Principles of Design #8 – Five Hat Racks

Dec 12 2010

A tidy mind

For those overwhelmed by information or data (a common problem in business intelligence), it always helps to sort your information in order to make better sense of what you have.  According to the design principle of ‘Five Hat Racks’, there are five ways to organise information: by category, time, location, alphabet and continuum*.  [*Continuum is sometimes renamed hierarchy, providing the simple acronym of LATCH.]

The organisation of information has a profound effect on the way we think about and interact with any design.  According to the Five Hat Racks, these organisational strategies are limited to five, regardless of the specific application, including category, time, location, alphabet and continuum (or hierarchy).

Categorise to simplify

Organising by category refers to grouping information based on similarity or relatedness.  Such categories may already exist within the information (ie demographic breaks in survey data; retail sales categories).  However, often categories become apparent when people naturally seek out information.  For example, a thirsty consumer may look to organise by ‘cold drinks’ grouping fizzy drinks, water and iced tea together under this one idea (despite a manufacturers or retailers pre-conceived notions of product groupings).

The narrative of time

Time is the simple notion of organising by chronological sequence (for example in historical timelines or TV guides).  It is useful to organise information by time when presenting or comparing events over specific durations or when a time based sequence is involved.  For example, buying behaviour is often thought of in this way as following a step-by-step procedure as in a brand funnel (although many would dispute this).

Location based

Location is organisation by geographic or spatial reference, as in travel guides or any kind of map.  Organisation by location is helpful when orientation and direction are important, or when information can be meaningfully related to geography (as in Google Maps and location based services).

Alphabet soup

Alphabet is the organisation of information by alphabetical order, for example in dictionaries and encyclopedias.  Such organisation makes information access much more efficient, and can also be used when other organisation strategies are not appropriate.

Continuum or hierarchy

Continuum or hierarchy is the organisation of information by magnitude. For example, highest to lowest and best to worst, as in sporting statistics or search engine results.  Continuum based organisation is possible whenever you have a common measure with which to make comparisons.

Whenever you have information anxiety, you should start thinking about which Hat Racks can help you to simplify complexity.


Universal Principles of Design, Revised and Updated by William Lidwell, Kritina Holden and Jill Butler (2010)

Information Anxiety 2 by Richard Saul Wurman (2000)

2 responses so far

  1. Good article, the only thing you should fix is that the word organising is misspelled, the right way to write it is ORGANIZING.

  2. Ileana

    Thanks for your comment, but spelling would depend if you’re American or English (and I’m English).

    All the best,


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