I’ll wait and buy the third edition. I almost went online today and bought the second edition.

About the upcoming event...How long have you known Joe Janes?

PM: I’ve known Joe for a long time. It goes back to when I first came to the University of Michigan Library Information Science program. That’d be back in 1992. Joe was one of the favorite faculty members of the school, and Lou Rosenfeld, and Joe and I bonded over our joint interest in the internet and online searching. We played racquetball together quite often.

JH: Who usually won?

PM: Oh, we all had turns winning. (Laughs) I have to be careful answering that one.

JH: Okay, very diplomatic of you. How did you end up writing a book together?

PM: Let me think back to the history here. When I was a student in the program, I actually took classes with both Lou and Joe, and again, we were some of the early folks in the program who had an interest in the internet. When I graduated, Lou and Joe talked me into joining Argus Associates, which was a company they had co-founded a few years before, but they had been really doing it as a part-time endeavor. So my joining was really taking it to a more serious level. Lou had founded The Clearing House for Subject-Oriented Resource Guide which then became known as The Argus Clearing House. Lou and Joe, I believe, collaborated on a book series around that, and I was a contributor to that series. I decided to write a book called
The Internet Searcher’s Handbook (The Internet Searcher's Handbook: Locating Information, People, & Software), and Lou and Joe were my co-authors on that project. Those are some of our early internet efforts. As time went on, Lou and I were drawn more into the business and Joe was drawn more into other (things). He founded the Internet Public Library (, serving on the faculty and running the Internet Public Library. He was pretty busy so he kind of pulled back from Argus. And so Lou and I went on to build the company and write The Information Architecture book.

JH: When did that first book come out?

PM: The first book came out in 1998.

JH: And so, at some point, the bubble burst.

PM: Yeah, yeah. We’d been writing a column for
Web Review Magazine called “Web Architects.” It was probably in 1996 that we had gotten into this whole kind of architecture metaphor. It was 1998 when the book came out, and it was perfect timing. There was so much interest in the internet, and everyone was trying to educate themselves. We both did far better than we ever imagined.

JH: Joe has a reputation around here for his modesty and holding back—how were you able to draw him out of his shell?

PM: (laughs) As I said earlier, Joe was one of the favorite professors in the program, and he usually won the best teacher of the year award and had quite a following. Joe, Lou and I all got along really well.

JH: What did you get your undergraduate degree in?

PM: English literature. I started out in biology and hated the chemistry courses, and switched over to English. I have a pretty wide sampling of courses.

JH: Did you ever work as a librarian?

PM: No, it’s funny. When I graduated with my English degree, I had no idea what I wanted to do. So I found a part-time job, was living at home and trying to figure out what to do with my future. I spent a lot of time in the library researching careers. Every week I’d come up with a new career. One week I was going to be a hospital administrator; I’d tell my parents over dinner, and they’d laugh at me. I still remember this one time I was in this library. Somehow I came across one of those real old career books on library science, and I’d never even thought about that topic before. I was reading that book, and at that time, I had gotten pretty interested in the online computer networks and programming. To me library science seemed like there was some connection between these online networks and libraries. That was really where my interest in LIS (library information science) came from.

JH: What kinds of courses would you recommend to a person wanting to go into IA, as far as classes on a master’s level?

PM: It’s funny. Lou was once asked that question at a library conference, and the expectation was that you would answer with this very high-tech courses, java programming or something. His answer was reference and cataloguing. He got a standing ovation and laughter. I think that some of the basics of library science are still very relevant, and it’s really important to complement that with things from the human computer interaction side. There still is, at the basic level, that notion in the classic. On the cataloguing side, how can we structure and organize and classify information. What are all the different ways we can do that? Then on the reference side, you have the understanding of users, information behaviors and all the ways we can study users.

JH: Would you say there’s a career advantage in getting a master’s in LIS as far as IA goes? Or how about a technical computer degree or certificate?

PM: We actually just did a series of surveys as part of getting ready for, working on, the third edition of the book. One of the results that I found pretty interesting was that there’s a very high percentage of practicing Information Architects (IAs) who have the LIS background. It was more than 50%, and I hadn’t realized it was that high. I think that probably library information science and human computer interaction are the two sort of dominant, relevant backgrounds that practicing IAs tend to have. But then since we’re still in the fairly early days in the profession, there are people from all sorts of different backgrounds. I think getting some experience and having a real passion for the area is probably more important than having a specific degree.

JH: I’m interested in hearing more about the variations on IA. How do usability designers, interaction designers, project managers fit in with the job title "Information Architect?"

PM: It really depends on the content. There are many environments in which a graphic designer might be responsible for doing IA and interaction design along with visual design. There are some commercial environments with a very heavy emphasis on interaction design, and there you may have interaction designers who learn what they need to know about IA as far as their work. And then there are lots of environments, in particular large corporate environments, government agencies, non-profits, professional associations, where there are very large volumes of text information and documents, and all sorts of other formats where there’s a critical mass of information where it really makes sense to have professional IAs who are specialists in this area. I was just at the American Chemical Association yesterday in Washington, DC, and they have a new group where they just added a few IAs to help them with their website.

JH: Do you find that happening more often?

PM: One of the reasons I wanted to join Argus back in 1994 was that there really weren’t jobs doing this with any established organizations, and over the last 10 years or so, there’s been tremendous growth in all sorts of organizations around the world in hiring IAs. I think that really continues so it’s a very exciting profession to be in from that perspective. There’s already been a lot of movement, but I’m seeing that continue.

JH: What's the biggest change we'll see in IA in the next 10 years?

PM: The next 10 years…..

JH: Well, how about the next five years?

PM: I’ll do kind of a short term and longer term outlook. You know one of the interesting things that is happening on the web right now with the AJAX model of development and rich internet applications is that we’re really stepping up what is possible in interaction design. I think that IAs are finding that we need to learn a lot more about what’s possible in terms of how we can present information and present navigation options, in particular. So in the next few years, I think there’s a real emphasis on adding a lot of knowledge about interaction design to our practice.

In the longer term, in 10 years or so, I’m really excited about the blurring of lines between the physical and digital experiences. You hear terms like ubiquitous computing, the internet of objects, or ambient findability. I think that we’re adding all sorts of interfaces to our digital networks at the same time that we’re importing huge amounts of information about the physical world into these networks. With mobile computing and location awareness, there’s just tremendous potential for extending what we think of the web further into the physical world. As we figure out what we can do, we figure out what we do with it.

Morville is presented by ASIS&T UW Chapter and sponsored by The Information School, ASIS&T PNW, Seattle Public Library, WSA, MSIM program, Biomedical & Health Informatics, Technical Communications, Computer Science, Interactive Design program of the Art School, ALISS, UW Libraries Research Program Committee and the UW Alumni Association.


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Page last updated: October 10, 2006