Whenever you are faced with organizing information it may seem that there are a million options ahead of you. In reality, I suppose, there are infinite possibilities for designing anything. But when it comes to organizing information, there are really only five ways to do it. (Well, there may be a few abstract and obscure ways to organize outside of these five, but for most intents and purposes, there are really only five).
Imagine, for example, that your boss asks you organize all of the sales and product manuals that your company has collected over the past decade. How would you organize them? Alphabetically? By the year they were produced? By area of the country in which the products are manufactured? By Color? Or by the ones you read most to ones you read least? Thoughtful consideration of your options is important for effective communication and information access later. The good thing is, there really only are five options you need to worry about. And I just alluded to all five of them in the questions above.
Many designers have referred to the five ways to organize as the “Five Hat Racks” but information design forefather Richard Saul Wurman came up with a handy acronym that I like to use to remember the five ways to categorize: LATCH. Location, Alphabet, Time, Category, and Hierarchy. That’s it. Whenever you face the need to organize (whether it be anything from representing human anatomy to creating a budget), you’ll want to think of these five methods and choose the best one (or, you might choose multiple). Below you’ll see descriptions and examples of each of the five ways to organize information.
You can organize information by showing a visual depiction of a physical space. Maps are really common ways to organize by location (think about shopping mall directories or college campus maps). You might also show a diagram of, say, the human brain and where the hypothalamus is in relation to the cerebellum. Whatever your reason, organizing by location usually requires some sort of visualization of an area or place.
Organizing information alphabetically works really well when people know specific terms and topics they are looking for. The key is that the reader/viewer knows the terms and they have something to look up (like in the index in the back of a textbook or in a dictionary). But if a person wants to learn biology but doesn’t know the names of the parts of a cell, alphabetical won’t work out so well. There is a problematic default on website organization to put long menus in alphabetical order. If the terms you use don’t make a lot of sense to a viewer, alphabetical order won’t be helpful. Alphabetical order works well for fiction novels (by author last name) but not for non-fiction reference books (which use the Dewey-Decimal system).
Organizing information by time is useful for finding information in a chronological pattern (like the history of humankind’s most influential inventions) or by the months or years in which events happen. Time is also good for showing how things happen over a fixed duration of time. Consider a flow chart that describes a process, like how chicken nuggets are made, from beginning to end of cycle. Organizing by time can tell a very different story about information than organization by another method. See the image below, which is organized by time. If it were organized by category, the information would mean something completely different to the person looking at it.
Perhaps the broadest of the five ways to organize information, categories are useful for a number of purposes, like describing different animal types or organizing a grocery store. Image how differently the information about the foods above would appear if they were organized by category instead of time. You can use categories to organize information in just about any way imaginable, whether it be by color, shape, gender, model, price, or anything else.
Hierarchies are useful when showing how one piece of information is connected to another in order of importance or rank. Hierarchies are used in organizational charts to show who reports to whom. Hierarchy is also used to show scale, like biggest to smallest or heaviest to lightest.