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NextD Journal RERETHINKING DESIGN

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Wurman Uncut: A Conversation with Richard Saul Wurman

Richard Saul Wurman Creative Director, The Entertainment Gathering Author, Understanding Healthcare, Understanding Children, Information Anxiety 2, and many more!

GK VanPatter Co-Founder, NextDesign Leadership Institute Co-Founder, Humantific  Making Sense of Cross-Disciplinary Innovation

NextDesign Leadership Institute DEFUZZ THE FUTURE! www.nextd.org Follow NextD Journal on Twitter: www.twitter.com/nextd Copyright © 2005 NextDesign Leadership Institute. All Rights Reserved. NextD Journal may be quoted freely with proper reference credit. If you wish to repost, reproduce or retransmit any of this text for commercial use please send a copyright permission request to journal@nextd.org


NextD Journal I ReRethinking Design Conversation 16

Wurman Uncut

1 GK VanPatter: Welcome Richard. We are delighted that you have agreed to spend a little time with us. I’m hearing that you are launching a new post-TED conference but before we get to that I want to ask you a historical question. It is one that I’m sure many of our Information Architecture readers would like to ask: Through your considerable energies and output you have become famous in numerous domains but underneath everything that you do, even today, seems to be the notion of understanding, making the complex clear. Was there a moment in your early life when you woke up one morning and realized this was going to be important for the world and for you? Richard Saul Wurman: I had an epiphany at about twenty years of age, a true momentary epiphany. It had nothing to do with making things understandable for the world. It had to do with my own ignorance. Everything comes from that terrifying moment, that milli-second, that terrifying moment of utter truth that I understood that I understood nothing. Understanding what it is like not to understand is the one thing that touches every part of my life, Even at those times when I am engaged in fun, games, frivolity, glitzy stuff and making a fool of myself it always comes from that moment, the moment when I am an empty bucket. The only thing I have working for me is my curiosity, my laziness. The means to overcome that laziness is the bravado of saying I’m going to do something before I would ever naturally do it - that forces me to escape the humiliation of the world by not doing work. So it’s all an internal system of my ignorance, my laziness, and my bravado of putting myself in the position of doing good work - but it is not for the world. I know it looks like it is many times. In fact there are people who have put me on the list of dogooders. Take me off that list! I am not a do-gooder.

2 GK VanPatter: Was there something that was happening at that particular time in your life Richard when you were in your twenties that brought you to that epiphany moment? Richard Saul Wurman: Yes, I was doing well in school at the University of Pennsylvania. I graduated first in my class, a gold medal in design, had the highest average, took the most courses ever taken, and I realized that everything I knew was what was taught me. Nothing came from within. I’ll tell you the fundamental NEXT thing that happened in my life. I started teaching at the University of Carolina at twenty-six years of age, an assistant professor of architecture. The epiphany there occurred in the first day of class was: Do I teach about what I know or do I teach what I want to learn about? A fundamental bifurcation, and I chose the latter. I never teach from my knowledge. When I teach, which I did for many years, I always teach from my ignorance and what I want to learn about. Terrifying, but changes all teaching and consequently, all learning.

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3 GK VanPatter: I recall that one of your early projects at that time was to map several cities with your students and that led you into the realm of understanding cities that later led to access guides. Is that correct? Richard Saul Wurman: Yes. That was my first book. It was called Cities, a Comparison of Form and Scale. There were fifty cities of the world all mapped to the same scale in clay models.

4 GK VanPatter: Where did the inspiration for that work come from? Richard Saul Wurman: It came out of a statement that one of my students made almost the first week I was teaching. Actually two statements. One statement was that he had never been above the Mason Dixon line, a famous line from the (American) Civil War, Pre Civil War actually. And the second comment was that when I mentioned Alvar Alto and Helsinki, the student did not know what a Helsinki was. And so I felt the mapping project would be an interesting way to learn about various major cities in the world.

5 GK VanPatter: The last time I looked your book list was up to twenty-six or twenty-eight. Richard Saul Wurman: Eighty-one.

6 GK VanPatter: You have created and published eighty-one books! Wow! You have been busy Richard! Richard Saul Wurman: Well, not really. Its just eighty-one that is what it is. They are all listed in the back page of my latest book: Understanding Healthcare.

7 GK VanPatter: Linking back to what you said at the outset of this conversation, does this mean that you have created all eighty-one books not for the world, but for yourself Richard? Richard Saul Wurman: Yes.

8 GK VanPatter: And you learn through the process of doing each book? Richard Saul Wurman: The book is the paper version of my journey. Everyone is a little trip.

