Richard Saul Wurman: The InfoDesign interview

By Dirk Knemeyer (January 2004)

Each month, InfoDesign interviews a thought leader in the design industry, focusing on people who are identified with or show strong sensibilities to the design of information and experiences. This month, Dirk Knemeyer interviews Richard Saul Wurman.

Wurman coined the term ‘information architecture’ almost 30 years ago. While ‘information architecture’ has a different connotation today, for the purposes of this interview, it is treated as synonymous with ‘information design’.

Dirk Knemeyer (DK): Richard, what is the most important challenge facing the design industry right now?

Richard Saul Wurman (RSW): What it is, what it has been, what it always will be – is to do good work. That expression comes from an interview with Mies van der Rohe done late in his life. In the end, all I am ever trying to do with every project I do is to do good work. Not for fame, fortune or money. Just really to do something good. Something that is true at that moment to myself and as good as I can do at that moment. Not in the academic sense where you try to make something so perfect that you never do anything. Not the same quest for perfection, which is a very self-conscious thing. Many of the people I speak with are really serving other Gods: the God of Beauty, the God of Style, the God of Swiss Graphics, the Poster God, the God of Money, Success, Fame, Fortune, and yet there is only one God that I serve and that is the God of Understanding. If you serve that God, all the others will be taken care of. My quote is: “The only way to communicate is to understand what it is like not to understand.” It is at that moment that you can make something understandable.

DK: You coined the term ‘information architecture’ back in 1976 at the AIA National Convention. Talk a little about the rationale and process that led to choosing that term.

RSW: The common term then was ‘information design’. What got confusing was information design and interior design and industrial design, at that moment and still today in many and most people’s minds, are about making something look good. Interior designers make your place look better, industrial designers were engineers doing something that usually went to an engineer to put a package around it. Information design was epitomized by which map looked the best – not which took care of a lot of parallel systemic parts. That is what I thought ‘architecture’ did and was a clearer word that had to do with systems that worked and performed. Thought ‘architecture’ was a better way of describing what I thought was the direction that more people should look into for information, and I thought the explosion of data needed an architecture, needed a series of systems, needed systemic design, a series of performance criteria to measure it. There are thousands of people using the term (‘information architecture’), and they have no idea where the term came from, and 90 percent of them aren’t doing what I think they should be doing anyway.

DK: You’ve talked before about not liking the term ‘Design’. Elaborate on that a bit.

RSW: I am an architect and I am a designer. I’m not trying to do away with the word, just trying to point something out that has more power to it as a title. My last TED conference, that I did two years ago, was called ’12 of 12′. It was a design conference, and I called it the greatest design conference that ever was. It was 12 aspects of design, so design was in each of the 12 parts. The last part was the design of your life ≠ it was the design of music, chair, car, technology, etc. I do use the term ‘design’. I just think, as an overall term for a field, ‘information architecture’ is a better term.

DK: The word ‘understanding’ is one that you have used very prominently over the years. In fact, this very website makes an inextricable connection between information design and the facilitation of human understanding. Share with us why you remain so focused on matters relating to the design and understanding of information?

RSW: That is the God that I serve. It is one of the major reasons that we got to be people and we are here on Earth and do what we do. It is a peculiar word because it has the word ‘under’ and ‘standing’ in it: what does that mean? How did that happen? ‘Under’ is a negative term, and ‘standing’, which is a different thing, those two words together create a word of such warmth. I named a company ‘The Understanding Business’; the initials are TUB. This has two meanings: the fact that I have a big pot belly and because Archimedes was in a bathtub when he said, “Eureka, I understand.” For me, it is all about understanding.

DK: What aspects of information are crucial to the successful creation of understanding?

RSW: What is critical is to understand what it is like not to understand. My definition of learning is to remember what you are interested in. If you don’t remember something, you haven’t learned it, and you are never going to remember something unless you are interested in it. These words dance together. ‘Interest’ is another holy word and drives ‘memory’. Combine them and you have learning. If that is so, and I believe it is, then our entire system of education is bankrupt because what is taught to you is not what you are interested in, and it is not taught to you in a method that can accentuate the interest so you build up a whole fibrous web of learning for yourself. Not an interest you have that doesn’t connect with everything else in the world. So why not go in through your interests? But that is not how our school systems are set up. You memorize things you are not interested in, throw them up on a test, and then you forget them.

Think about a general subject that interests people, like sports. Sports has everything. It has finances, sociology, psychology, the sciences. If someone is interested in sports, and is taught about sports in that sort of context, they will remember and truly learn.

DK: How do you see the relationships between digital information and technology regarding design, information and understanding?

RSW: I did a conference called ‘Technology Entertainment Design’, but would I ever have done a conference called ‘Typewriters’? Technology is meaningless except in how it can assist you, and then it should disappear and be invisible. You don’t think about talking, yet it is an amazing thing that we do. If I had to think about what I was going to say next, I wouldn’t say anything.

