This article is about hats, or maybe about something else.

Here I am, back on my blog, writing about what I read and like. It has been quite a long time since I wrote the last book review but now that I am back in Sweden I feel like dedicating some time to my thoughts and to you small niche of readers.

If I have to be honest, the reading I’m about to describe/review cannot even be defined a “book” as it counts with just 32 pages, so I will be calling it “booklet” instead, and I hope you won’t mind reading an article about something you could read in less than one hour. On the other hand, I will make sure this post will provide you with some extra information on how to go more in-depth into the overall topic of Information Architecture, and also, on where to download the complete Hats booklet. And now, forget about the hats for a while!

This issue of Design Quarterly is not about hats. – Design Quarterly 145

Whenever we look at a chair, most of us will immediately understand it’s actually a chair without even thinking about it, and most likely we will also know how to sit on it without getting injured. Nontheless, although globalization makes it very unlikely, there still might be places in the world where people just sit on the ground and therefore have no general conception of what a “chair” is and how it is supposed to look like. Well, I would argue that at its most intrisic level, this booklet is exactly about this, hence about how people detect meaning and gain understanding of a system, be this a chair, a building or a public transportation network. By the way the author has a totally different description which I will quote later on!

Have you ever put together any IKEA furniture?

In some cases looking at the pieces of an IKEA furniture will be enough to undestand how to put it together, in some other cases we will probably need to read the instructions first; and whenever you won’t need to read the instructions it will not necessarily mean you are a genius, but it rather means you already got all or part of the needed information inside your brain. For example, if you have to assemble a table, you are very likely to acknowledge how it will look like once it is put together, or maybe you had even assembled a similar one few weeks before.


Said this, not everybody is an able IKEA furniture assembler, and that’s fine because IKEA knows most of its clients have few knowledge or none at all when it comes to furniture assembly processes. That’s why in order to produce the expected results, this acknowledgement should be kept in mind throughout the whole design, production and packaging phases, and further on untill the product gets actually sold and delivered to the final user. For how easy this might sound, between you and your new awesome-looking wardrobe there are just too many things that could go wrong and only one way to get it solid and fully functional at the right place.

So what could go wrong?

  • You might need an hammer which was not included in the package. – You should have written that on the package you rational Swedes!
  • A screw is missing, where and how can you get it? – Screws and equipment are packaged by very precise robots, so you must have lost it and it’s your fault!
  • A piece of the furniture was damaged during transportation, how do I get it replaced? – What? I have to buy a new one? You meatballs eaters!
  • The instruction manual is in Swedish and the only word I know in Swedish is “Mamma Mia” – oh wait a minute, that’s Italian… No I think it’s by Abba!….

These are just 4 of 1000 situations you could experience if IKEA wasn’t to do its job properly, but don’t worry, up there somewhere in the cold north of Europe there is someone who’s job is letting you understand whatever should be understood, which happens to be the same job the author of the “Hats” booklet does! Finally, this means that the chances you are going to get all pieces together working properly are directly proportional to the quality of the information you get from the clerk at the store, from the packaging of the product, and last but not least, from the instruction manual. For all other cases, well, as you saw in the previous picture there is the IKEA assembly service ready to work for you!


…By the way, do IKEA instruction manuals have a good reputation? Maybe I should have got another example… Take a look to this article by FastCompany!

Maps, plans and other instruction manuals for life

The one I’m about to tell is probably the biggest lesson the Hats booklet had to offer me across its 32 pages. Just as the IKEA instruction manuals, maps and plans are supposed to provide us with all information needed to understand a specific system. A touristic city map has the goal of getting us to monuments and attractions; a fire escape plan has the goal of getting us to the closest security exit as soon as possible; besides being printed on milions of t-shirts, the London Underground plan has the goal of getting us from station A to station B, again each of these maps/plans only describes a specific system.


Question time… Would you use this underground plan to measure the walking distance between two points? Let me tell you the answer: you shouldn’t, exactly the same way you should not use the fire escape plan to find the closest outdoor spot for smoking a cigarette!

For instance, the underground plan was designed to highlight lines and connections in order for us to choose the most convenient way. Therefore, using it to estimate the walking distance between two stations would be pretty much like a random guess as the “real distance” factor was probably not even taken into consideration when tha map was being drawn. So the next time you are looking for something on a map, please make sure that map is meant to be used that way or get ready to walk for hours!

Last but not least, don’t forget about the legend on your map/plan. Colors, shapes and symbols are all elements that can assume different meanings for different people coming from different cultures. As you can notice, the underground map doesn’t attribute a specific meaning to the colors but what it does is merely using colors to diversify all different lines.

What about hats and hat racks?

Let’s say you walk into a house and the image you see down here is exactly what you get right in front of you in the entrance hall. Now, looking at those hats, you should try to get all possible information. You won’t need much time to understand the best guess you can make is about the owner of the house actually being a hats lover.