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9 GK VanPatter: Let me switch gears a little now. Many years ago you coined the term “Information Architect”. Much change has occurred in the market place since then. How do you feel about calling yourself an Information Architect today? Richard Saul Wurman: Well its OK. I would rather call myself that than an Information Designer because the word design has worse connotations. I am not just an architect, however, but I usually don’t call myself very much at all. When I give a speech it is just Richard Saul Wurman, or a conversation with Richard Saul Wurman. I don’t quite belong in too many places you know. I have a Fellow from the American Institute of Architects but I don’t think I’m a member there anymore. I quit AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts). They gave me a gold medal this year. I quit AGI (Alliance Graphique Internationale) because I did not think they were my people. I don’t belong to any group, so am I an entrepreneur, an author, a businessman, a conference creator, a cartographer, or a guidebook maven? I don’t know what I am. I don’t say that with arrogance. To me, what I do is try to make things understandable to myself so Information Architect is as good as anything else. I do believe that the true discipline of architecture as described in the teachings of Louis Kahn, gives us systemic ways to organize information, but you know what I really worship is conversation. Great architecture is sometimes referred to as frozen music. I would like to think of my books as being frozen conversations.

10 GK VanPatter: I may borrow that one. Let me follow-up and ask you a somewhat difficult kind of question here Richard. What is it about the associations and institutions that you made reference to, which places you on the outside? AIGA for instance; do you find that institution to be not reflective of the way you think about information architecture and or about the world in general today? Richard Saul Wurman: Without going into a long tirade, with examples and individual’s names. I will say they are not my people. It just gets petty. They (AIGA) are certainly not reflective of my forty year pleading with them to have a major strain of what they do to be responsible to understanding.

11 GK VanPatter: I remember several years ago seeing that you had inserted a tag line into the AIGA Information design competition that read “This ain’t no beauty contest.” I believe this, at least in part, speaks to what you are making reference to here. Richard Saul Wurman: Well yes. We are taught in every one of our design schools that all the awards and rewards in the design professionals are still given for looking great not being great. Looking good has never been my goal.

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12 GK VanPatter: Lets switch gears again and let me ask you about your new venture, the Entertainment Gathering. I see your new site is up and you are getting set to launch the conference in Los Angeles on February 1,2,3 of 2006. Can you tell us a little bit about where the idea for “eg” came from and what it will be? Richard Saul Wurman: I would love to because it’s my passion at the moment and passion accounts for so much of my life. On March twenty-sixth, 2005 I am going to be seventy. In the last year I have been reflecting back on my life leading up to being seventy. Part of that was having Jill Sobule my favorite singer, create a song called Eleven Summers, summer being a metaphor for the good times in our lives. I was sixty-nine so the song was about having eleven summers until I’m eighty. If you live to be eighty your body begins to break down. It is not death but things happen right around eighty. So eleven summers became an obsession with me. In any case I was reflecting back on my life and during that time I also had a fiftieth high school reunion. So all of this made me think about what it would be like if I actually went back to the school that I attended long ago. Obviously if I went there today, the classrooms and the buildings would seem a little small but otherwise there would likely be very little change since I attended. The classrooms might have a computer in the corner. They might have a new building. But the teachers would be no better, probably worse. The classrooms would have more students. The students would be less interested in what was being taught. The books would be terrible and the same. The teachers would be terrible and the same. They would be reading you things and the whole basis of your experience would be the memorization of things you were not interested in, put on a piece of paper and forgotten. The focus would still be on short-term memory; Bulimically put on a piece of paper, which is a test. As I reflected on that mess, I realized that it represented nothing about my life long learning experience. I realized that much of what has occurred in my life, in terms of helping me with my own learning experiences has been brought to me, in one form or another, by the entertainment industry. In fact driven by the entertainment industry – not by Harvard or Yale. Magazines; are in an entertaining form through the information visualization that is interesting and useful. Television; ER gives me my medical ethics. CSI gives me ideas about science, strategy and problem solving. Historically, shows like All in The Family allowed me to think about things that were, at that time, considered no-nos. George Carlin allows me look at the world from different vantage points and views. Entertainment is the cultural mirror. It is the satire and the humor that changes and releases my ability to think about the world. The technology of transmission and storage and imaging has been all brought to me by the entertainment industry. It is that industry that is driving innovation, driving the iPod, driving high definition television, driving the resolution on my computer screen. As I reflected on my life I realized that everything has been brought to me driven by one of the two unique businesses in America, the entertainment industry, the other being the health care industry.