I can only do conferences because of email. I can only produce my latest book because I have well over 100 people working on it all over the United States. Couldn’t do that unless I could send PDF files back and forth and get the book done. I couldn’t even think of doing the book. The technological and communications ability allows you to think of ideas you couldn’t think of before. The mind can’t even think of certain things unless you go to the edge, unless there is a way of getting it done.

DK: What are some important issues that you would like to share with young and developing information designers?

RSW: The things I do are my struggle to see if I can tell the truth. Lou Kahn says that you only say something new to one person. I think that is true. If it is more than one person, then you are giving a performance.

DK: One of your most important ≠ and consistent ≠ contributions over the years is the ability to accurately see ahead into the future and contextualize where we are now with where we are going. Give us a glimpse into what you see today. What lies ahead for us as a culture, and where is our industry going?

RSW: I do that by not trying to do that. I did the TED conferences out of my own boredom, and the only ones that seemed interested were those in the technology business, entertainment industry and design profession. What astonished me is that they didn’t realize they were all in one business. I’m now doing TEDMED, which integrates medicine, because that is the next convergence. It seems obvious that more advertising and more money and unique American talents go into the understanding of healthcare. Of the S&P 500, the top seven were in the healthcare business last year, not computers. It is obviously a healthy business in America, one that interests me, and the stuff that people do is beyond fascinating. I am starting to get responses from my emails, where people are making amazing suggestions, and it is an education for me.

I’m going to give you a scoop here, an exclusive. My next conference is going to be called WET. It stands for ‘Water, Environment and Technology’. Did you know that 80 percent of all diseases have to do with water? That is just one example of why these are interesting and important subjects now.

DK: What can we learn from our history to guide the future of design, information and experience?

RSW: It was something like 26 years after the first Gutenberg Bible that somebody invented pagination. Page numbers allow you access; it was one of the first steps in trying to understand things and find things. History teaches us that people will struggle with the obvious. Try to discover the obvious ways that make things clearer. Try to search for clarity.

DK: Tell us a little bit about your new book: Understanding Healthcare. Why did you decide to write it, and what about the book will people find most valuable?

RSW: I did it because I wanted to learn about it. I’m not sure what people will find most valuable. It is going to be a fairly big deal: a huge amount of money is being put behind it by people that don’t even own the book. What is more interesting than understanding well-being, health and healthcare?

DK: Is there any one project, either from what you’ve already done or what you still hope to do, that serves as a summary or legacy to your many contributions?

RSW: The favorite book I did was in 1975. It was never sold, and you can’t get it; I just printed a few. It is called What If Could Be. It is the story of this city and county that hired somebody and gave him the title of ‘Commissioner of Curiosity and Imagination’ to run the city and county for one year, and they would do everything this person told them to do. What he did was look at everything that was going on and did the opposite. Change the laws of copyrighting to the rights of copy, for example. The results were astonishingly favorable. In fact, everything he did was so successful that they banished him, as people would predictably do.

The second Information Anxiety book was pretty good, too.

DK: Share some final thoughts that you would like for people to take away from this interview.

RSW: I am astonished that my doing what I want to do every day hasn’t inspired more people to do the same. My next project will be whatever occurs to me. Maybe something about a dog. I just got a puppy and can’t understand the literature. It is obviously written by people who care and are enthusiastic, but they don’t know how to create understanding.

Anything you do should come from your age, your ignorance, your curiosity. Think differently at different ages. Understanding Healthcare comes from ignorance, age and curiosity. In the first sentence of the very short introduction I wrote to the collections of all the writings and speeches of Lou Kahn, who was my mentor, the first sentence was what I would like to have on my gravestone: “He was the youngest person I ever knew.” If that could be my one epitaph, that would be OK.

About Richard Saul Wurman

The singular passion in Richard Saul Wurman’s life is making information understandable. Each of his 80 books focuses on some subject or idea that he personally had difficulty understanding. They all stem from his desire to know rather than already knowing, from his ignorance rather than his intelligence, from his inability rather than his ability. His best-selling book Information Anxiety (and a later edition: Information Anxiety 2), serves as an overview of the motivating principles found in his previous works.

With Master of Architecture and Bachelor of Architecture degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, Wurman has earned voluminous accolades in both the design and architecture fields. Along with his many books, Wurman counts many grants, fellowships, awards and conference chairmanships to his credit, from many of the largest and most prestigious organizations in the world.

Wurman continues as a regular consultant to major corporations in matters relating to design and understanding of information. He is married to novelist and lyricist Gloria Nagy, has four children and five grandchildren. Along with Gloria and their two dogs, Max and Abraham, Wurman resides in Newport, Rhode Island.

About Dirk Knemeyer

Dirk is the Chief Design Officer at Thread Inc. One of the architects behind ‘InfoDesign: Understanding by Design’, Dirk is a prolific writer and frequent public speaker. He is a member of the Board of Directors for the International Institute for Information Design as well as the AIGA Brand Experience community. Dirk’s primary interests include using Design as a catalyst to improve business and culture.

References

Five select books by Richard Saul Wurman:

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