Someone else counting with a different set of information, for example a hat maker, could understand they are grouped by country of production; someone living in the house could understand who is home and who is not, whereas only the owner of this exact collection would know they are ordered by monetary value, or by year of purchase. Yes, they are just simple hat racks, but the information hiding behind them is potentially infinite, and what we understand is limited by what we see and what we already know (this including our culture, our habits, our experiences and so on). 

Bearing in mind the previous examples it seems clear that someone with no acknowledgements about those specific racks would be able to recognize just two general types of patterns that provide a visual feedback:

  • Continuum or Magnitude – for example when hats are ordered from the smallest to the biggest one;
  • Categories (just some of them) – for example when hats are ordered by color, or by shape, or again by material;

All other orders which are not clearly identifiable through visual inspection will most likely not be detected by someone with no hats-related knowledge. Now, in order to make this useful for your life, let’s put these lines of thinking into two real-life practical examples:

Example 1 – a marketplace:

Part of my job at VLK Studio is to structure information into websites and making sure people are able to find what they are looking for, with the least possible effort. Again this sounds easy, but only who tried to classify a set of products into categories and sub-categories would know what of a struggle this can become. For instance, in one of our latest works, an industrial marketplace called, we faced the challange of letting companies understand which category and sub-category was best suitable for a specific product they want to sell (or buy). In fact there are many products that would perfectly fit into more than one single category: “metal pipes” are a good example.


With two of the main categories being “Metallurgy” and “Constructions” those metal pipes should definitely be found under both of them. Of course users could use the textual search and get all “metal pipes” listings of the website independently from their category, but a person who works in constructions and is in urgent need of metal pipes might also browse the website directly to the constructions category page, and after not finding them there, just leaves the website for the next one.

So how can we mitigate this risk? For example by incentivizing the use of the textual research making it more visible than category selection, or perhaps by offering the possibility to select multiple categories when creating a listing, or again by suggesting some connected categories after the results of the search are shown. I’ll update you on how we handled this later on once the solution is finally implemented 😉

Example 2 – a hats online shop:

Let’s get back to hat racks for a while and assume we are the owners of an international great looking e-commerce which is entirely dedicated to hats & caps. It doesn’t matter what kind of hat people are looking for, as long as they are looking for something to put onto their hads, your 10k+ assortment has the right offer for them.

As with all other fashion accessories, hats & caps come in all shapes, colors and names, and as usuals, your customers should find the ones that are relevant to them and therefore are more likely to be bought. Now the question is, how do we get them to the right hat?

Maybe we can ask them to select in a dropdown list among the hats & caps’ names: Kepi, Homburg, Gatsby, Baseball cap, Garrison, Karakul, Skullcap, Pakol, Pork pie, Kofia, Snood, Straw hat, Sombrero, Trilby, Vueltiao, Fedora, Fez, Deerstalker, Cowboy hat, Chupalia, Boater, Cloche, Bowler, Akubra etc. etc.

Ok, probably this wasn’t a good idea… Those are only few of the existing hats and I don’t know you, but personally I have never heard most of those names. As a result, I am able to recall barely three of them: Baseball Cap, Sombrero and Cowboy Hat – and none of these is what I’m looking for, i guess we need another solution!

What about using some nice and representative icons instead? Maybe as a filter or category buttons?


Oh yeah, now I know the hat I’m looking for is a “Fedora” and it took me not longer than a couple of seconds to understand that. One click and then I’ll have to choose model, colors, material, size and finally… buy it. But why do the icons work and the dropdown containing the names doesn’t? Those names and those icons represent exactly the same groups of objects, hence they both are categories. Yet the icons will be a solid point of reference to compare with what you are looking for, as they simply are a visual categorization of hats & caps’ shapes!


That’s what makes hats and hat racks such a great and well-fitting paradigm! As promised at the beginning of the article, this is the author’s description of his “Hats” booklet:

This issue of Design Quarterly is about a singular passion: making things of personal interest understandable to others.

Best quotations:

  • “The creative organization of information creates new information” – pg. 3
  • “You can only understand something relative to something you already understand” – pg. 5
  • “When you approach a problem, you must go backward to find the beginning before going forward to find the solution.” – pg. 7
  • “Each time a means of presenting information has evolved, whether ball-point pens or computer screens, the means has affected the actual design.” – pg. 21

DOWNLOAD THE BOOKLET FOR FREE! – If you want to read the “Hats” booklet you can download it for free here!



Related readings:

As I am kind of new to the world of Information Architecture (at least academically speaking), I don’t really have other readings to suggest you based on my experience as a reader, but I am more than glad to redirect you towards some lists of books suggested by my Professor Andrea Resmini. I’ll try to read them all! 😉

With the hope you appreciated my article and got some thoughts running, I warmly thank you for your attention and I invite you to follow my social media channels: FacebookInstagramYoutubeLinkedin

Enrico P.

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