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So I thought, since the educational community has proven now for sixty years of my life to be absolutely bankrupt and damaging that I should celebrate a slice of the entertainment industry that allows me to think thoughts. I reflected upon all the things that have so impacted my life. Programs that have helped me understand history, that marvelous American Biographers Series where they present the lives of people who are really interesting models, The Discovery Channel, National Geographic Channel, the Weather Channel, The History Channel. All of these things have had an impact. Even the yellow and blue lines on the football field have allowed me to understand things, to understand patterns. Pattern recognition, which is the moment of creativity for people, is understanding patterns. Humor, which is the opposite of expectation is where an invention often comes from. So television, the movies, The Longest Day, going to space, the things that Tom Hanks and Spielberg have done, those are the memories in my head. Learning is remembering what you are interested in. In my seventy-year-old head these are my memories. I consider those memories to be a gift, given to me by the incredible talented individuals in one of the amazing industries in America, the entertainment industry. That is not to say, I am in love with all that goes on in the industry. This (conference) is a slice of that industry. Much of what is produced I abhor. I can’t stand rap music, reality shows, most of the talk shows, the night shows, Doctor Phil. I can’t stand a lot of stuff. This is not about giving a blanket statement about the entertainment industry being the great educational industry. A slice of it is, particularly when it does not try to be. It that enough for an opening comment?!

13 GK VanPatter: Sure. You seem to be defining entertainment in a very broad way but within that definition you are saying “not all of it is great”. You seem to be particularly interested in the aspects of the industry that play a role in facilitating learning and understanding. Richard Saul Wurman: Entertainment as understanding. That’s the subtitle.

14 GK VanPatter: Is this for you another journey where you are trying to better understand something or is this more of a celebration of what exists today? Or is it both of those things? Richard Saul Wurman: Yes, it is both and since I can I’m doing something that I find enjoyable. This is enjoyable for me. I don’t have to work. This is not my get rich quick scheme. I enjoy doing this.

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15 GK VanPatter: I remember years ago that you once said to me that “simplicity is very different than clarity.” Richard Saul Wurman: Absolutely.

16 GK VanPatter: I’m sure you are aware that many people likely think of television as a giant simplicity machine….and as we both know simplicity is not always the best solution path. Richard Saul Wurman: Well sure, I think it has its bad moments. It also has remarkable moments and one needs to celebrate remarkable moments. I mean there is this fantasy that everything should be good. Look at the Renaissance. People say everything was so beautiful. That’s bullshit. In reality we look at twenty buildings from the Renaissance. I mean there is a lot of schlock at any time. This notion that we see lot of bad things on television therefore television is no good and represents Americas wasteland is ridiculous. There are so few good things in any profession. Name me a good plumber. Name me a good architect and what do you come up with, three?, four? The lists are always little. That’s fine with me.

17 GK VanPatter: For many years your TED conference was a huge success in part due to the magical mix of diverse presenters assembled by you. Is your new Entertainment Gathering conference going to be a slice from a narrower spectrum? Richard Saul Wurman: No. There will be many surprises, because I see connections that sometimes others don’t.

18 GK VanPatter: I can’t help but get the sense that underneath the celebration of the entertainment industry is an underlying sense that part of the reason why you are doing this is because other systems, the educational system in particular, has not worked as well as you would like it to work. Would that be fair? Richard Saul Wurman: Well perhaps but its not going to be me using it as a platform jumping up and down on the stage shouting that our education system is bad and that we must improve it. That’s just bullshit stuff. You know, all you can do is just do some good work. And all you can affect if you do some good work is to inspire someone else to do some good work. You can’t change whole systems or at least I can’t and I’m not interested in it. I am interested in finding the pattern that makes sense for me. That’s all. You know that there are a lot of people who dislike this approach and dislike what I do for some reason, or it rubs them the wrong way, or it rubs them because it proves that I was right, or whatever. You certainly have heard mutterings of this I’m sure, about me and my personality, abrasiveness, and my push on this subject for so long. Am I right?

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19 GK VanPatter: Well I might have heard a few rumors some where along the way. Richard Saul Wurman: Haaaaaaa! So why do you think that happens? I’ll interview you. I think that is part of the story too.

20 GK VanPatter: You are a widely misunderstood man Richard. That’s all I can say. Richard Saul Wurman: Oh what does that mean? That’s a way of putting off answering the question.

21 GK VanPatter: I think that it probably goes with the territory. It is a condition that likely exists for most people who are out in front trying to do things instead of sitting back watching others do things. For those who are trying to blaze new paths through the forest this goes with the territory. There are always some people who do not want a new path through the forest. Richard Saul Wurman: Well it’s already such an old path, and still has not been embraced-which would have made people’s lives much more successful.

