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Though leaves are many, the root is one;

W. B. Yeats


 live in a reasonably genteel suburb of the reasonably genteel urban metropolis of Boston with my reasonably genteel spouse and daughters.

root holds it all togetherOur home is a reasonably genteel 60-plus year old brick deal which has been our residence for about two years and which is at the upper range of my means. That is to say, we can keep up with the water and electric bills, but when the spouse wished to have a number of venerable shrubs disappear we weren't able to consider contracting with a professional. Responding to the challenge, the pioneering spirit filled all 140 pounds of me. By God, if they could clear the prairie, what were a few shrubs to me?

Yes, they were half again as tall as me and probably equal or nearly so in age, but having seen the shallow roots of storm toppled pine trees, how deep could those roots be?

Last fall I cut them off to within a foot or two of the ground. Thinking that the worse was behind me, and armed with a new mattock, I had at their ultimate extermination this spring.

The difference between my situation and that of our pioneer forefathers is not so much determination or lack of an indomitable will as it is a team of bloody oxen. The terms "deep" and "shallow" are relative.

But I'm half way there. Two down, two to go. Like a lightning rod, the mattock handle has wicked away nearly all of what little rage I might have been burdened with, and I wonder from what well I might draw the ferocity with which to attack the other two.

My brain has proved to be a largely redundant appendage in the process of digging out roots, so I've had considerable time to focus my unencumbered consciousness on the term "root".

Those of us who use computers and who build web sites and who construct Flash movies are on close terms with root, our unix brothers in particular. Some sites, for one, take root out of the abstract and make it a "place", referring to root by name. Whether we refer to root obliquely with a slash or directly in ActionScript with "_root.", it's both a concept and a thing - the source of our site or our movie or our hard drive. It's the center point, the foundation, the trunk from which the branches spring - use what ever visualization works for you.

at the root of it all

A web site is a rich amalgam of ingredients. Of course meaningful content matters; subtle color schemes and sophisticated graphics contribute; style sheets are increasing in importance. But at the root of it all, there is, well, "root".

You may be saddled with a root that predates you, in which case you hope the original designers knew what they were doing and you just plug away at it. But if you are in the happy situation of starting from scratch, think long and hard about laying out a strong root system. Probably you can see in your mind's eye what you want the site to look like. Maybe you can hear what it should say. Stop here! Sit on your hands if necessary to avoid reaching for the mouse. Those are important, but not any more important that a good long meditation on ... root. With any luck you will be living with the root you plant today for a good long time. If you get chummy with root before the sprouts start to poke up, you stand a better chance of enjoying interacting with your dynamic, growing, living site for a long long time.

This is an article, not a tutorial. There are scads of good books and web sites dealing with creating web sites. Go read them if you want specifics. Let's deal with generalities and principles here. Assuming you are in the fortunate circumstance of starting from scratch, meditate for a good long spell on this question: "What do I have to say?". This is not the same thing as

Assume that if you (or your clients) are prepared to face weeks and months of effort, not to mention the expense, it must be because you have something you are dying to share with the known universe.

What is that?

What will the load you dump into cyberspace be composed of? How will you structure it so it's both easy to navigate (common advice), and easy to maintain?

Think about today, but also tomorrow. There are many things you do not want to over-think, including when to swing a baseball bat or when to take your foot off the accelerator pedal. I'd have to say from experience though that's it's virtually impossible to over-think the future demands that will be placed on your web site.

why not refine as you go?

Will your root adapt to what you need next month? Next year? Web sites are marvelous, malleable constructs. As easy as it is to make a page, it's equally easy to delete old stuff, or plant them in new directories. What the heck is the problem? Consider this: If you have anything at all worthwhile saying, somebody is going to bookmark part of your site. Count on it. What happens to that link when you realize you have to move it? Years ago I made a site for the church we attended. The page that contained the pastor's monthly message was named with the pastor's name. Guess what passed through my mind when a new pastor arrived! That same site had a neat page with photos from various events. It was called "scrapbook.html". At the end of the first year it was clear that that page was already too big. What was I going to do next year? I hadn't thought it through at the beginning.

So you know what to do. Haul out that cocktail napkin and the sharpie and start planning it out. A directory for all your images. Check. A directory for articles, probably with sub directories by year. Check. Think long term. Content on the internet doesn't necessarily have a limited shelf life. It doesn't need to go away. Design for the future, and remember how pissed off you are every time you follow a dead link.

Of course, feel free to ignore this is you have nothing to say of any use to any one.

Now, with the exception of link rot, the visitor from the outside has little sense of your site's structure. They have no idea if you have done a good or a bad job. This is for you and your client. The visitor pops in and pops out. You have to live with it. If it's helter skelter, you the designer slow roast in the increasing heat of a hell of your own making.

after content ... what?

Currently there is a popular mantra which states that "Content is King". No doubt. But once we move beyond content, structure moves to number one. Of what value is content if the visitor can't get at it or the company can't manage it? One of the sexiest pickup line at the internet cafés must be along the lines of "hey bay bee, I'm like, into Information Architecture". Ooookay. Yes, the root metaphor falls apart if we extend it too far. To my knowledge, no computer root system draws essential nutrients from the surrounding ether or electron cloud. The extension of course is architecture. (I risk mixing metaphors, but I'm prepared to wager that if you have made it this far you can morph metaphors with me.) One implies something organic, the other a human construct. Both images work, though I understand the early programmer's preference for short, descriptive single syllable words. I also understand the appeal and lofty status of IA. I remember being genuinely impressed the first time someone told me that's what they did. But really - that's what you're doing when you build a site structure slowly, thoughtfully and conceptually before choosing colors or typing index.html. Architecture, information or otherwise, builds on a foundation which profoundly shapes the final structure.

And if you're smart, and if you're thoughtful, and if you get promoted to that sweet job in the office with windows, the sap who follows you won't come to think IA stands for Information Archaeologist!

Go forth and put down roots. May the roots you craft be as deep and tough as those under my window!

originally written for Peter Fielding's website "Oh-Eight", ©2001

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