The Design of Socially Sustainable Ontologies


This paper describes the role of information architecture in the design of socially sustainable pervasive information spaces. The framing of information architecture as an essential part of Design Thinking extends current and historic notions of the field of information architecture. The discussion introduces the notion of the ‘contrived ontology’ which can be understood as the intentional meaning that design infuses in its artefacts, services and systems. Further, we argue that contrived ontology aligns with central themes within humanistic frameworks which view reality as subjective construct. This forms the central theoretical meditation herein: we contend that while design is always an act of interpreted cultural determination, at the scale of Floridi’s infosphere, the immediacy and immersive social reality of technology will become frictionless within our human experience. As this occurs, there is a moral and ethical imperative to ensure social sustainability and to this end that the meanings and intentions that inform the mature design of our human-made world are visible and accountable. It is towards this end that information architecture can make a valuable contribution.

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  1. 1.

    We capitalise Design when referring to the discipline. When used as a verb we apply lowercase formatting, as in designing.

  2. 2.

    ‘Structural logic’ is a phrase we use to describe the design of bodies of information. In this sense, a structural logic is the rationale for the organisation of some body of information which would also imply that more than one way may exist to structure some set of information and that one way may be better than another.

  3. 3.

    We use the term ‘sustainability’ in this paper to refer to a socio-economic-environmental system that has the minimum capability of ensuring its continued stasis. While we describe this concept in detail in part 3, this brief definition serves to differentiate our use from the way ‘sustainability’ is often narrowly used in design to refer to environmentally conscious design.

  4. 4.

    The primary text for the practice of IA, Information Architecture: for the Web and Beyond (Rosenfeld et al. 2015) derives its approach from LIS.

  5. 5.

    See Wurman’s (1997) description of the LATCH organisation schema.

  6. 6.

    Mainstream IA is often represented as a subset of design categories such as user experience design and interaction design and even information design (however not in the mainstream sense of IA). The purpose of IA, as defined by propositions such as ‘usability, findability and understanding’ (Rosenfeld et al. 2015, p. 24), is positioning that relates to the way artefacts are engineered more than designed.

  7. 7.

    Buchanan (2001) refers to these levels of granularity as the ‘orders’ of design. While mainstream IA can be said to operate at the first two levels, contemporary reframing such as ours place IA across all four of the levels.

  8. 8.

    These two approaches can at times complement each other, for example, young female game players seeking to identify with strong feminine game characters, and feminism. While at other times, they can conflict, for example, feminism and the social reality of traditional, often paternalistic rural tribal cultures in Southern Africa.

  9. 9.

    See Kees Dorst’s ‘Frame Creation and Design in the Expanded Field’ (2015) for additional information on the framing wicked problems.

  10. 10.

    While other lenses could include urban planning and policymaking as in ‘smart cities’ or architecture in a ‘smart spaces’ scenario, even so, it is difficult to imagine these other lenses not incorporating a consideration of IXD in some form.

  11. 11.

    And for that matter, other Design disciplines such as industrial design.

  12. 12.

    However, the application of HCI’s ‘waves’ is not intended to imply that they originate in HCI. As is clear in the discussion, HCI and Design have over the years incorporated many different forms of knowledge from a variety of disciplines across the paradigmatic sphere.

  13. 13.

    Social facts are understood here as what is accepted as truth within a community. These would include scientific knowledge as well as social agreements such as the value of a Picasso painting.

  14. 14.

    To paraphrase Herbert Simon, see (1998).

  15. 15.

    It is worth pointing out that in Design, it is acknowledged that one can never fully understand another person’s lived experience. Hence, understanding, or decoding, is always an interpretive rather than definitive act.

  16. 16.

    The first edition published in 1988 was titled The Psychology of Everyday Things.

  17. 17.

    While this account focuses on a phenomenological account of embodied cognition, which is the dominant view of understanding embodiment in the Design and humanities fields, it is worth pointing out that many of the central ideas presented in this discussion are supported in newer scientific studies, many of which deal with how environmental information becomes neurologically encoded within the body. For further reading on this subject, see Bates (2018) and Damasio (2005, chapter 5).

  18. 18.

    Most obviously but not restricted to user experience and service design.

  19. 19.

    A very high-level overview of experience in design relates ‘experience’ to the interpretation of sensory stimuli generated through an engagement of an individual with their environment. The quality of the experience is relative to the context of the environment as well as the person’s previous experiences of ‘being’ in the world.

  20. 20.

    ‘Critical theory’ denotes emancipatory theories of social enquiry originating in the ‘Frankfurt School’ concerned with lessening domination and advancing freedom (Bohman 2016). We recommend reading Humanistic HCI by J. Bardzell and S. Bardzell (2015).

  21. 21.

    In particular, see the presentations authored by Haverty namely ‘Meaning Modes in Design: a Visual Tour’ (2016) and ‘Acting Naturally with Information’ (2017).

  22. 22.

    See Bates’ ‘Toward an Integrated Model of Information Seeking and Searching’ (2002).

  23. 23.

    See Williamson’s ‘Ecological theory of human information behaviour’ (2005).

  24. 24.

    This recent phenomenon is variously known as ‘Ubiquitous Computing’, ‘Ambient Intelligence’, ‘Internet of Things’ and ‘Web-augmented reality’ (Floridi, 2016, p. 43).

  25. 25.

    Phraseology by Resmini and Rosati (2010). Also see Arango’s Living in Information (2018).

  26. 26.

    While their book is indeed a book about design and does touch on aspects of DT, their primary focus lies in discussing IA from a media orientation in the context of pervasive information systems rather than presenting an analysis of the relationship between IA and DT which is a focus in this paper.

  27. 27.

    For more concerns regarding IA’s disciplinarity, see ‘Maturing a practice’ by Hobbs et al. (2010) and Information Architecture as a Disciplinea Methodological Approach by Lacerda and Lima-Marques (2014).

  28. 28.

    See Ethics and Information Architecture (Rice et al. 2018).

  29. 29.

    Design artefacts are the final deliverable of design (such as a building or an application). Design objects are those deliverables required in the conceptualisation and planning of artefacts (objects such as architectural blueprints for buildings or content and functionality maps for applications).

  30. 30.

    DT acknowledges this subjective construction of reality in the manner in which the ideation phase is bracketed by the more objective methods to be found in enquiry which proceeds ideation and the testing of prototypes with users which follows ideation.

  31. 31.

    See Buchanan (2001, p. 38).

  32. 32.

    Naturally occurring information, see McCollough (2013).


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Hobbs, J., Fenn, T. The Design of Socially Sustainable Ontologies. Philos. Technol. 32, 745–767 (2019).

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  • Information architecture
  • Design Thinking
  • Infosphere
  • Ontology
  • Cultural studies
  • Critical theory