22 GK VanPatter: The notion you often come back to that “learning is remembering what you are interested in….” Richard Saul Wurman: I mean there is no way anyone can find a fault in that statement and nobody ever has. Under deep challenge, nobody has. And if it is so, the entire makeup of the educational system would change.

23 GK VanPatter: Well that path through the forest is one with many implications. It is a disruptive path that would not sync well with the many systems within education already in place. Richard Saul Wurman: In fact many things are done to do just the opposite. The parents telling kids to stop asking so many questions, don’t be interested in automobiles, don’t be interested in this or that, and do your school work. Many of the systems in place are actually antithetical to how people find the joy of learning.

24 GK VanPatter: I noticed from your Entertainment Gathering site that you already have the organizing architecture there. Is that the place where you start, asking yourself how am I going to look at this industry?

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Richard Saul Wurman: I just start with what I would be interested in. I don’t talk to a soul by the way. This is not a committee action. I just sit down and write the first things that come to my mind. That’s it.

25 GK VanPatter: So you often start with a series of questions? Richard Saul Wurman: Questions are implicit in almost everything I do. My conversations with each of the speakers before they come on board are always about the questions I would like to have answered. But it is not an interview on stage.

26 GK VanPatter: I know that you often use the question construct in your books as well. Richard Saul Wurman: My last three understanding books: Understanding USA, Understanding Children and Understanding Healthcare I sat down and wrote out the table of contents which was 200 to 300 questions. That is the critical and initial act that I do. I come up with the questions.

27 GK VanPatter: Do you still do consulting work with corporate clients Richard? Richard Saul Wurman: There are people who call me.

28 GK VanPatter: You do not have any kind of operating practice anymore? Richard Saul Wurman: I have not ever had a practice. A practice is what you do to be perfect.

29 GK VanPatter: You had TUB (The Understanding Business), years ago. Was that not your practice? Richard Saul Wurman: Yes that was years and years ago. I also had Access Press and TED conferences and different things that I have now sold off. My staff here now is two people.

30 GK VanPatter: In terms of the Entertainment Gathering I am imagining that our readership in the design community will be very interested. Richard Saul Wurman: I think it is going to be a spectacular conference. It is going to be really good and will sell out quite quickly. There are only 500 seats and no simulcast. It’s in Los Angeles and it’s going to be all kinds of events and star fucking things. It is Page 9 of 13


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going to be really polished. My partners, the Museum of Television and Radio are excellent. They are basically the Library of Alexandria, you know. They have all the television and radio of the last sixty years so we will have amazing things from their archives that will be running all the time.

31 GK VanPatter: Will you be there as the host? Richard Saul Wurman: I will be on stage 100% of the time. Wired Magazine is helping me with the technology session. McKinsey is helping with the business session. Yamaha with the music session, etc. etc.

32 GK VanPatter: How would McKinsey help with the business session? Richard Saul Wurman: One of their big divisions consults to the entertainment industry.

33 GK VanPatter: Ahhh. Richard Saul Wurman: KPMG is going to be one of the sponsors. One of the big parts of their business is doing all the accounting for the entertainment industry.

34 GK VanPatter: Many design people work in and around the entertainment industry. Richard Saul Wurman: Of course they do, but design people seldom come to my meetings. They never came to TED.

35 GK VanPatter: Some could likely not afford it Richard. TED was/is $4,000.+ Richard Saul Wurman: Oh baloney. That was the most hilarious thing. Those who came from the design business, walked away with enough work for two years. But the designers rarely came for several reasons 1) out of jealousy, or 2) out of thinking that TED had nothing to do with design, or 3) because they had annual reports due that week. I mean its all bullshit. I found that they have no desire to understand what their business really is.

36 GK VanPatter: Do you see any change in the design industry that’s good Richard? Richard Saul Wurman: Ahhhh. I am really not part of it so I am not the best person to ask. Parts of it are OK I guess.

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37 GK VanPatter: I remember you telling me once about a survey that you did years ago where you asked graphic designers what their favorite project would be and most of them said posters! Richard Saul Wurman: Oh Yeah. The absolutely most overwhelming thing they wanted to do was posters, big posters and the second most favorite thing was to design a corporate image.

