‘Information Architecture’ in Disney architecture – There’s no place like hub

Walt Disney by sketch of Disneyland

For those of you who have been to a Disney park, this lead picture probably looks familiar. And yet, many of the attractions in the sketch were either never built or have disappeared long ago. I’m guessing that you first recognized the macro-level structure and organization, not the details. Of course, maybe you just recognized Disneyland because Walt Disney is standing there!

For those of you who have never been to a Disney park, you may still recognize a familiar navigation pattern. An information architect might call it a hub-and-spoke model. Users (or guests) begin at a central location before accessing other parts of a web site (or park).

Animal Kingdom Hub-and-Spoke exampleIn fact, most Disney parks follow a clear hub-and-spoke navigation model. Typically, guests enter the park through a single entrance and follow a scenic path to an open plaza area. A “wienie” (um, yes, that’s what Disney actually calls them–more on that in a future article), like a castle or giant tree, is centrally located in the hub. From here, additional paths radiate out to lands with featured attractions. The physical architecture in each of these lands is consistently designed to support a particular theme which helps transport guests emotionally to a different place or time as they are moving within the park.

As designers, we are often called upon to create the structure and organization, or the information architecture (IA), of a web site or interactive product. The success of this activity is defined by how well users can navigate and accomplish their goals. In many ways, Disney has been very successful in using IA activity within its actual architecture. It’s not just a happy accident of design that many people can close their eyes and visualize the entering Disneyland or Magic Kingdom. They know that if they walk to the end of that Main Street and turn right at the castle, they’ll reach Tomorrowland.

Park layout background

Like many good ideas, the notion of organizing a theme park into a hub-and-spoke model seems obvious now. However, when Disneyland opened in 1955, there were no other parks in existence that showcased multiple themes.

Amusement parks evolved from many different influences. Wikipedia (sorry) highlights the early role of European pleasure gardens, county fairs in rural America, trolley parks in urban America and other local parks. However, the Great Depression and WWII took a heavy toll on their popularity, but a few of those early examples remain. A look at these early attractions help us visualize the organic nature of their development.

Kennywood Park MapFor example, in Pittsburgh, Kennywood started as a trolley park in 1898. In examining its current layout, no central organizing principle stands out. The placement of attractions seem random, as subsequent additions to the park. While this may still provide an engaging experience for guests, it is harder to form a mental model of its structure upon quick observation.

In contrast, Walt Disney strongly influenced the design of Disneyland and the central hub concept. In Sam Gennawey’s book, Walt and the Promise of Progress City, he describes a collaboration between Walt and Master Planner Marvin Davis who claims to have sketched 129 different variations of the park. Their effort has clearly stood the test of time as the design has been replicated across additional Disney properties.

What is so appealing about the hub-and-spoke model? The book Designing Disney by imagineer John Hench highlights several reasons they selected this structure:

  1. To facilitate decision making. Walt had observed how families in other settings would often bunch-up and pause while trying to decide where to go next. He was concerned that these small groups would occupy too much space and wanted to make sure they could decide where to go quickly and be on their way. The hub facilitates a clear view of all possible paths.
  2. To prevent guests from getting lost. The large central icon element (like a castle) provides a landmark which people can spot at many locations within the park and “get back to knowing where they are.”
  3. To prevent tiredness. Walt wanted to avoid people getting “museum feet” due to excessive walking. Like a good usability specialist, he was concerned with the amount of effort required to accomplish a task. It’s worth noting that Disney’s EPCOT, which does not use the hub-and-spoke model, has an alternative acronym: Every Person Comes Out Tired.
  4. Crowd distribution. Like #1, Disney has a vested interest in ensuring people can quickly get to other parts of the park so that no one area gets too busy and people have an enjoyable time.
  5. Control attendance.  Having only one central entrance allows the park to count how many people have entered and exited. This enables them to estimate how many people are inside the park at any given moment.

