Richard Saul Wurman: Technology, Entertainment, Design

June 15th, 1999 | Category: Interviews

Richard Saul WurmanMy friend and colleague Mark Wieman did this interview with Richard Saul Wurman, which ran in my book, Follow for Now.

With the publication of his first book in 1962 at the age of 26, Richard Saul Wurman began the singular passion of his life: making information understandable. Wurman coined the term “Information Architecture” in 1976 and in 1984 he created the Technology Entertainment Design (TED) conference and remains chairman and creative director. The next TED conference, TEDX in February 2000, will focus on understanding America at the millennium and will be accompanied by the publication of his sixty-sixth book, Understanding USA (TED Conferences, 1999).

Mark Wieman: Information architects are in high demand at many internet-related companies. When you invented the title in 1976, did you anticipate how new media could affect the demand for such a role?

Richard Saul Wurman: When I first came up with the term “Information Architects” in 1975, which was coincident with when I was national chairman of the AIA convention in Philadelphia in 1976, I decided to theme the conference and call it the “Architecture of Information” and start calling myself an “Information Architect.” It seemed to make such sense to me that there was such a huge amount of information that nobody could understand — using myself as the model, and I couldn’t understand stuff — that I thought that term would just catch on and overnight there would be a new field of human endeavor. Well, it didn’t happen. So I was surprised that it didn’t happen then. But now, in the last year particularly, there’s been an explosion of people calling themselves information architects, and it’s become ubiquitous. I’m surprised once again that when it took off, it took off so fast. I am, on a daily basis, becoming aware that people use it on their cards, use it on their stationery, use it on the internet, use it on their webpages. And of course, they don’t even know where it came from. But it’s a term that’s of its time and people seem to identify with it. And it seems to fill in an important slot, as I thought it would many, many years ago — but of course I was wrong both times. One, that it didn’t happen. And two, that it happened so fast.

MW: Information designer Edward Tufte goes out of his way to emphasize the limitations of displaying complex information on computer screens as opposed to paper. Is he crazy, or are we still a long way from effectively using technology to enhance our understanding?

RSW: Well, I think he’s completely wrong. And he’s completely wrong because of who he is. First of all, his books are terrific. But they’re the books of an analytic historian. He is not a graphic designer. He is not an information architect. He doesn’t have any ideas about graphics and what’s going to happen in the future. He has documented the history of information design superbly, and he’s done a very good analysis of it. But I think, since he doesn’t have creative ideas about the future, he can’t see how there will be amazing information displayed on the internet, done by very creative people, in the very near future. Are we stumbling around now doing things? You bet. Because we’re finding our way. Much the same as when the movies first happened, when cinema first happened — they based it on old things, they made it look like stage plays. Well, we’re just getting over the point where we’re just putting diagrams on a screen. We’re not taking the appropriate way of using dynamic information. We’re using it to show off that we can spin things, and we’re showing off things because we can do it, and everybody is bragging to one another about some cute program. We are going to get over that show-off stage very soon. We’re going to be able to show things, and will show things, accurately, clearly, and using the medium for what it is. I mean, if you or anybody else is going through the stage that many of us are of getting fast downloads and speeding up your equipment, it changes your whole relationship with what you can see and how you see it. And I think his reflection is on things as he’s looking backwards not forward.

MW: You are a proponent of work as an extension of hobby. Please elaborate on this idea.

RSW: The term “work” to me is a pejorative term. If you have to do something you don’t like it’s called work. Ditch diggers do work. You do work, work, work so you can take a vacation. So vacation and work have become opposites. As opposed to the idea that work is joy. As a designer, I think that the big design problem is designing your life. And if that’s what you mean by hobby and that’s what I mean by hobby, then my work is a collection of hobbies and things I want to do — that’s part of designing your life.

MW: The success of your TED conferences has been phenomenal. How do you explain it?

RSW: TED is successful because it’s not static. It’s not a cookie-cutter conference where we have ten panels and fourteen speakers and a lunch paid for by IBM and everybody goes home. I’ve tried to make it a reflection, in real time, of what interests me. And I’ve tried to embrace my hypernormalcy — the fact that I’m more normal than other people, and what interests me, in all likelihood, will interest the audience. I don’t pander to the audience by trying to present things that I think would interest them, but rather, as a committee of one, I try to have things that interest me.

Many years ago, after TED first started, I got less and less interested in boys and their toys and showing off just hardware and jumping through hoops, and seeing how fast we could speed up things, and how cute all our little hardware could be. I still have a passing interest in that, but the focus on the demo aspect of the conference has left a number of years ago and basically the theme is, “Why are we doing all this?” As we discuss why we are doing all this, it touches everybody. It’s about not only high tech but high touch, which was the earliest pronouncement that John Naisbitt did in 1984 when he gave the keynote of the conference. And the more we don’t have to come to TED, the more people are going to want to do it; the more they can not have to go to conferences and press the flesh, the more they’ll want to talk to real people with real eye contact and look at connections — the connectivity between science and understanding and information. And the conference is really about understanding. Well, that’s what the human spirit is about, understanding. As long as it’s about understanding — partly understanding based on the growth of the information technology sector, the growth of the entertainment sector, the sophistication of the design sector — it’s always going to be fresh and new and it’s not going to surprise me. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to keep on doing it forever, it just means that that’s a much better theme than just showing off your wares. You know, “Look at me, look at me.”

MW: Can you explain the subject matter of Understanding USA in more detail?

RSW: The working title was “Atlas of Understanding.” The actual title is just going to be called Understanding USA. And there’s going to be 350 pages of maps, charts, graphs, and whatever works. Very easily understood, developed by the best information architects that I can find in the United States. They are responding to about 300 questions that I’ve come up with, 300 answers that we’ve researched here at TED, and trying to display them in a form that makes the complex clear. Much of this will have underneath it a dynamic set of statistics and graphs and charts, and that will be put on a website, and people will probably be able to download the whole book. But the website is not the book; the website will have its own life, and that’s being developed by Bob Greenberg of R/GA Digital Studios, Ciaran Doyle from Intel, Curtis Wong of Microsoft, and myself, to be a really wonderful website of understanding, and a live website of updatable material that makes public information public about America. So to me, this is a very important turning point in the whole field of information architecture. Of course, almost completely ignored by the various organizations that talk about information design and the various graphic design groups in the United States, and the international design groups, for some reason. At the TEDX conference in February will be the greatest convocation of information architects ever, because all the dozen people and their staff who’ll be working on the book will be there and making short presentations and even probably have a workshop.

MW: Is there any aspect of your work, or any new project you’re working on, that you’d like to bring up?

RSW: My newest project, and I’ll tell you for the first time because I haven’t really announced it or sent out a press release on this yet, is a brand new, two-month-old publishing company called TOP. It’s a joint venture; I own fifty percent of it and I’m the CEO and creative director. The other half of it is owned by a wholly owned subsidiary of the second largest health care insurance group in the country, United HealthCare out of Minnesota. United HealthCare has a subsidiary called Ovations, and the TOP comes from the Ovations press. We’ll be developing, both in print and in electronic form, in the next five years, fifty single-issue books and websites on subjects from finance and debt and wills, to Alzheimer’s and cardiac and diagnostic tests and care giving and care receiving, for people fifty and over — people in the second half of their lives. So that’s my new hobby.

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