- Dec 28, 2000
Latch: The Five Ultimate Hatracks
The ways of organizing information are finite. It can only be organized by location, alphabet, time, category, or hierarchy. These modes are applicable to almost any endeavorfrom your personal file cabinets to multinational corporations. They are the framework upon which annual reports, books, conversations, exhibitions, directories, conventions, and even warehouses are arranged.
While information may be infinite, the ways of structuring it are not. And once you have a place in which the information can be plugged, it becomes that much more useful. Your choice will be determined by the story you want to tell. Each way will permit a different understanding of the informationwithin each are many variations. However, recognizing that the main choices are limited makes the process less intimidating.
If you were preparing a report on the automobile industry, you could organize cars by place of manufacture (location), year (time), model (category), or Consumer Reports ratings (hierarchy). Within each, you might list them alphabetically. Your choice would depend on what you wanted to study or convey about the industry. If you wanted to describe the different types of cars, your primary organization would probably be by category. Then, you might want to organize by hierarchy, from the least expensive to the most. If you wanted to examine car dealerships, you would probably organize first by location, and then by the number or continuum of cars sold.
After the categories are established, the information about the cars is easily retrievable. Each way of organizing permits a different understanding; each lends itself to different kinds of information; and each has certain reassuring limitations that will help make the choices of how the information is presented easier.
Location is the natural form to choose when you are trying to examine and compare information that comes from diverse sources or locales. If you were examining an industry, for example, you might want to know how it is distributed around the world. Doctors use the different locations in the body as groupings to study medicine. (In China, doctors use mannequins in their offices so that patients can point to the particular location of their pain or problem.)
This method lends itself to organizing extraordinarily large bodies of information, such as words in a dictionary or names in a telephone directory. As most of us have already memorized the twenty-six letters of the alphabet, the organization of information by alphabet works when the audience or readership encompasses a broad spectrum of society that might not understand classification by another form such as category or location.
If you understand, things are just as they are; if you do not understand, things are just as they are.
Time works best as an organizing principle for events that happen over fixed durations, such as conventions. Time has also been used creatively to organize a place, such as in the Day in the Life book series. It works with exhibitions, museums, and histories, be they of countries or companies. The designer Charles Eames created an exhibit on Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin that was done as a timeline, where the viewers could see who was doing what, when. Time is an easily understandable framework from which changes can be observed and comparisons made.
Category pertains to the organization of goods. Retail stores are usually organized in this way by different types of merchandise, e.g. kitchenware in one department, clothing in another. Category can mean different models, different types, or even different questions to be answered, such as in a brochure that is divided into questions about a company. This mode lends itself well to organizing items of similar importance. Category is well reinforced by color as opposed to numbers, which have inherent value.
That is what learning is. You suddenly understand something you've understood all your life, but in a new way.
This mode organizes items by magnitude from small to large, least expensive to most expensive, by order of importance, etc. It is the mode to use when you want to assign value or weight to the information, or when you want to use it to study something like an industry or company. Which department had the highest rate of absenteeism? Which had the least? What is the smallest company engaged in a certain business? What is the largest? Unlike category, magnitude can be illustrated with numbers or units.
We already employ these modes almost subconsciously in many ways. Most of us organize our financial records first by time, then by category when we figure our taxes. We organize our CD and DVD collections, libraries, and even our laundry according to certain principles whether or not we are aware of them. But it is only the conscious awareness of these methods that will reduce the frustration of searching through informationespecially new information. Uncovering the organizing principles is like having the ultimate hat rack. It is as essential when working with already existing bodies of information as it is in developing your own information programs. The time spent in comprehending someone else's method of organization will reduce the search time spent looking for individual components. When you arrange information, the structure you create will save you the frustration of juggling unconnected parts. Many people get into trouble when they mix the different methods of organization, trying to describe something simultaneously in terms of size, geography, and category without a clear understanding that these are all valid but separate means of structuring information. Understanding the structure and organization of information permits you to extract value and significance from it.
The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.