38 GK VanPatter: Well since you admit that you are on the periphery of the design business these days, I will tell you that there is a lot going on today. What the forces are, that are driving change and where it all will lead to is, as always, uncertain. We are perhaps not so unlike you in the sense that we are on a journey trying to figure out that landscape, trying to understand it. We are not out here trying to change the world. I guess in a sense we are doing what you did for many years with TED and what you are still doing with eg and that is encouraging people to look outside of themselves and their own discipline to make connections. We try to do that by engaging in a form of “frozen music”, to use your term, with a wide variety of people, not just designers. Richard Saul Wurman: That’s why am taking this interview with you.

39 GK VanPatter: Who knows, one result might be that you may find the next generation of outward facing designers in your audience at the Entertainment Gathering. The design schools, graduate and undergraduate, would certainly benefit from your wisdom, insights and observations. You must receive many requests for talks and conference appearances? Richard Saul Wurman: Well that’s interesting. I do not know exactly what the number is but there are probably more than fifty design schools in the US. Even though I have done some eighty plus books and run TED for many years it is rare that any of these schools would ask me to give a talk. Art Center, University of the Arts had me down to give a conference presentation last year but that is rare.

40 GK VanPatter: Really? Richard Saul Wurman: Really! Certainly not Parsons or any of the New York Schools.

41 GK VanPatter: Get ready to get some emails after we publish this!

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Richard Saul Wurman: Well what I am trying to tell you is that my sense is that there is a general lack of interest except for maybe a dozen people, like yourself. And I don’t want to be lulled into thinking that at any moment the seduction is still looking good. That is the seduction. If you go the eg 2006 website. Well it is about as laid back, non-blinking, un-fancy a website as you could possibly imagine. It is not trying to say: look at me, look at me, look at me. And yet you can get through it pretty easily. And push my little self-joke of the Pillsbury doughboy button. And that is it. And that is not what people want to do. If you ask them about websites, they want them in Flash.

42 GK VanPatter: I think I know what you mean. We often run into similar things in the work that we do. We have come to the realization that our work is less about creating artifacts for museums and more about creating real working tools that people actually use in organizations. This is not what the traditional design community typically does, is interested in or rewards. Richard Saul Wurman: They are interested in whatever they do what they do because they can do it and that is what people go towards. They do what they can do rather than what they should do or rather what is good work. There is a constant seduction out there to do those kinds of things. I was watching a documentary the other day on the making of the Tom Cruise film, The Last Samurai that had some marvelous moments in it. They went into great detail on the complications and the megalomania of all the battle scenes and god they could have spent half of the money. They did it because they could do it. They threw money at it and they threw people at it and they were so proud of how hard it was to do, and how complicated it was but the fact is that that was not the story. The story was not about the battle scenes. The point is it wasn’t a great movie but the story was not where they spent the money, instead they spent truckloads of dollars on the battle scenes. That’s in essence what you are saying. The story is often not where organizations end up spending the money. The story can often be told by just making it simple and clear.

43 GK VanPatter: I am guessing that the Entertainment Gathering is going to be an enormous undertaking and a lot of work for you in the next few years. Are you going to have time to do other things Richard? Richard Saul Wurman: I have a staff of two. One takes care of my finances, personal and otherwise, my insurance and all of that as my life is somewhat complicated. I have a personal secretary who takes care of myself and my wife as we travel often. I have no other staff working on it. I play solitaire about four hours a day and do nothing else. I take a few phone calls. I scan a lot of magazines. I make a lot of phone calls, but I do not work very hard, will not be working very hard. I love to do things. I am certainly under utilized. If I felt driven to it I could do two or three books right now.

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44 GK VanPatter: Any last thoughts on leaving TED behind and moving forward into the future? Richard Saul Wurman: The last TED conference I created was 2002. Since I divested myself of that conference I have not been to it nor do I have anything to do with it programmatically or financially. My understanding of its qualities both positive and negative are from second hand sources that are by their very nature filtered by those individuals who choose to call and tell me what they think I might want to hear. I hope the sun shines on everybody and they don't run out of sunscreen.

NextD Journal RERETHINKING DESIGN

NextDesign Leadership Institute DEFUZZ THE FUTURE! www.nextd.org Questions: Please direct all questions to journal@nextd.org Follow NextD Journal on Twitter: www.twitter.com/nextd Page 13 of 13

Wurman Uncut: A Conversation with Richard Saul Wurman  

NextD Journal | ReRethinking Design. GK VanPatter in conversation with Richard Saul Wurman. Conversation 16, Wurman Uncut: A Conversation wi...

Wurman Uncut: A Conversation with Richard Saul Wurman  

NextD Journal | ReRethinking Design. GK VanPatter in conversation with Richard Saul Wurman. Conversation 16, Wurman Uncut: A Conversation wi...

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