Information can be organized in five ways: category, time, location, alphabet, continuum / hierarchy
The organization of information highly influences how it is understood by users. The Five Hat Racks design principle was originally developed as part of Richard Wurman’s 1989 work on ‘Information Anxiety’, exploring how to increase the amount of information we can grasp, given the digital age’s creation of a sharp increase in the volume of data available to us.
Wurman highlighted that “while information may be infinite, the ways of structuring it are not”; regardless of the specific subject material, effective structures can increase the amount of information people can retain. The ‘Five Hat Racks’ design principle reveals the five ways to best organize information.
Category groups by similarity or relatedness, such as by colour, shape, or model. It should be used when people would naturally look for something by category, like when looking to purchase a new fridge, they would expect it to be grouped with kitchen appliances.
Time sorts by chronological sequence, such as TV guides. It is most effective when users require a time-based sequence or presentation, such as cooking instructions or historical timelines.
Location orders by physical (geographic or spatial) location. It should be used when giving directions, or where position is important, such as landmarks on a map, or historic sites.
Alphabet sorts by alphabetical sequence, such as dictionaries and encyclopaedias. It is most often used to increase efficiency when people need to access vast amounts of information, and exists as a back-up when it isn’t clear which sorting strategy is most appropriate.
Continuum (or hierarchy) orders by magnitude, such as highest to lowest, or best to worst. It is best used when users will naturally wish to compare the information.
The name is built using an analogy, where the ‘hats’ represent information, and ‘racks’ the organization strategies; the design principle is also known by the LATCH acronym.