The hub-and-spoke design also has benefits which I’m not sure the original designers anticipated:

  1. Intra-park expansion. Lands that were created in 1955 still exist and yet designers claim that they can still easily determine where to put a new ride based on its story and theme.
  2. Cross-park familiarity. A guest who has visited Disneyland in California will be able to orient themselves very quickly in Magic Kingdom in Florida or any of the other similar parks in Paris, Tokyo, or Hong Kong. This builds a comfort level and increases the probability of additional revenue.

Implications for designers

These seven goals should seem very familiar even to those of us not designing amusement parks. As designers, we want our product users to understand where to go to accomplish their goals, and to have an efficient and pleasurable experience in the process. Likewise, having a product that allows for expansion and encourages loyalty is almost table-stakes.

iOS Hub-and-Spoke exampleAt the risk of sounding cliche, no recent product demonstrates this more than the iPhone or the iOS platform. As the Quince pattern library notes, this product also uses a hub-and-spoke navigation system. Users enter through a main, or home, screen that allows them to see all possible options. Then, they can navigate out to specific applications. Each of these apps often has a unique look and feel, just as individual lands in Disney parks are differentiated from each other. Additional apps can easily be added and are always accessible by using the landmark central home button on the device. Owners of one iOS can become immediately proficient on another iOS device. Also, I hear that iOS users tend to be brand loyal to Apple.

Amazon Tab ExampleI can also remember the early years of Amazon.com’s web site. When their offerings were more limited, each product category was given its own tab along the top of the site to facilitate initial navigation. Visiting each category changed the color of the tab and top bar to reinforce which section of the site was currently active. However, this particular IA was not sustainable. As Amazon’s offerings grew and multiplied, the tab metaphor could no longer contain the diversity.

I’m not suggesting that the hub-and-spoke model is the ideal model for every product. Instead, I think there are more basic lessons to take from it:

  1. Tip your information architect. Their role of defining the structure and organization of a product provides the foundation that holds everything together.
  2. Plan for the future. Don’t think only about the features or content that exist today when doing the IA work. If new items can be seamlessly added in the future, your product experience will remain consistent over time and users will appreciate not having to relearn it upon future releases.
  3. Central landmarks provide comfort. In a product I recently worked on, the interaction design really didn’t require a central main page. And yet, we still heard from some users that they were looking for something to take them ‘home.’ My suspicion is that home pages (or portals or their equivalent) have become part of a user’s mental model of how digital products operate–remove at your own risk.
  4. Uniquely identify lands. Finally, while not required, I think there is still something to be said for mildly styling different features or content to stand apart from each other. Instead of forcing the user to read a breadcrumb trail or a highlighted menu item, the gestalt of the whole user interface can help signify their current location.

Thanks for visiting

Walt Disney by EPCOT sketchI’ll end with a photo not quite as recognizable as the first. This is Walt standing by an early rendering for EPCOT–back when it truly was his idea of a future city, not a theme park. Clearly, this man loved hubs.

Regardless of how you feel about city planning, I think we can all agree on the importance of providing structured and organized information for our customers and guests. Left to evolve organically, the end results may not be desirable. Our expertise as user experience designers and information architects position us to make all parts of products and life better.


Lead photo of Disneyland from WDWNews
Amazon tab history obtained from WaybackMachine
Comments (4) Add yours ↓
  1. Baskar

    Really a nice observation and well written article. Thanks Brandon.
    Also what are the other model in IA apart from the “Hub and spoke” model

    October 1, 2012 Reply
    • Brandon Satanek

      @Baskar Thank you so much for your kind feedback. In response to your question, and as a footnote, it’s worth mentioning that there are many different definitions of Information Architecture. I was looking at it from a macro-perspective, thinking about the navigation design of a whole system. Other people may think more from a detailed perspective; such as the layout and hierarchy of items on a single web page.

      For a simple overview of other IA navigation models, check out this page (http://www.webdesignfromscratch.com/website-architecture/ia-models/). In my article above, I referenced a product which didn’t have a central main page. It was much more “flat” – to use the language from that link. The user started out on one item and could navigate to any of its linear neighbors that had equal weighting.

      October 1, 2012 Reply